The Mystery of Writing

A few nights ago, I sat down with the intention to write a blog post. I had been mulling a specific idea over for several days. I thought it was a slam dunk. I should be done in 30 minutes, I thought, 45 minutes—max.

A Man with His Head on His Laptop and a White Flag of Surrender - - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #9029390

Photo courtesy of ©

Not so much.

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The first paragraph came quickly. But then I got stuck. I wrote another one, didn’t like it, and deleted it. I spiraled through that same loop ten times. Nothing seemed to work.

About that time, distraction set in. P.J. O’Rourke described it well when he wrote:

Usually, writers will do anything to avoid writing. For instance, the previous sentence was written at one o’clock this afternoon. It is now a quarter to four. I have spent the past two hours and forty-five minutes sorting my neckties by width, looking up the word “paisly” in three dictionaries, attempting to find the town of that name on The New York Times Atlas of the World map of Scotland, sorting my reference books by width, trying to get the bookcase to stop wobbling by stuffing a matchbook cover under its corner, dialing the telephone number on the matchbook cover to see if I should take computer courses at night, looking at the computer ads in the newspaper and deciding to buy a computer because writing seems to be so difficult on my old Remington, reading an interesting article on sorghum farming in Uruguay that was in the newspaper next to the computer ads, cutting that and other interesting articles out of the newspaper, sorting—by width—all the interesting articles I’ve cut out of newspapers recently, fastening them neatly together with paper clips and making a very attractive paper clip necklace and bracelet set, which I will present to my girlfriend as soon as she comes home from the three-hour low-impact aerobic workout that I made her go to so I could have some time alone to write.”

But distraction wasn’t really my problem. At least not initially. I was intent on writing—I just couldn’t.

After writing four books and almost one thousand blog posts, I have learned two things about writing:

  1. Sometimes, I just need to park myself in my chair, fire-up my laptop, and force myself to start. Nine times out of ten, this works for me.
  2. When that doesn’t work—after a concerted effort—I just need to quit. I have to get up and do something else.

This is all part of the mystery of writing. It’s a balancing act, isn’t it?

You want to exercise self-discipline and force yourself to write, even when you don’t feel like it. But you also have to trust the process and recognize when that won’t work. If you are patient—with yourself and with the process—the Muse will eventually speak.

Questions: As a writer, have you learned to trust the process? Is there a time when you got stuck but eventually regained your inspiration? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Carey Green

    Making myself do it is usually all it takes for me too. But I have noticed lately, especially on bigger writing projects that I tend to delay more. Anyone have an idea why that might be true?

  • Kandace

    I just took a month writing break. It felt good to miss it. I just came out of a season of using writing as an escape and needed to regroup -if that makes sense??

  • Julie Gumm

    I use Scrivener for all my writing and recently I started one file (or book) that is just a bunch of shorter pieces – ideas for blog posts, magazine articles, journaling, etc. Then when I’m stuck I open that and peruse the list. Usually something strikes me as interesting enough to write and add to. It’s helped a ton.

  • Sally Ferguson

    Oh yes, I can relate. Especially the interesting article on sorghum farming in Uruguay. haha.
    I’ve had to learn the hard way that I can’t force my brain to work when I’m at low peak. That’s the time to tackle other tasks. I’m at my best in the evening. Other people think better first thing in the morning. We have to take it when it works best for us.

  • Gary_Thomas_Writer

    I”m dreading starting my 3rd full length screenplay, even though I’ve been here before. It’s annoying, though I need to put my time in working out the scenes / outline and then get it all down. And try and keep in mind its only a first draft and accept that it changes. I learned with my first screenplay to start it when I knew I had enough material (scenes) so need to do the same with this one.

  • Abe S.

    Ha… This sounds about right. Then there is flow. I read an post from Evan Carmichael the other day and it summed up the other side of writing. There are times when it just hits you and you want to flow with it regardless of what you might have had on your schedule. I guess it does come back to being a balancing act. Life in general is that way.

  • Ginny Jaques

    And the ethernet is full of words that were written without benefit of the muse. Written by clenched-teeth writers who felt they had to write something, and disciplined themselves to do it. And I’m pretty sure the muse is shaking his/her head over some of that stuff.

  • Sarah Siders

    Hilarious because it’s so true. I’ve been avoiding writing my book. Sometimes I sit down and it flows. Sometimes it feels like a dribble. Success in writing is, apparently, sometimes starting, sometimes quitting, and the wisdom to know when to do each.

  • Akmal Akbarov

    I usually feel discouraged when I remember my last blog post did not enough shares and Likes or views but it is only a temporary feeling.))

  • Akmal Akbarov

    my process of writing is usually like this:

    - Craft the topic
    - Break
    - Get early ideas on the paper (short sentences)
    - Break
    - Write paragraph by paragraph
    - Break
    - Edit and polish
    - Break
    - Let it age
    - Polish, polish and polish ))

  • Christopher Jones

    To further support this author’s struggle, I was recently in an audience to hear Rick Bragg speak. He had a great line, “I don’t like writing. I like having written. Being a writer is not a gift, it is a craft to be cultivated.” This is coming from a former New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning author. My struggle with writing puts me in good company.

  • Patricia Holbrook

    And I thought I was alone! I love the simple insight this article gave. I will try to remember it the next time I get stuck on that first sentence, which is bound to happen in just a moment when I start preparing for an upcoming speaking engagement :) Thanks, Michael!

  • Abe S.

    Yep, this is a challenge. Writing now.. :)

  • Darlene Pawlik

    This is an encouraging post. I can go days without actually writing, but then I must. In between I Tweet and FB post, encouraging people as I go. I wish I didn’t have to work as much at my job. I often think of great prose and forget it or mangle it by the time I can sit down to set it to the screen. Ebb and flow, right?

  • James Michael Taylor

    I stopped writing so I could read this…


    You’re right on with your two cure-alls, sir. I can sit down and start pouring out gibberish and randomness and vulgarity, and within two minutes, I’m on topic and the words come.

    If they don’t, I need to walk away – literally, go for a walk or bike ride or change my scenery from my office to the coffeeshop to the park.

    (Writing to you today from Mildfire Coffee in San Antonio!)

  • Chris Lawson

    I thought I was the only one. :)