What to Write About When You Don’t Know What to Write

Building Walls in Brooklyn

What do you do when you don’t know what to write about?

When you’re stuck or worried or wondering what to say next, write anyways.

Write about things that no one is talking about.

Write about the things that are whispering in your ear, that seem strange, or that seem off, somehow. Write about the things you’re not sure if you should say. Tell the stories you haven’t told yet. Say it anyway.

Write about what makes you angry, or what seems paradoxical.

Write about how the New York Times keeps writing about how we should get more sleep, eat less sugar, drink less coffee, walk more, and that sitting is dangerous – and yet what if the people who write the pieces are still living sugar-filled, caffeinated, stationary lives? What does it take to actually enact habit change, or motivate change?

Write about how Fast Company talks about digital sabbaticals yet never seems to stop posting on the damn internet. I feel like I’m drowning in Fast Company Facebook Posts. It’s like FastBook, except it’s going too fast for me and I want to slow down. Maybe Fast Company can take a digital sabbatical and save the rest of us a day. Less FOMO, more JOMO.

Write about how the deluge of life coaches means something significant (maybe that we really are all screwed up?) or that maybe we’re in an ever-increasing flood of informational internet opportunities that’s just a fancy pyramid scheme in disguise (do I believe this? I don’t know); or, alternatively and more optimistically, that the idea of a life coach is indicative of a culture that has lost something. Write about a culture that has forgotten how to describe the value of people of immense wisdom, of mentors, of friends, of age, and of colleagues who give us the increasingly scarcest resource of all–ample time and thoughtfulness and attention.

Or perhaps–and you should write about this, or maybe I should, we’ll see–maybe it means that we’re a culture devoid of meaning, that we’ve lost the rituals, practices, habits, and deeper connectivity to the earth and to our own spirituality (to God, to the universe, to anything). Talk about how our post-enlightenment love affair with science has led us so far astray from the knowledge and wisdom we’ve had for thousands and thousands of years (the yogis emphasized the importance of meditation five thousand years ago; the scientific papers are just beginning to understand why this is true). Perhaps religion and science are hand-in-hand, and both will make the other stronger, as each catches up with the other (and more importantly, acknowledges the other).

Write about why we search for a reason and an understanding for who we are. Write about why we seek to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Write about what it’s like to be curious.

Write about what it’s like to see. Capture the world in words, as best you can. Really write it out–the details and nuances and intricacies of where you are, and who you are, right now.

Write about how digital technology and interconnectedness is changing us, and what you think the future of the internet is.

Speculate on the future of public space, and whether or not democracy and digital connectedness are serving us.

Write about problems around the world that we collectively ignore because the hip gyrations of a young teen is more mesmerizing than the assassination of twelve human lives.

Write about how the next $500 ebook or self-guided course isn’t going to get you where you want if you don’t actually read it. Wonder why people buy things and still don’t take action.

Write about how fucking mad you are, and your inside feelings that you’ve been locking up for years.

Write about what it’s like to be you, and what makes you angry, and what makes you blissfully happy. Write about the tools you use to numb yourself, because we all try desperately to avoid sadness and misery, and we stuff ourselves with caffeine, sugar, stimulation, pot, television, phones, and other instant-pieces that fill our minds with avoidance. Write about the things we do to numb us from actually feeling.

Admit that you have a body, that you have a soul, that you’re damn depressed and the reason for that is because you actually believe you’re capable of a lot more–and you haven’t figured out how to make the magic happen yet.

Write about what it’s like to be one single individual cell within your body, a particle so small it’s incomprehensible; yet it’s dependent on the air you breathe and water you give it to pulse and beat and carry out its marching orders.

Write about what it’s like to be you, here, and now.

Write about what you feel, and have an honest conversation with yourself about it. Crack the vulnerability open a little bit. Watch for the flood gates. Let the floods come. Have some fucking feelings, and roll around with them. Discover your desires. Write them in big bold beautiful ink on the insides of your body (or the outsides) and on the walls of your living space and in the margins and pages of your notebooks.

Write about the fact that we have no walls anymore or natural barriers to say no, and so we’re constantly flooded with requests that make us anxious, tired and depressed.

Write about what the future will say of Steve Jobs, and how our collective idolization might be washed away if we discover that the advent of the personal and mobile computer–while an exceptional tool for human creativity–also created the unintended consequences of contributing to alarming obesity rates couple and such sedentary humans that our internal IQ’s went down as much as they increased through the information access we enabled.

Wonder about the future of the internet and how it’s changing our lives. Take a piece that someone has written and respond to it, thoughtfully. React. Respond. Listen.

