Hey, Pamie: “What if I don’t have anything to write about?”

My apologies to the small backlog of Weekly Procrastinations. If you wrote to me recently, I fully intend to get to your letter, but this one has been bothering me since it arrived last week, because I think the answer I’m going to have to give is one I didn’t anticipate having to say to anybody here.

Hey Pamie,

This may be a rather dumb and pretty vague question, but it’s something that’s been troubling me for a while.

My problem isn’t getting words out, per se, it’s ideas. I know you talked a bit about this in your latest Procrastination, but my problem isn’t deciding which ideas to nurture and make stories, it’s a complete and utter lack of ideas in my brain. I’ve even tried freewriting but it never gets me anywhere. I’ve even tried prompt sites but nothing I found really interested me. I’ve got little elements I’d like to write about, things I’d like to -put in- a story (quirks about a car, or the traits of an interesting customer at work, etc), but my brain doesn’t seem to want to provide stories to go around them. Maybe I’ve just gotten picky and self-doubting and I just throw out anything that might come to be a story idea if I don’t think it’ll be any good?

Have any advice for this kind of thing?


Hi, Mel.

This letter broke my brain, I have to admit. As someone who can’t relate to the concept of “not having any ideas,” I struggled with what you could mean. I even asked friends for advice, because I desperately wanted to give you a good answer, one that wasn’t the first that came to mind. I’ve got three answers to your question, and if you don’t like hearing things that might be a bit critical, skip the last one.

1. Maybe you’re a songwriter. Okay, I am not the one giving this answer. I asked my friend Allison, who is a songwriter, what she thought about this, because I know she struggles with her own writing sometimes. She said, “That’s writing songs, you’ve got this little snippet of a thought or a phrase that sticks in your head, and you write the song around that distilled concept.”

I am not a songwriter, unless pajama-dancing in the kitchen while composing jingles about your cat having a fat butt counts for something. I find songwriting and music to be mystical and amazing. Like glassblowing and people who can write your name on a grain of rice. I’m not a poet, either, but maybe that’s how poetry works? I don’t know. I don’t even understand how someone can be a songwriter without knowing how to “do music,” but you know, “lyricist” is something people can be. So maybe write a song about that customer and see if it feels right. There. Go write a song. That’s only the most impossible thing I can think of.

2. You’re freaking yourself out. You said you’re throwing out things, so that means you’ve got something to throw out. What are you throwing out? Thoughts? Concepts? Paragraphs? How do you know if something is bad if you haven’t at least put three words down? You can start with just three words, right? Ten or so will make a haiku. Maybe you’re a haiku writer! Greeting cards! Fortune cookies! I’m seeing a whole world of tiny writing opening up for you.

I find that when people complain that they don’t have any ideas, they’re often saying, “I don’t have any ideas I don’t think make me sound stupid.” To which I say: that’s what writing feels like all the time.

(I’m going to have to start a section within the Weekly Procrastinations called That’s what it feels like all the time!)

There’s a lot of pre-writing before there’s writing, no matter how long or short the writing will eventually be (Ask people in advertising, television, or getting their masters degrees if you want to know just how long people can have to pre-write before they actually write.) Coming up with ideas great and crappy is part of the process. Even when you have a great idea, there will be times when you think it is a crappy idea, which is pretty much what’s going on 99% of the time you are working on it.

It might seem like I’m trying to talk all of you out of being a writer, which isn’t really goal here, but still, here’s answer number three.

3. You might not be a writer.

Wait, come back. I say this because I can’t tell what you want to write, if you’ve written anything, if there’s a goal or a passion in you to write. If you go through story prompts and nothing sparks, if you do freewriting and feel like you’re just spinning, I don’t know what to grab onto in order to encourage you forward. Is it the creative side that makes you feel helpless? Do you like research and writing more technically? Is it that you like reading so much that you wish you could write? Is there a romantic notion you see in writing that you’d like to be a part of? Would you be happier writing in a corporate environment, possibly one where you are handed assignments, and not expected to come up with what you’ll write?

This is not me telling you to give up on a dream. This is me asking you to expand your concept of what you could do.

I work with editors, agents, producers and development executives, and their jobs include — sometimes exclusively — helping a writer along with a project. They come up with the snippets and details. They spot the holes, the flaws. They recognize when they hear a good idea, a horrible one, or something that’s been done too many times. They have an ear for a new voice, an alternate path, a concept that might be risky or smart. I come to them with rough drafts, treatments, ideas and outlines, and they work with me to make things better than I could have imagined, stronger than I could have done on my own. They are there to make sure I don’t lose sight, that I keep things moving on time, and that someone has my back when this thing goes public.

