On Writing: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do Next

Rough road ahead


Usually, when I’ve run out of ideas, or I don’t know what to do next, it’s time to switch instruments. As a self-taught musician, the best thing I ever did was pick up the drums (which I had always wanted to play) when the original drummer for the band Elephant quit. I am and never was more than a passable guitarist.

More than anything, I was following my instinct about the band. After begging my way into playing with them, floundering and failing to keep up, my chance came. And in six months, we were recording and playing rather large shows with touring bands.

How does this relate to writing? When you’ve worked the same area over and over and over from nearly every angle, it’s time to either give it a big rest or go do something else, or close the folder on it entirely. That initial rush that compelled you to write and refine skills in discernment as a cops-and-fires reporter, cultural commentator, or mommyblogger that led to insights may have brought you to interesting content, but it’s only a matter of time before that baby grows up (and you’re no longer able to understand the issues of having a 9-month-old), the bands you knew are no longer relevant, and your “instinct” becomes a self-driven confirmation bias. These are changes that only the most rigorous writers can avoid.

So, then what?

Switch instruments. Here are some things I’ve been paid to write about: gardening, music, books, the Rolling Stones, sourdough bread, restaurants, hospitals, schools, the union movement, the detonation anniversary of the first atomic bomb, title loansthe environmentgasses, yard saleswinterizing your home, Orson Wellesbusiness yoga, how Subway used a crazy person to advertise, a collector of cast-off Los Alamos National Labs surplus, theories of brain plasticity, the archaeology of the San Francisco Presidio, and a woman who raises her own goats for slaughter in downtown Oakland.

And, writing was something I did because I didn’t know what to do next!

Photo by Brendan Doherty.


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