If You Can’t Sit Down to Write

I’ve written about this before, but the problem comes up so often, I think it bears reflecting upon again:

What do you do when you find yourself avoiding writing?

This situation often arises with the writers I work with. They might willingly commit to writing for only 15 minutes a day, five days a week.  They might even feel pumped up at the prospect.  And so do I.  At least we have a plan.  15 minutes is a completely manageable amount of time to write.  We are by no means asking too much of this writer.

But the next time we meet, the writer may well look at me apologetically, “I’m so sorry.  I haven’t written since we last met.”

Oh,” I reply, in spite of feeling disappointment worm its way through me.  “What do you think got in the way?”

“I don’t know.  Every day I promised myself I’d write, but when the time came, I found something else to do.”

“Was that something else you found important?  Something that really needed to be accomplished during your writing time?” I ask sympathetically, intimately familiar with the impulse not to write.

“Not really,” the writer often replies.  “And when I didn’t write, I felt so angry with myself.” Or the writer might say something like, “At the time I thought it was essential that I help my son eat a better breakfast before I sent him off to school, but I realized later that I could have written and made sure he ate well in the morning.”

In all the years I’ve been writing myself and working with writers, the only way I’ve discovered to resolve this tension between writing and not writing is to think very, very small.  The main reason a writer avoids sitting down to write is that he or she begins thinking too big, much too big. As the time to write arrives, they begin worrying about how much more they have to write before they finish their novel or essay or story.  And once they feel sufficiently worked up, their stomach cramps with thoughts of the criticism they will face if they ever finish.  People will say they’re bad writers.  People will say what they’ve written isn’t interesting.  People will say, “So what?” when they reach the last page—if they ever do.

When a writer and I are faced with this situation, I understand that the 15 minutes we have agreed upon is still too large—large enough that the voices of the critics have time to begin screaming in the writer’s ears.

What I’ve learned to suggest—and admittedly, only recently—is that the writer agree to think about writing for three minutes only.  That she sit down, in spite of all the excuses swirling in her head, and begin to put words on the page—for three minutes, no more, nor less.

At the end of the three minutes, the writer will either feel calm and engaged enough to continue for the rest of the session, or they can simply get up and walk away.  No recriminations.  No guilt.  No self-directed anger.  If they have simply sat down and put words on the page for three minutes, they will have fulfilled their commitment to writing.

I suggest anyone having difficulty getting to their writing, try this strategy.  And if at the end of three minutes, you still feel the pull to flee, get up, walk away, and enjoy the rest of your day!

West Berkeley Rust

10 thoughts on “If You Can’t Sit Down to Write”

  • Thank you for this! I’m getting ready to start a blog and have all these wonderful and helpful ideas to write about, but I struggle with sitting down and actually write. So me being me (I love to research LOL), I googled “Why do I struggle with sitting down to write when I have all these great ideas to write about?” And your blog popped up to this post. This explains me to a T! I guess it’s the opposite of writers block. I have all these great ideas, but worry I’m going to forget/miss some of the “important” or “profound” information and then I’m like, why should I bother. I’m going to save this blog post to remind me of why I struggle and to try this 3 minute approach. Thank you!

    • Thanks for this note, Donna. Hope what you read helps. You might also take a look at my book, “Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Writing Block.

  • While I don’t anticipate this message reaching anyone, I need to write it. When I first started writing (20 years ago) I wasn’t able to follow the good advice I was given which was to read, read, read. Being ADHD didn’t help but that isn’t an excuse. Now I’ve gotten older and my hyperactivity has settled down a smidge, I’m more able to read and read I most certainly do.

    But I’m still plagued with the same problems I’ve always had. I get lost almost immediately when I sit down to write. While I haven’t a problem dreaming up stories, I can’t manage to finish many – 2 in total. Why? Well. my tiny acorn of an idea, that while being carefully tended to in the garden on the mind, grows and grows and grows and grows. So by the time I sit down to write I’m literally trying to write a masterpiece of such importance and weight that it’ll leave you in tears… See my problem? I can’t relax into a story and as a result, I fear I’ll never achieve what I want which is to write and be proud of my material.

    As a side note that I feel affects me, I didn’t do well at school and while I know I’m not as stupid as history would have me believe, I feel overwhelmingly vulnerable at the prospect of failing.

    Regards, Matthew.

    PS, I also can’t give up. I never could.

  • I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ (especially since this is a first time comment on here) but with all these positive responses from people, it just feels like some kind of duty of mine.

    While i like the idea, the final line feels somehow demotivational, as in ‘if you still don’t get the desire to write, just quit it’ (if only for today). Why i find this demotivating? Because it feels like an excuse, or an exemption from writing, and because this way, there’s a chance no writing would be done at all. It helps sort out the lazy, i suppose, but then, it’s a very polite way to do it, is it not?

    Also, nice haiku, Gregory.

    • You’re absolutely right, Gregory. I was too cavalier when I ended my last post. I was about to go away to teach at a writing conference for a week, and didn’t think everything through thoroughly enough. What I meant to say was: If you sit down and still feel awful, you have earned the right to get up and engage in another activity. Persevering when you’re full of angst never helps a writer write. However, if you jump up one day after trying to write for a while, you should try again the next day, and the next and the next. Eventually, you will be able to persevere. And if you can’t after two weeks, contact me, and I’ll be happy to help you out.

  • I keep the piece I am working on open on my screen. When I login to my computer there it is , I add some more or just reread what I wrote. Before I know it, I am writing some more!

  • I was doing just what you describe: I found *something* else to do to avoid writing. That included reading my email, clicking on your blog and reading it. Your advice seemed reasonable so I decided to sit down and write for three minutes. A page and a half later and I’m feeling like I just might meet my deadline after all. Thank you!

  • Once again, words to write by.
    As I have said before; not only words of wisdom, but great pictures.
    Question? Is West Berkeley Rust {great name for a band} different from other versions of
    Berkeley rust?

    Brought to mind an Haiku I wrote back in 1999 when I was doing a lot of the form. the number of syllables may be off, but at least it is about nature

    “Nature’s symmetry is seen in the mushroom: thriving on death, on decay.”


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