I couldn’t do anything I do without agents, editors, producers and development executives. They are my teachers, mentors and sometimes tough love parents I’m constantly trying to please. I sit here and write thinking of them, hoping they’ll like a joke I wrote, an idea I had. We make little partnerships as we try to move a story forward in whatever shape it ultimately takes.

You don’t have to be a writer to work in storytelling. You don’t have to type FADE IN to work in film. If you don’t get inspired to write that might be because you’re not a writer. But that doesn’t have to be bad news.

But look, you started with saying you have a “complete and utter lack of ideas,” which will definitely make it difficult to work in any creative endeavor. To that I say: you might need a vacation. Or a massage. Or a silly night with some good friends. Something that makes you chill, girl. If writing isn’t your job, why make it feel like so much work?

Mel. Your letter kind of bummed me out because I imagine you’re just sitting in front of a spiral notebook, doodling random polka dots, cubes and daisies, beating yourself up for not filling those pages with inspired genius. Crying and doodling, wishing you had a different brain.

I guess there’s plenty of ways you can work in this business without having any ideas or talent, but you’ll be waiting on luck and cashing in on charm. Or sexual favors.

Maybe you guys can help me with this, because I don’t know what else to suggest. Do you often feel like you have a “complete and utter” lack of ideas? When you do, how do you break through it? Was there a point when you concluded you were definitely not a writer? And was that the happiest day of your life?

[If you have a question about writing or television or novels or screenplays or any of these places where I write words and other people read them, send an email to pamie at pamie dot com with the subject line: YOUR WEEKLY PROCRASTINATION.]

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  1. Kara

    Honestly, I can relate to that. Little vignettes of ideas but nothing that I can even consider spinning into a seriously large work.

    But then I remembered that I used to quite enjoy writing short stories (and indeed, LOVE reading them, often far more than novels, plays, etc).

    Some of the most powerful and impactful short stories I’ve ever read have been VERY short (1-3 pages).

    So maybe just write paragraphs for now? (that’s what I’m planning to do). Don’t necessarily assume you have to fill pages (when freewriting or other), but focus on creating a tiny, beautiful nugget of words that from a word::effect ratio knock most (if not all) novels out of the park.

    Just my $0.02

  2. Melanie

    Here’s what I think, after remembering some Anne Lamott I read a while back: keep all those little snippets and elements on note cards or something. Then, think of a person. Compulsively stalk that person in your head. See where they go, what they’re doing, what movies they see at the theatre and who they develop crushes on in the coffee shop. Write down all that stuff. If a snippet fits, add that in too. Then write about the people this person knows. Don’t demand that your writing/stalking turns into a story, but be devoted to your characters. Do that for a few months, then see what happens. Maybe it’ll be a novel, maybe it’ll spark an “idea” for something else. Finally, don’t despair. Honor your creativity, regardless of how small or fleeting it might feel.

  3. Elissa

    Ok, here’s what I think. Don’t be sad, Mel! I’m a writer and often I only start with a snippet or an idea. I just write that. I wrote my first (crappy) novel, all because I thought of one line. The first line, I decided, since it was the only line. Then I wrote a whole book! It was bad, but still, it existed. The next (less crappy) novel I wrote also just started from a scrap of an idea. I like fairy tales. That was the whole idea. And I just started writing. And it out it came. And it sucked less! And I talked to people, and brainstormed, and it became stronger. I don’t have tons of ideas like some lucky writers, but I have a few. And that’s enough. I make a living writing. And so can you.

  4. Diane

    I wonder if the issue here is genre. I used to tool around with short story ideas and beginnings to novels, because that’s what I felt like writers did. But it always felt forced, stilted, and I got bored halfway through. Finally I realised: I’m a nonfiction writer! That’s why I love reading essays and magazines so much. (I know, duh.) Now the only time I’m short on ideas is when I’ve done a lot of writing and am burned out. But they always come back and scatter my room and desk in coloured post-its.

    Also, writing prompts and all that stuff? Morning pages? UGH. I just want to write what I feel passionate about writing, and those types of exercises never inspire me, just make me feel frustrated. But it’s OK not to do them!

    Or maybe it’s about self-censorship? Perhaps a class would help, or daily blogging — something where you have to get the words out and not worry too much about polishing them.(Remember Mel, first drafts have to be terrible. It’s practically the law.)

  5. dgm

    I’m thinking Mel sounds like she has songwriter potential. I’m not one myself, but I have friends who are songwriters who have described the process as having a snippet of an idea around which they base their craft.

    It also sounds like maybe her genre could be creative nonfiction/essay writing. Finally, what about flash fiction (possibly not though, since Mel said she has trouble thinking up stories)?

  6. Jennifer

    Maybe she’s not a FICTION writer. Maybe she’s working in the wrong medium.

