Questionable: Why Can’t I Write?

Deb asked:
I used to love to write fiction – fantasy and romance especially. I hoped to publish someday but mostly I just enjoyed writing and living in those worlds. I went through a divorce awhile ago and it rattled some of the carefree feel to my writing but I carried on, believing in the romance and fantasy and hoping for love again. Two years ago, my mom died and going through that and the fallout with my relationship with my dad just broke whatever it was remaining in me that could pretend or believe in the dream. I sit down and try to write fiction and it turns into memoir or how-to or similar. . . . [D]o you have any suggestions on getting my real/dreamer self back? I had resigned myself to the fact that this is the new me, like it or not, but lately I am mourning that loss and just not feeling okay with it.

First, what’s wrong with memoir or how-to?  I love writing non-fiction (as anybody who reads this blog knows, I LOVE the sound of my own voice) and I don’t see it as a second-choice genre at all.  If that’s where your inclination lies now, embrace it.

But you say you’re not okay with it, so my next question is “What is the story you have to tell that you can’t not write?”   

I’m guessing there isn’t one.  That is, you miss the experience of writing fiction–the out-of-body retreat-into-a-different-world rush, the sense that you control the world you’re writing, the feeling of being under the skin of characters fighting the good fight and falling in love—without having a specific story that you must tell.

Somebody close to me recently asked me if I thought she’d be good at writing fiction. She’s a terrific writer in letters and e-mails, so she clearly has the writing chops.  But what I asked her was, “Do you have a story you have to tell?” And she doesn’t (right now), she just thought she’d like to write fiction.  But if she doesn’t have a story she’s compelled to tell, that she HAS to get on paper or it’ll nag at her brain until she goes mad, then she really doesn’t want to be a storyteller, which is a particular kind of writing.  If you don’t have a specific idea that you need to explore that will turn into a story that needs to be on paper right now, that you think about all the time, that seems realer than real life, then you don’t have to write it, and all the other stuff in your life (the big stuff) will get in the way.

The thing about writing fiction is that it’s really difficult, so if we can do something else, we will.  When the going gets tough, we’ll wander away from the book and do something else. (Let me tell you about the last ten years of my career.) If life is like a placid pond, you can probably write a book you’re not obsessed with (I assume, I’ve never had a placid pond life).  But if the book demands to be told, if you can’t not write it, then you’ll stick with it no matter what. 

In your case, you may have a story that wants to be told, but you can’t hear it because of all the noise in your head from all the trauma your life has been hit with. Until that noise goes away (I suggest therapy, it’s saved my life and my career several times), you won’t be able to get to your stories.  As soon as your brain is quiet enough that you can hear what the Girls are sending up, you’ll probably get a story that settles into your brain and won’t shut up. And if not, embrace non-fiction, a truly great genre; definitely look into narrative non-fiction which could be a great bridge to where you want to go.

Bottom line: It’s not your fault.  Stop beating yourself up and be kind to yourself until you can hear the muttering of your subconscious again. And don’t limit yourself, either. Maybe the Girls are muttering a mystery this time. I wrote Tell Me Lies because I wanted to kill my ex-husband and that seemed like the most civilized way to do it. Maybe that memoir is the start of a novel after all. Good luck!

44 thoughts on “Questionable: Why Can’t I Write?

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. Struggling for a few years with two stories and all the life stuff. Finally shrugging off the last of the dust and taking back my power.

    The stories are talking loudly, vying to be told and an itching to sew again.

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  2. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but my mother’s death changed everything for me. She was only 70, her mother and aunts lived to be almost 100. Actually, Great Aunt Mabel lived to be a hundred, but my Aunt Jude says that’s because she had a pacemaker, and made me promise to never let her get one put in.

    Pulling myself back on track here. Anyway, my mother’s untimely death from ovarian cancer, made me look at life differently and a bunch of things changed – including my tolerance for a less than ideal marriage. It took me a good two years to settle back into myself, and probably four before I was living life more on my own terms.

    My assvice is to give it time and be very gentle with yourself. And if you want to write, just write what comes out of your head for now. It may be that you need to get something else on paper before you go back to romance and fantasy. (And of course, I could be totally wrong. This is about you, not me.)

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    1. Kate, SO many of these details match my situation including my mom’s dying very unexpectedly early. So it was about me too. 🙂 And I am listening and appreciating your advice.

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  3. I’d like to add one alternate suggestion. If your happy, magic-and-love dreams have not come back yet, but you’d like to attempt fiction, there are online communities and forums focused around writing prompts. Often there’s a bingo-board of story prompts or hooks that go up at intervals. You could look at some of those and pick prompts to write to: short snippets, no commitment, you can explore different moods and themes without having to pursue any one. It would be a chance to stretch your fiction muscles to see what kind of stories fit you currently.

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    1. This is such a good suggestion. I was going to say something along the lines of try shorter stuff for now . . . which is exactly what a writing prompt/sprint is, in a lot of cases. Eight Ladies Writing (if I may toot our horn) has a writing sprint every Friday. The rules are as lax as you want to make them, and there’s no pressure to come up with a beginning-middle-end. It can be slice-of-life, or pure flash fiction (and maybe some of our readers are doing them and never sharing them — just the doing is important).

      Kay K. has been on fire over there for the past several weeks. Here’s the latest: https://eightladieswriting.com/2019/05/17/elizabeth-friday-writing-sprints-21/

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  4. Such a good and brave question, Deb. And I’m guessing since lots of us can relate, probably a more common experience than we often realize.

    As with a lot of hard bits in life, when I find myself in a mire like that I try to remind myself of that “this too shall pass” thing because grief really does work differently for everyone and affects so many areas of our lives and can shake our sense of self.

    I like Kate’s advice to be gentle with yourself and let time guide you. Similar to that Cheryl Strayed quote about time: “You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days. You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up through the months. And then one day you find yourself alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and lean your head back and you realize you’re okay.”

    I don’t think this is always easy to do, but it can lead you back to feeling like you again. Possibly a new version, but one that still holds true to the bits you had before with some new shiny ones added on. Like those new sprigs on a tree that make the branch longer than it was and help the older branch grow stronger. And will undoubtedly make your writing, whatever form in takes, all the richer:)

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  5. Reading the above comments reminds me once again of the kindness and generosity of spirit that guides Argh: advice from the heart, no judgement.

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  6. Ditto to what everyone said above. Wishing you the best, Deb!

    “I wrote Tell Me Lies because I wanted to kill my ex-husband and that seemed like the most civilized way to do it.” This is why I love your books, Jenny. No matter how outrageous they might be, they come from somewhere real. 🙂

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    1. Yep, right from the heart (g). When I told my daughter I’d written a romance and sold it (she was in high school at the time), she said, “YOU wrote a ROMANCE?” If I’d written a slasher novel, she wouldn’t have batted an eye.

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  7. I daresay you’re right, Jenny, but it makes me very sad. When I was young I just knew I was a novelist. That’s what I was going to do with my life: tell stories and imagine worlds that were alive and fun. Teachers knocked me back, and I stopped writing when I left school. I felt I needed more life experience before I could write romantic comedy. Then I needed to earn a living. And I’ve still not found my way into doing what I still feel I’m meant to be doing. That if I could find my way into it, I think would be fun and satisfying (as well as hard work and frustrating). But I’ve never had characters or stories that demand to be told. So either I’m wrong about who I am, or I’m somehow, one day, going to be the exception that proves your – and many other writers’ – rule.

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    1. JaneB — Maybe you haven’t found your story yet because you’re not sitting and writing. Sometimes it happens in reverse. I know authors who tried their hardest to write one story, but another one kept interfering. But if they hadn’t been writing in the first place, that second story wouldn’t have had an avenue to surface.

      It sounds to me as though you have your heart set on writing. In which case, just write. Don’t worry too much about what, just do it.

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      1. Hey, Deb, are you still looking for a good cozy to read? I enjoyed Charlotte MacLeod quite a bit when I was still reading lots of mysteries.

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        1. I used to read her books and really liked them too. But they’re a classic mystery with a cozy feel, not a “cozy mystery,” which is a specific genre with specific tropes, alas.

          But yes, I’m still looking! Thanks. xxx

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          1. Maybe it is the medium, after all artists have to stretch… they try so many techniques and materials to create, why not fiction writers.

            Some people can’t just write stories, they narrate them, or use visual images to start, like Jenny uses collages and soundtracks.

            Maybe your story’s start is in photos…

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    2. You’re not wrong about who you are.
      You know, you tell stories with your photos and your gardens. We’ve all been caught up in the story of your house hunt, and now we’re all vicariously settling into the new place with you. I think you’re selling yourself short because you think “writing story” means “writing a book.”
      Maybe let go of your old expectations and see what stories come to light on their own. We tend to be romance-centric here, but your stories are going to be what they need to be, not what you expect them to be.
      Or maybe that’s just my stories. They never turn out to be what I thought they were going to be.

