Advice for when you get stuck
This is what winging it looks like.
I don’t know what I’m going to write.
I’ve started a handful of drafts of today’s newsletter—half-formed ideas turned into less-than-half-formed essays—and I’ve scrapped each one. No idea is better or worse than the next. Nothing is quite good enough.
As I flounder for ideas, I keep coming back to this point: Realizing, and wanting to admit, that I have no idea what to say.
I suppose I want to share this because it's important to remember that people struggle to do things that might seem effortless from the outside. We forget that writers regularly fail to find the right words. That runners skip workouts, too. That even the most put-together bosses wonder if they’re making the right decisions.
We all have moments where we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s part of being human—and a delightful part at that. Not knowing keeps us humble. It keeps us curious. It keeps us learning. It keeps us trying, trying, and trying once more.
Not knowing isn’t the problem. The problem lies in telling ourselves that everyone else knows what they’re doing. We convince ourselves that we’re the only ones figuring things out. We let doubt and uncertainty take over. What was once openness and curiosity becomes shame and fear.
So that’s why I’m here, telling you that I don’t know what I’m going to write today.
I’ve gone through periods where I map out topics and ideas for My Sweet Dumb Brain weeks ahead of time, but more often than not, I’m winging it. I usually decide what I want to write about based on how I’m feeling any particular week. For someone like me who, for better or worse, spends a lot of time in her head, there’s usually plenty of fodder to explore. But it’s not a fool-proof strategy. There are plenty of weeks, like now, when I feel a bit of panic.
What if I don’t have anything interesting to say? Why do I have this newsletter in the first place? Why, oh why, are all of these people spending their valuable time and attention reading my words?
Still, I write. I force myself to quiet those voices, sit at my desk, and put words on the page. I have no idea where those words are going or if they’ll be any good, but I continue writing. I keep showing up.
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As much as I hoped and tried, I didn’t figure out a cohesive essay for today. I did, however, think a lot about the act of writing and how to make it work—even when you’re strapped for ideas.
So I decided to write about that instead. I figured there are plenty of you reading this newsletter who are writers yourselves. And all of us have our own creative dreams and goals. Some days, those creative pursuits come easily. Other days, we get stuck.
This is advice for when you get stuck.
Unplugging works. "Have you turned it off and back on again?" I’m amazed at how many times, no matter the technical issue, that the very basic advice of turning off and then turning back on your laptop, phone, or other device works. It seems to be the initial universal suggestion by IT workers, one that a lot of us overlook because it’s so simple.
But sometimes—oftentimes—the simplest advice is the most sage. After the fifth or sixth failed attempt at writing today’s newsletter, I closed my laptop, got up from my desk, and went for a short walk outside. When I returned, the words flowed. As Anne Lamott famously said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
This is a phase. As I took that walk, I reminded myself that this moment is a passing one. I will not always struggle for the right newsletter topic. Next week, I might know exactly what I want to say. The week after that, I might opt for a jumble of ideas. My inspiration, like everything else in life, will ebb and flow. As it should.
My constantly growing, always learning two-year-old daughter bops from one phase to the next at lightning speed. For a couple of weeks, she’ll sleep like a champion. Then she’ll experience a period where she has trouble falling asleep on her own. Sometimes, she’ll eat everything on her plate; other days, she’ll stubbornly refuse anything that’s presented to her.
The key to staying sane—to keep my cool and perspective as a parent—is to remind myself that it’s all a phase. It’s all part of my toddler’s growth and learning. Each moment, for better or worse, will pass. My job is to love her through it.
I forget that I go through phases, too. And that I deserve to show myself that same unconditional love.
Create beauty, where you can. Sometimes, I think back to my pre-parenthood, pre-pandemic life and daydream about how rich it was. I traveled places! I ate fancy dinners! I visited museums, attended concerts, and enjoyed long, meaningful talks with friends. These days, most of those things are in short supply. As I wrote last May, it doesn’t take much for my creative well to feel like it’s all dried up.
In reality, though, I write more often and have more to share now than I did in those culturally rich days. It doesn’t take an international trip to spark inspiration. It takes a shift in mindset.
On Sunday night, I started to worry about the fact that my newsletter topic hadn’t yet come to me. Billy was busy recording an interview, Cass was asleep, and I had some time to myself. I considered scouring the internet, looking for the right idea—a desperate exercise that would likely leave me feeling more drained than inspired.
Instead, I decided to make a big pasta salad for the week ahead. I popped in my headphones, turned on a podcast, and took my time, chopping each ingredient and following each recipe step with care. It was surprisingly enjoyable: cooking alone, with no objective except to make a meal that future me would enjoy.
I was listening to an interview with Tracee Ellis Ross, an inspiration in her own right, when I was struck by something she shared. “My favorite part of my life is my life,” she said. “I love all the stuff, but I really like making my bed in the morning or doing laundry or making my food or taking the garbage out. Just the basics that really tether me to my own humanity and my own sense of self.”
My favorite part of my life is my life. I smiled as I heard those words. At that moment, there was nothing I’d rather be doing than making a simple pasta salad on a quiet evening in my house. I chose that activity not because I should have been doing it, but because I wanted to. Suddenly, my creative well felt a lot fuller.
Bribe yourself. The pasta salad—one of my favorites—was finished. I knew that the next day, I’d wake up and write, just like I do every Monday. This day would be different, though. Typically, I’d write, then take a break and scrounge around for something suitable for lunch. (Why is this always such a struggle?!) This time, I already had a delicious meal prepared.
This, too, is a writing hack. One of the ways that Nicole Chung forces herself to write is with food bribes. “Do I want a muffin? Thai iced coffee? My favorite meal for dinner? Well, then, I know what I need to do.”
Sit. And do the work. The last step, of course, is to actually write. As Chloé Cooper Jones said in an interview for BOMB Magazine, “A fair amount of what it takes to be a writer or an artist is searching for inspiration or a creative spark in the world. But the rest of the reality is just sitting and doing all the work.”
This gets easier with practice. Making a routine of writing—or doing yoga, or painting, or whatever it is that your heart desires—gets easier with time. The trick is to show up, again and again.
I didn’t know what I was going to share today. But I put my butt in my chair, and I wrote. Now, I’ve released yet another newsletter into the world. My job for this week is done.
Who knows what next week will hold?