I don’t know what to write

When I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, my teacher made us start every day with an excruciatingly long writing session. Let’s call it 30 minutes, although it was probably 10 or 15. Given that 10 minutes to an 8-year old is like an hour to you and me, and that the instructions were to write about “anything,” you can imagine how challenging this was.

The rule was you couldn’t stop moving your pencil, and if you didn’t have any ideas, you had to write, “I don’t know what to write” over and over and over again.

There’s that snarky saying, “Writers write,” which makes you feel if you’re meant to be a writer, novels will drip out of you like snot on a cold day – as long as you’re motivated enough to sit there and do it. But I think it’s more about having the strength to sit there and choose to pound out crap rather than just give up.

When I would have horrible writer’s block professionally, I would finally give up trying for real and write something like, “B2B Marketing was brought to America by aliens, who attempted to go SCUBA diving in the Mississippi River but instead realized they should be targeting accounts, not personas.”

What I wrote was unpublishable, nonsensical and exactly what I needed to prevent myself from bashing my head into my desk. So when the students I mentor, or people I work with, ask me about writing, I always give the same advice: “Keep the pen moving, no matter how useless it seems.”

It worked for me when I was 8. I remember one day writing in my notebook that although I always started with “I don’t know know what to write,” I always found a story to tell. My teacher wrote a comment along the lines of, “Exactly! You do!”

As irritating and hopeless as it seems, this act of treading water is not only a writing skill, but a life skill. Call it what you will – bullshitting, buying time, stalling – there are times when you don’t know what to do or what to say or even what you want.

Yet somehow, during those when we don’t know the right answer, we still do, say and want something. It’s all part of the story, even if it may not be worth repeating.



One thought on “I don’t know what to write

  1. Good advice! When I’m writing, i often get so caught up in penning “the right words” that i freeze up and right nothing.

    Perhaps an unexpected parallel in tech….When I get stuck or have trouble with a coding a solution, I try to “Keep the pen moving” by doing simple chores like cleaning up formatting, refactoring, or commenting/documenting. I find that keeping my hands on the keyboard and improving the code is often enough to grease the gears and lead me to how to begin outlining/pseudo-coding and (eventually) building something.


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