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      1. The stories that keep crowding everything out for me are fanfiction ideas, and I have to keep squelching the feeling that I should be writing “my own” stories. I always thought that I didn’t have it in me to write a novel-length work – short stories come much more naturally to me – and then I went through a decade or so where life just sucked that kind of inspiration out of me altogether. It’s only recently that the fire came back, and the voices started talking, and I found what I hope is my process. I’m working on a fanfic at the moment that is the longest, most involved thing I’ve ever attempted, and it feels like proof of concept – if I can do this, then anything is possible. And I’m finding that I’m willing to do a lot to hold onto that fire and keep it going, now that I have it.

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        1. You know, Shakespeare stole every plot he ever wrote. We are all, as some other writer once said, standing on the shoulders of those who wrote before us. If you take inspiration from others’ characters and then make them your own, they become your characters. The trick is to make them better, more interesting. Shakespeare also improved every plot he ever stole.

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      2. I’m feeling a lot clearer about the story I really want to explore: everyone’s comments here have been really helpful.

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    3. I think sometimes we wrap ourselves away from our desires too tightly. It’s not practical, it’s stupid, nobody’s going to read it . . . that’s the bad self-talk that goes on, and it can be very effective in silencing a story.

      Or maybe we just haven’t met the right story yet . . . I’ve got a couple that are hanging around in the back of my head. I should abandon them and get on with something else, I suppose, but they just keep showing up. Not demanding, but not going away, either.

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    4. JaneB, I don’t know you personally, but I’ve been lurking around here long enough to have read quite a comprehensive story about a lady trying to make a home and being continually stymied by a) ridiculous laws b) incompetent lawyers c) erratic sellers d) weather e) age-old bad design f) an oft-frustrating day job. You have, in fact, written that story! Might reconstructing it as a romantic comedy be a fun exercise now that the worst is (we hope and trust) over? The only thing missing IIRC was the love-interest-with-a-sense-of-humor.

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      1. Wish I knew where he was hiding!

        One of my blocks has been that the story I was working on began with a woman whose mother had just died – and then my mother suddenly got ill and died, and it was far too close to home. But now I’ve finally moved on from that, hopefully I can get going again.

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  8. Everything everybody said, Deb, plus, in my own case, I can’t overemphasize how much time I needed to get through the terrible parts of life. You have a lot to recover from, one blow after another, and, like Kate said, it’s important to give yourself permission and space and time to recover from those things. I think that you’ll get your mojo back. In the meantime, just take care of yourself. That’s the best medicine.

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  9. I’ve had my own life situations in the past year or two and kept telling myself I was retired. Hah! What has helped a bit is journaling. Just playing with thoughts, emotions, frustrations, and writing with pen and paper, or in my case pencils. (I love the smell and feel of a freshly sharpened pencil.)

    The frustrating thing is the story I’d been playing with showed up as a movie on the Hallmark Chanel and that threw for a loop. It wasn’t exactly the same, but it stopped me in my tracks for six months. I am now toying with a few changes to make my story more clearly mine.

    Anyway, the journaling helped me. Good luck with whatever you decide.

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  10. I’ve been struggling for the last few years for my own reasons, Deb, and I know it can be nearly impossible sometimes. Maybe you just need more time.

    Or maybe you need to write something that isn’t pure imagination or a happily ever after romance. What about Women’s Fiction, which is about the journey, and can have some pretty dark moments? If you’re writing memoir anyway, maybe try using parts of your own story and see if you can turn them into fiction. Maybe the happy ending will show up on its own. Or maybe the story will be about survival.

    You could try writing it and find out.

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    1. One of the few novels I’ve edited was the first by a woman author: literary and pretty gloomy. I remember her saying that it wasn’t the kind of novel she’d thought she’d write at all – she actually had a good sense of humour, but her inner writer was evidently more serious.

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  11. Such great responses from everyone, and I agree with them. But I’d like to add a bit about the Poseidon Adventure. Remember the movie and the book about the cruise ship that got hit by a freak wave and turned upside down, and all the passengers and crew had to make their way from the top of the ship (which was now the bottom) to the bottom (which was now the top) where the rescuers were cutting through the hull? I can’t remember if anyone ever said these actual words, but what we saw over and over was, ‘the only way out is through’.

    That phrase carried me through my own dreadful times, and also turned out to apply to my writing. I wanted to write kids’ books, but for several years my writing just kept turning towards family stuff and memoir. I had to write it out to get past it.

    I’ve seen the same thing when I’ve run writing courses – people need to get through the difficult stuff before they can write what they actually want to write – and when they do get to it, their work has a depth that it didn’t have before.

    So trust the Girls. Write what comes. It doesn’t mean the romance and fantasy is gone forever – they’re just taking a break. Oh yes, and therapy saved my life, too.

