What to Write When You Just Can’t Write

Aine Greaney
3 min readJan 22, 2019


What to write when you just can’t write

Few of us live in a single-occupancy, write-all-day bubble. Most of us balance writing with a day job, a household, a host of deadlines.

Add to this that, at least here in New England, there are winter days when it’s hard to get out of our own way — let alone get creative. On those blah days, it’s an achievement to get out of bed and find two matching socks.

Hands up those of us who haven’t had a spate of creative dry spells? I have. Unemployment, family illness, bereavement or my own melancholia — these big life issues can eclipse every creative thought in our heads or our hearts.

In real time, it can feel like we will never be well or employed or caught up with work or happy or creative again.

To all you Eyores (as in Winnie The Pooh) out there (including yours truly), this last concept just isn’t true. The sun does shine. The words do return.

Sometimes, all it takes are a few moments of mindfulness, mixed with a dash of self-trust and self-care, leavened by some self-deprecating humor.

What to Write When You Can’t Write

Meanwhile, even while we’re in the throes of whatever it is that ails us, we can write. Maybe not a full essay or chapter or story. Maybe not every day. But there are ways to keep at it.

Here are some strategies that worked for me:

  1. Buy Yourself a Miniature Notebook: After my mother died, I believed that I could or would never write again. I was wrong. But during those dark days, I did keep a tiny, 3" x 2" spiral notebook by my computer monitor. You know the ones. They sell them in drug and dollar stores by the pack. I filled one of those tiny pages every day. A week or two in, I began to actually look forward to that mini-write. Most days, the writing was terse and strange, and I wouldn’t even attempt to classify it by genre. But it helped.
  2. Write a Numbered List: A poet friend recently gave me this tip: Open up a clean page and set yourself the task of writing eight random things on that page. It doesn’t matter what you write. You just have to get to Number Eight. For me, this numbered-list writing forces me to complete something. It has also yielded some very promising ideas for new essays.
  3. Switch the Medium: Cocktail Napkins, Anyone? If you usually hand-write your first drafts, remember that there are many online journals out there. I recommend Penzu. As well as being highly secure, Penzu has pages that mimic a lined notebook and it allows you to clip digital photos to your piece. Other medium-switching ideas: Write short, small pieces on your phone. Or get yourself a pen and some white cocktail napkins.
  4. Edit an Old Piece: Remember those bright, productive days when you were up and at it and meeting your word count? Look through your document folders. Now might be the time to edit those drafts. Writing? Who said anything about writing? You’re just sprucing things up, dotting a few i’s and crossing a few t’s.
  5. Don’t write. Meditate. Walk. Look to the sky: There are few things that a walk outside cannot make better. Wordsworth did it. So did Thoreau. And the late and beloved Mary Oliver. I love this interview with Oliver where she speaks about being out in nature and “listening to the world” — about walking with a notebook and just waiting for what will come.
  6. Dust Off Your Personal Journal: That’s the thing about journaling, isn’t it? Your daily entry doesn’t have to be a neat narrative or a bestseller in the making. It can just be some lists. Or doodles. Or curse words. Journaling isn’t just a way to keep writing. It’s also a research-proven route to physical and mental wellness.

Photo by Daria Litvinova on Unsplash



Aine Greaney

Irish author, workshop leader in Boston area. Author of "Writer with a Day Job" (Penguin/Random House) and 3 other books. More at www.ainegreaney.com