The Writing: How do you write when you have "nothing to say?"

The Writing: How do you write when you have "nothing to say?"

Hi everyone,

For those of you outside the US, the next thirty days in the US are going to be particularly harrowing. So this week’s question is all about hope: What strategies do you use when you have “nothing to say?”

As usual, I’ll be here for 45 minutes!

Image: Glass cylindrical beaker, Roman. Late 1st century B.C.–early 1st century A.D. Blue-turquoise glass, cast and cut. It rests in the middle of the photo with flecks of paint chipped off in front of a white-grey backdrop.

I do three things when I have nothing to say: read, write, and not-write. In all of these activities, I successfully engage with language (and the lack of it) every day. Although I'm not "saying" something every time I do these things, they create an environment in which something to say might be found.

Reading is the easiest thing to mention here: I read not in a mercenary way but as a way to keep abreast of my own burgeoning curiosities. It's a wonderful time of discovery. And I read widely and indiscriminately all the time through newsletters like this one, news roundups, feature articles, the local paper, emails, texts, and the little, ongoing syllabus of Books in My Library I Have Not Read and Am Somehow Avoiding. More recently, the reading has been driven more by what I'm doing professionally, be it teaching or lectures for events. The point is to be exposed to many registers of language at once on a pretty daily basis.

Writing can be thought of in the same way. I'm writing when I email or text another person. You may want to be intentional with how you do "useless" writing too. This is the diary and/or the dream log. I set a routine for myself: write down your dream as soon as you wake up. You may be someone who doesn't remember dreams. That's ok. If you don't remember anything, you can still use this time to blearily journal in a low-stakes, low-grade way. The "notebook" is another key factor in this. The "notebook" doesn't have to be a book, but it should be an easily accessible place where you go to write down your thoughts. Notebook schemes can change. For example, right now my "notebook" is a writing pad I keep on my office desk, my usual steno half-sheet pad, and the notes app in which I'm typing this right now. Not as organized as I usually like to be, but no matter. Someday, when the time is right, I'll come back to these and use the pieces.

When you have "nothing to say," it's creative downtime. In these times, like myself at this very instant, I feel scatterbrained, imposter-y, and ineffectual until I come upon a spark through my other activities. When this happens, I write it down on some limb of the note "book." Then it disappears into the ether rather than turning into a manuscript. Alas. But I write it down. I write. And have faith that I will see it when I need it again.

Not-writing is accepting, without judgment, that this is not a time I wish to speak. A friend of mine calls it a winter period—others call it the fallow season, etc. I myself call it an incubation time. I cozy up and get comfortable and look to what brings me gratitude and joy. I teach or spend time developing other interests. I build my relationship with silence. One of the joys of taking your time is withholding your life for yourself.

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