Poke the box. Fuck it, shake it. Stir it. Challenge Seth Godin, give him an essay that makes him think harder, question each of your idols, re-examine your mantras. Think twice about the information you’re given. Disagree and argue. If you construct it well enough, I bet Seth would be fascinated with the conversation you create. You might be wrong. So what? Admit it, and try again.

Think, and then think again.

Write about people who have adrenal fatigue, who are too tired to keep up with work. Write about how an obsession with productivity is wearing down the souls of the people who are trying the hardest; the people we need to continue to be vibrant. Write about what a waste of time email is. Write about how you would do things differently–and then write about how many steps and stumbles it took for you to make it happen.

Write about how your heart bleeds when you hold a tiny infant in your arms because, just for a hot second, the world’s energy moves through your heart center and you feel both restfully still and a live pulsing, and you’re connected through your chakras to a deeper reason for being, and in that bliss, you look at the limitless possibilities in that tiny breathing being and you think,

Damn, that’s perfect, perfect,

and you look at yourself and you think,

what the fuck happened?

###

[ You are still as beautiful, you know. You already are beautiful. You are always capable of beauty. ]

[ You’re perfect, in exactly that messy way that you are. It’s just hiccups and hangups that occupy the world, and get all messy inside your brain space. ]

###

Cultivate Wonder.

Wonder about change, and how it happens. Breathe into the space and creases and pockets of your lungs. Describe what it’s like to be a cell within your body. Touch the sensation of one side of your body, and then the other side. Pause for a moment and detail–in delicious words–the tracing of a finger around the circumference of your body. Close your eyes and imagine where the edges of your humanity are: can you feel them?

Pick an object and tell the story of its life. Talk about what it was before it came into your consciousness, where it was made, and how its life intersects with yours. Wonder where it goes when you toss it flippantly to the side. Consider waste streams and garbage, and capture the movement of things through systems by tracing one item through time.

Write about something that isn’t being said.

If you have a thought, or a joke, or a cranky opinion—and you want to rant, or write, or change the topic—do it.

Write about the things that should be different.

Write a story about a conversation worth having. Write about your experience, and then write about how that connects to larger issues. Write your story. Write about what it’s like to be you.

But for the love of all of it, tell your story, and say what needs to be said.

There’s plenty to write about. Go on, get writing.


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13 Responses to What to Write About When You Don’t Know What to Write

  1. Brian says:

    I think I love you. ;)

  2. Marissa says:

    This was beautiful. Thank you.

  3. Wow, Sarah. Sooo much to key on here!

    I’ll just offer up one comment to keep this concise. You wrote:

    “Write about problems around the world that we collectively ignore because the hip gyrations of a young teen is more mesmerizing than the assassination of twelve human lives.”

    I gotta admit, I hold myself back every day from trying to convince people that they should be paying more attention to the atrocities in South Sudan than the personal interest story of the day. That is, assuming they even know a “new” country named South Sudan exists (the vast majority of Westerners don’t). It’s a common rant of mine, so much so that my wife rolls her eyes every time I mention South Sudan as an example of what I feel is our collective misplacement of attention.

    This whole essay is great! I’m going to talk more instead of write more because, unlike you, people would much prefer to hear what I have to say than what I have to type.

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Joel! Hilarious about the writing-versus-speaking. I LOVE the keyboard. I know you’re the same way with your podcast (and you’re so good at it).

      I don’t typically throw rants or world news into my posts–there’s a giant internet for that–but in this case, it’s useful because I want to share how much there is to talk about, think about, fix, do, learn, and of course: write about.

      Thanks for being here! Can’t wait for our radio interview…

  4. Lora says:

    Brilliant.

    (And now I have to go write.)

  5. mary says:

    So much resonance with so many of your suggestions and thoughs here, Sarah. Thanks for writing and sharing and keeping us all on our toes.

  6. Brian Stuhr says:

    Thank you Sarah. Within 24 hours of reading this post, I have acted upon an idea I had several weeks ago at 3am on a Tuesday. Blog created. Writing has commenced. Thank you for sharing your manaʻo.

  7. Erica says:

    Hahaha. I love this. Thanks for the kick up the butt. x

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  9. Irene Lyon says:

    My new web designer and I are trying to categorize my past blog posts, archive them and tag them, and he sensed my overwhelm yesterday as I told him a book idea that I have that people hear about and LOVE – he sent me this post of yours.
    I’m grateful. I do write about a lot of those things that you write of.
    Actually, I’ve too many things to write about that I’ve been stalling and immersed in some kind of self-pity on this topic.
    Strange yes.
    Something had definitely budged after reading this.
    Would love to learn more from you.
    Irene

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  12. Tim says:

    Thank you for that.