    Now, I am sure I am a writer, but like everyone else who is one, I assumed I was a fiction one. I did NaNoWriMo from 2001-2011. I have been in writer’s groups. I have taken creative writing classes. Blah blah blah.

    But you know what? I am…not that great at fiction writing. All the characters sound like me. My plots aren’t remotely as awesome as the books I read. I can write dialogue great (I’ve vaguely pondered screenwriting, but I suspect I’d be really irritated having to depend on so many people to make my work go) and that’s about it. I feel awful saying that I suck at this compared to a fellow I know who churned out a 100,000 page novel that the entire writing group could not stand to read (he actually got kicked out of writing group after a year because he was just. not. improving). I’m better than that. I have more potential than that. But… that still doesn’t mean I’m good at fiction.

    I am not a person who blooms with burgeoning fiction plots in the first place. It took me a long time to realize that. For most of my years of NaNo I had about ONE fiction plot I’d been diddling with in my head all year, I’d write that, then it would suck after I got it down on page, and I couldn’t stomach working on it any more after the month was up. I lost all interest, it was ABC gum. For the last few years of NaNo, I really haven’t had any fiction plots in my head at all. I wrote up whatever shitty idea I had in my head and it was even worse than usual. This year I just flat out did nonfiction even though that’s a no-no. People who are meant to write novels HAVE IDEAS. I listen to the StoryWonk podcasts and it sounds like those people have ideas all the time! People who aren’t having fiction ideas…probably aren’t meant to write novels.

    This is where I’d suggest that you try nonfiction writing. Write down the observations that you have on a daily basis that you had wanted to turn into stories, but don’t turn them into fictional stories. Think of the time your car broke down or your aunt did something stupid at the holiday party and write down what happened. Think along the lines of David Sedaris: random observations of life that eventually play out into a different kind of story. See if that works better for you.

    As for me, I liked writing nonfiction, but I still run into the same problem of “once I got all my ideas out on the first draft, I have zero interest in rechewing the gum while I rewrite and edit draft after that.” I do well at short essays and newspaper articles and blogging, but frankly, I may not be cut out to be ANY kind of book writer if I can’t remotely get interested in heavy-duty long term editing. That makes me sadder than not being a fiction writer, actually. But…people who want to write books DO have that long term drive to rewrite and re-edit as far as I can tell, and I just don’t.

    *shrug* Some of us are just meant to piddle along and not be writing artists, I guess. Sad but true.

  7. Chris

    Maybe creative nonfiction is the way to go. Start with the big story as it exists and start adding your own elements.

    I’m a historian and writing history is about construction not creativity. The story is out there, I just have to find it and put it into the right order. Adding a fictional element would probably make it that much better.

    I feel your pain, Mel. I can pump out fifty pages on a history project without thinking but getting five pages of fiction is turtore because it is ALL ON ME.

  8. Kate

    I’m with the others who say “try non-fiction.” And Pamie’s line about loving reading so much you feel like you should write hits very close to home for me. I’m someone who has always had my nose in a book and who knew she’d end up in writing/editing by the end of 5th grade (I had a magical teacher), but I’m gradually accepting that journalism is indeed where I’m destined to stay. I just don’t think I have any fiction in me! It’s depressing because I wish I could join with the authors who have given me so much joy over the years, but so it goes. I’m good at what I do. I’m efficient and quick and I get it done. Maybe one day inspiration will strike and I’ll suddenly write the juvenile fiction I’ve always dreamed of, but if not…Good thing there are lots of people out there with brains overflowing with ideas!

  9. Kim W.

    Mel –

    If you’re still checking in now and then, maybe you just need to take care of some other things in your life right now.

    I also was having this exact same problem, where there were literally no ideas in my head, for about a year and a half. And it was freaking me out. I’d come up with some things now and then – I took a writing class at one point and if the teacher said “write about [schmeh] I could rock out an essay about [schmeh] no problem – but the rest of the time, I’d just…not have anything to say.

    However, for this same year and a half I was also trying to get over an UNBELIEVABLY COLOSSAL amount of stress and sleep loss triggered by a whole chain of sequentially sucky events coming one after the other (job loss, pet death, breakup, personal injury, all in the same 2-and-a-half year period). This August, I decided to take one of those weeks of vacation time I had and use to literally stay home doing nothing — I could sleep as late as I wanted, I wake up and only do what I felt like doing, and if “what I felt like doing” was nothing more than “sit on my ass eating ice cream and watching LIFETIME movies,” I was not allowed to feel guilty.

    Two weeks later, I started getting ideas for writing again.

    Sometimes a lack of ideas like that, especially when you usually have them and suddenly you don’t, may be a sign that you just need a break. So take it.

  10. Tarisai

    I wrote a list of things try out whenever you experience writer’s block. It has helped me a huge bunch along with others as well. Try it out, should you feel this way or know anyone who does: