How to Be a Writer when You Can't Write: cultivating creativity in a barren land

Almost a year ago to the day, I was anticipating a writer’s workshop. It’d taken expert-level Tetris skills to rearrange my work schedule and to secure rides for the kids to practices and rehearsals while I’d be gone. On that blissfully unaware evening, I still clung to the frays of a belief that writer’s don’t find time, they make time! and if I worked hard enough, I’d be writing. Not every day, of course, but certainly a handful of hours each month.

I still clung to the frays of a belief that writer’s don’t find time, they make time! and if I worked hard enough, I’d be writing.

I was thinking about that as I scrambled eggs at 8:30 PM. There was a time we ate dinner—real meals with steamed vegetables, salads, and baked chicken—and we ate them at a reasonable time, all of us sitting around the kitchen table. But as the babies became kids, became tweens, and teens, dinner migrated with their bloated schedules, which expanded in tandem with my work responsibilities. Maybe, after the kids are in bed, I thought as I often did, I’d open my laptop and work on my manuscript. Sometimes writing happened, almost always it didn’t, and it certainly didn’t on that night or most nights since.

It is always in the mundane moments, ins’t it?—when we’re pushing yolk across a hot pan, reminding the kids to finish their homework—that’s when we’re blindsided. As I scraped burnt eggs onto plates, I learned my dad had a stroke. A few weeks later, he passed away.

Life happens and it comes at us fast. Whether it’s a tidal wave, an avalanche, a speeding semi, amassing medical bills, or a death in the family. Anxiety, grief, busyness, caring for others all fill up our minutes, our hours, our calendars, and devour our emotional capacity. Sure, we could not Netflix-and-chill and write instead, but we might shrivel up and die.

So, for a year, I’ve let got of the illusion that writer’s must write. Because we aren’t just writers. We’re caregivers, we’re employees, we’re bosses, entrepreneurs, bill-payers, parents, children, friends, neighbors, activists. We’re human, and to be human means that sometimes we experience tragedy. Our lives will be upended. Our paths will take unexpected turns, hit road blocks. Writing will not be a priority. And, thank God for that.

Not long ago I took a couple of days off of work. During that time, I caught up on housework, paid bills, visited family, and wrote for the first time. Three picture books sent off to my agent that will soon go on submission.

After months of scraping a dry well, I was suddenly bursting with ideas. This writing-spree didn’t occur on it’s own overnight. There were things, I realized, that I’d done to cultivate the dry landscape, prepare the soil, so that the seeds of creativity could blossom when the moment was finally right.

  1. I allowed writing to take a back seat, semi-permanently. Worrying about preparing manuscripts or finding time to write added to a building avalanche of stress, anxiety, and commitments. So, I set it aside. I knew it could be for a long time, even a year, maybe more, but I also knew that it didn’t mean forever. I’ve lived long enough to know that the tides change eventually. There’d be space again for writing.

  2. Sometimes I binge-watched tv. My brain was foggy with grief and I didn’t have the capacity to read a book, go for a walk, or take a yoga class. Re-watching familiar shows was comforting and simple. It helped me decompress.

  3. I made family and relationships a priority. We often talk about self-care—which is important—but, there is healing too, in caring for each other. In eating dinner together, helping with yard work, etc. etc. Being there, being present, has been good.

  4. When I finally could, I read. I read a lot. We went on a family vacation last spring and I did almost nothing but read. I devoured books of all genres. It was healing. It was restful. It was . . . a beginning.

  5. Observe. Eventually I could go on walks again. Short bike rides. Sit on the beach and watch a sunset. Paint a wildflower. These moments didn’t happen often, but here and there, sprinkled in between the obligations. And as I did, I started to wonder again. I’d see new life budding on branches or billowing clouds and my imagination would take over.

  6. And, eventually, when the time was right, I did make time. I invested a couple of PTO days in myself and into my writing. Because I had rested, and read, and allowed the avalanche to settle, I was ready to write. It wasn’t forced writing, but it was intentional.

Be encouraged, dear ones. You writers who are on pause because you’re the primary caretaker, because of the bills that need to be paid, or an illness, or a new baby has come into your family, or whatever hard, tragedy, beautiful mountain that was flung from thy sky and flattened you completely.

Even as a wounded, splattered mess, you are a still a writer because that’s who you are.

Heather Brewer