‘How Do I Write If I Never Finish Anything?’

You've got to interrupt the "plan first, work later" mentality.

‘How Do I Write If I Never Finish Anything?’
[Photo by HK: Venus and the moon are visible in the twilight-blue sky. The shine of a lake is still visible, as is the silhouette of the trees on the mountain across the view.]

Hi there,

Welcome to the first ever paid letter at The Reading. It comes after a weekend of welcoming home our new dog, Willow (yes, after the Buffy character). While I had originally planned on getting this to you on Sunday morning, I found myself writing drafts then throwing them out, reflecting much of the process I speak of in the letter! That, and new (pet) parenthood is all kinds of wonderful and exhausting.

In the end, I had to allow myself the imperfection of how this letter was going to be written, allowing the impulse of what I attempted to be enough.

Now, on with the work.


Dear Yanyi,

Thank you for The Reading. I always find so much solace in your words, and often return to your letters again and again.

I think my problem is that I don’t actually know how to write. My mind often feels pretty blank in terms of ideas, and I tend to reach towards what I think I want to create by following the feeling and longing it produces in me. This results in pages and pages of writing! But it’s always writing around projects, metatextual notes that I never know how to actualize into prose or verse. The idea of a book just seems so insurmountable.

When I was a PhD candidate, I had this same problem with my dissertation—and ended up dropping out after nearly a decade. I also did some freelance content writing, producing thousands of words a week, and that was working directly on projects...but I totally burnt myself out. I’m now in my thirties and I have a couple of novels in progress that I’m worried will just end up as more piles of paper. I’m even in a workshop right now that I really love as a writing community, but I can barely bring myself to generate drafts.

While I do write a lot, I also spend most of my time on social media, and haven’t been able to break the habit. But even when I block these sites, I just end up spending the time refreshing email, vaguely hoping for some great opportunity to fall into my lap. As a kid, I read constantly, but these days I hop from one book to the next on any given day, never finishing anything. I often feel that I don’t have enough time to do the things I want to do, but simultaneously I procrastinate on the things I love and fill my time with meaningless chatter and memes.

Lastly, I don’t know how to separate my writing from a desire for external validation, publication, or desire for fame. Sometimes I think maybe I kept writing because other people told me I was good at it, and maybe I don’t even like it that much, but I hope that’s not true because I’m not very good at much else. And sometimes I do find real joy in writing, but the issue of feeling blocked still stands.

How does one actually write a book? And how can I shake these feelings and find happiness and contentment in writing again?

Sincerely,
Life Blocked

Dear Life Blocked,

Let me say that I so relate to feeling as though you have no time while simultaneously procrastinating on the things you love. It’s complicated, to say the least, and happens to so many writers. While I can’t tell you how to write a novel, I can say a little bit about these strange habits of yours (and mine) which seem two sides of the same coin.