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  12. Write the dark (grief, pain) out of your heart and onto the page. Once it’s done, it’s likely to help write the light.

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    1. Write the anger too. I wrote a short, short story about my bil/sil’s crap over the past year or so. It helped with dialogue and the anger. Helped me not to be so reactive as that is what they thrive on.

      When mama passed I wrote poetry, very healing.

      It’s a process, whatever helps do it.

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  13. Thanks, Jenny, for answering my question! You’ve given me a lot to think about. 🙂 This in particular resonated with me: “So trust the Girls. Write what comes. It doesn’t mean the romance and fantasy is gone forever – they’re just taking a break.”

    And thank you all for the comments. You’ve really touched my heart and given me hope. This page is bookmarked and I’m making notes of ideas too. I’ll focus on being patient with myself and keep writing what I “have” to.

    One lovely thing – since I wrote that question, I quit my awful boss and am taking some time off for a bit. I spent 6 weeks visiting family and now I’m working on a bunch of home/yard projects that were on hiatus and piling up. I spent the past week unplugged almost completely and ended up doing quite a bit of writing – mostly journaling but also, I had gotten a writing prompts book but hadn’t used it much until now. It felt great.

    And then I plugged in to check my favorite sites and I’m greeted with all these warm hugs and inspiration. thank you, thank you!

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  14. You might also try writing essays. They might help you clarify what you want to write about.

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  15. I’m going to go off topic because I don’t know where else to put this. And Deb is unplugged and unshackled and out in the garden, so I hope it’s okay. This is a “Questionables” sort of topic.

    Anyway, I read a recent article from Scientific American about “the-real-reason-fans-hate-the-last-season-of-game of thrones” with a thesis that I’ve never seen anyone make before — that the series broke its implicit promise to viewers because when it reached the end of the author’s previously published material, the new showrunners switched from Martin’s more sociological approach to plotting and character development to one that is common to most film and tv writing these days, with a purely psychological perspective.

    So… individuals moving through their conflicts with others, in place of individuals within a social framework adapting to others and finding their place in a complex social world.

    I don’t watch Game of Thrones, so I really can’t relate this idea to that work of fiction in particular. But for some reason it struck me as really pertinent to the world we’re in today. To Trumpworld, Brexitworld, and all the other “me first” and My Country Unsullied or My Race Totally Pure, and all the cult of personality stuff we are seeing all around us.

    I just want to know if others have grappled with this issue in approaching writing, because man, I just can’t stop thinking about it.

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    1. I suspect the sociological aspects are super-important in Pratchett. Maybe any story about community is about fitting into a society, or building one (a tiny society set inside a larger, dysfunctional society). I’ve never really read for that before . . . . Comedies of manners often play against society and societal expectations. Or is that “they play with”? V. interesting, jinx!

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  16. Hmm, I am really struggling with the writing…
    And maybe I’m trying to force something that isn’t there…
    I want to write a fiction story of knitting…
    And the urge to ride it is overwhelming… But I find myself often writing a line or two and then moving on to doing the laundry or something else…
    This has made me re-examine what I want to write about knitting…
    All I know of the story is knitting heals all beyond that I’m clueless…

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  17. I don’t watch TV, but I find this article intriguing. Thanks, Jinx! I can understand why the writer’s argument is swirling around in your mind. Jenny, thank you for posting the link.

    Do you — and other Arghers — agree with me that the individual hero story has been popular in English lit for a long time? Is that kind of the guy adventure story that Jenny has described as contrasting to the romance? So, Hollywood didn’t make up the genre; Hollywood found that telling hero-focused stories was easy to do.

    Interestingly, Jenny’s books feature groups of good characters who make me feel that each story’s world is greater than its individual players — and that that’s a sign of a healthy world.

    But is George R. R. Martin’s sociological approach — as identified by the article’s author — about the rise and fall of societies? Good people do their best in the time allotted, yet what is true is the focus on one chunk in the history of the story’s world?

    Sorry to pother on.

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    1. The male quest story has been around since Gilgamesh and probably before that. It’s Campbell’s hero’s journey, basically.
      Women writers making their own quest stories have been tougher because of patriarchal gatekeeping, aka “nobody wants to hear about some woman’s story.” My fave example of that is the Wife of Bath’s Tale, written by a brilliant man, that subverts the male quest story while feeding patriarchal expectations.

      The gender expectations of the quest story are what really separate them. For example, there’s noir with the sexual destroying woman and gothic with the sexual destroying man, two sides of the same coin, and the coin says “I think the person I love is trying to kill me.”

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