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[Body, Mind & Spirit] What To Do When You Feel Like You Can’t Write

Let’s face it: there are times when, as much as you love and want to write, you just can’t do it. It may be that life has swelled like a tidal wave and crashed down hard on you. You may be ill, depressed, anxious, or maybe someone you love has died and you need to grieve. Or maybe you’re going through a rough patch with your partner, or your teenager is on drugs, or your baby keeps you up all night.

Or perhaps there’s no obvious reason for your resistance—you just don’t feel like writing. Sometimes the best response is to take time off, to understand that rest is part of your work cycle. Dormancy, stillness, quiet, and respite may not seem like ideal places to inhabit, but they are just as important as cranking out pages. You are a human being, not a machine. Your life is rich and complex. You are more than just a writer.

Dwelling in this non-writing phase will be challenging to most writers unless you consciously practice acceptance of what is, compassionate self-forgiveness, and radical self-care. To do this you must surrender your judgments of what you think you and your writing life is supposed to look like. You must slow the running horses in your mind and sink deep into your heart. You must embrace your inner knowing. You must trust that what’s happening is for your highest good, that the wave that’s crashed over your head will eventually deliver you to the shore of a lovely beach, which you will comb for shells and other treasures.

But what do you do when you’ve given yourself the rest you need and you still don’t feel like writing? You listen. Maybe you need more rest. Perhaps you need to make a change in your life, such as lightening your load, joining a spiritual community, or attending a writers’ conference. Or perhaps you need to have fun, visit a museum, spend time in nature, or read, not as a writer, but simply for your own pleasure.

I’ve seen people (myself included) search high and low for answers. We consult experts of all kinds when we’re in distress. Over the past three months, in response to debilitating anxiety, I’ve visited an acupuncturist, a Reiki healer, a hypnotherapist, a spiritual counselor, a shaman, a breath-work practitioner, a therapist, two medical doctors, and a psychiatrist.

And then—finally—I made the decision to consult the person who knows me best: me. I pulled out my journal and told myself everything I needed to hear; everything I wished I’d heard from the lips of experts. I became, at last, my own authority, and I was brilliant. I got to use the full range of my writer’s imagination to articulate my own diagnosis and treatment.

Doing this reminded me of a time, seventeen years ago, when, while walking the Venice Beach Boardwalk, I sat down with a fortune-teller. I was nine months pregnant, two days from my due date, and wanted reassurance that the birth would go well. I don’t remember what the woman said, just that I didn’t like it, or her, and nothing about her words resonated with me, so when I got home I decided to consult my own inner fortune-teller. I pulled out my journal and let her speak. I let her say all the things I’d hoped to hear at Venice Beach. Her words soothed me, which was all I was really looking (and paying) for.

Journal writing is free, and always available to us in service to our healing, growth, and lifting up. We don’t have to limit our writing to our projects, blogs, and professional lives. It doesn’t have to be a public process. I find writing most powerful as a tool for self-comfort, self-knowledge, and personal transformation. When everything feels like it’s falling apart, I pull out my journal and try to get out of my own way. I try to allow whatever needs to come through me to do so. I tell myself everything I need to hear. It doesn’t always work. I sometimes have to get creative, like when giving my heart, or other body parts, a voice. Sometimes I rant at God, or ask for assistance. Sometimes I speak with my Future Self, who has already lived through whatever turbulence I’m navigating. I also consult my Inner Counselor, my Wise Self, and my Spirit. I let them all advise me.

And I let my Gremlins express their fears as well. I put what they say in quotation marks to separate their thoughts from my own. All they really want is to be heard, and they tend to mellow out when I let them express themselves.

It’s wonderful having access to this kind of communication. We’re writers. We receive and we give. Sometimes we need to give the gift of our writing to ourselves.

Sooner or later this process will lead you back to the project that’s been patiently waiting for you, or a new project will glimmer at the edge of a waking dream and you’ll catch a glimpse of what your next step will be. Either way, trust that you will be called back to work when the time is right. And in the meantime, use your journal. It’s not only your writer’s training ground; it’s your therapist and your best friend rolled into one. You may even mine it at some point in the future for a book or other project to access source material.

The key is to lean into your journal; to trust it. Let it hold you. Accept where you are and be compassionate and loving with yourself through your challenges, as well as your triumphs. Contrary to what you might think, one state is not more desirable than another. It’s all grist for the mill. And writing is only one part of your life, one thing you do. It’s a calling to be answered in service to your highest good and the highest good of those around you—and so we must pay attention to those moments in life when it’s time to pause. Your writing—your gift, your creativity, your voice—will never give up on you; it’ll be there when you’re ready to return.

* This post was originally published in March 2014.


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  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Kamy, I'm sorry I never acknowledged your sweet note. Thank you! By now I'm sure you're in a very different place. Sending love! XO

  • I just found this Bella, in going through all the fabulous content that has built up here over the years, and wanted to thank you for it. I am in an in-between moment and struggling mightily not to panic or beat myself up about it. (Counter productive to reconnecting, eventually, when I'm ready, with my creativity.) 

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Susan Troccolo: I'm so moved by your comment, and pleased that my post resonated with you. I credit my editor, Brooke Warner, for that last line—she helped me realize that truth. Blessings to you.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Thanks, Karen. I'm sure your 50-year-old self will have lots to say. Honor her. 50 is great!

  • Precious wisdom to keep in mind. I am going through a period of rest right least rest from writing I'd present to the public...and am ready to dive deeper into my own psyche. Turning 50 soon, and the reflective side of me is tugging at my sleeves to pick up a pencil and a notebook to write in her voice. Thank you. ~:0)

  • Susan Troccolo

    This is such a meaningful post for me. I've read it over twice and savored it all...deep. I know all these things to be true and I so appreciate the gentle manner in which you've presented it. During a year of cancer treatment, I kept a "radical self-care" journal. Because there was no energy for being impressive on the page, I wasn't impressive on the page. I just scrawled out words and feelings from the bottom of my sea. Later, years later, I mined those feelings for some of the most powerful material ever. Effortlessly. (And some of the best humor to boot--that wacky humor noir cancer patients specialize in.) All because I trusted my creative self to just Be. Sick or no. Something was alive and well in there, maybe even more so.

    When you write that our voice won't give up, I am profoundly grateful for your saying so.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Naomi. I totally agree with you!

  • Naomi Heilig

    When I read the beginning of your article, I was thinking of suggesting writing a journal, but then you said it so beautifully yourself.  I have always said that personal writing is listening to oneself, instead of paying someone else to listen to you.  Writing about why you can't write can result in some powerful insights. Obviously, it can be cathartic. But there's a further bonus: you get to keep what your wrote, enabling further insights as well as potential material to mine when you look at it again later on.