‘I Haven’t Had a New Idea in a Year. How Do I Think Again?’

It’s not “again” but “anew.”

Welcome back to The Reading, an advice column for creative writers.

Hi there,

Happy Gregorian New Year. This month, I’m teaching a documentary poetry class at Williams, recording the audiobook for Dream of the Divided Field, and planning the book launch and tour (if you’re a book reviewer, events organizer, or otherwise interested in collaborating for it, get in touch).

Writing Space this month will be Saturday, January 22, from 12:00–14:00 EST.

Last, but not least, I’m offering my lyric essay class again at The Shipman Agency’s Work Room on February 5. For those interested, you may also apply for an additional master class on February 12. Both of these sessions offer scholarships.

Now, on with the work.

Image of book cover. Text: Dream of the Divided Field. On sale March 1, 2022.
Dear Yanyi,

I’ve been writing slowly-but-seriously for a few years. I write nonfiction and have written several essays that I am proud of. But—and I’m aware this is a cliché of a problem—I’m feeling stuck and out of ideas. The essays that I’ve written all happened more or less like this: I encountered something (a book, a movie, etc.) that seemed, in some way, to relate to my life. I thought about it for a while to figure out what that relation was. Finally, I sat down to write, already knowing what the structure/outline of the essay and its main idea was. I like this way of working. I have something to write towards and I can focus on the language. Sometimes my idea changes while I’m writing but I know how to get started. Now, though, nothing is catching my eye and I don’t know what to write. I’m worried that I’ve forgotten how to think. I watch a movie or read a book and have no thoughts about it, and therefore no way to connect it to my life. I have nothing in particular in my life that I’m interested in exploring either.

I’ve asked other people what they do when they’re feeling out of ideas and uninspired and tend to get two pieces of advice: 1) just write and 2) give it time. But I struggle with both of these. Since I like to write when I have an idea already, it’s hard to “just write.” When I sit down in front of a blank page with no idea already in mind, I have nothing to say. When I try to push through anyway and write whatever comes to mind, it's all grocery lists and to-do lists for my day job and reminders about friends with birthdays coming up. And as to “give it time”—I have been! I haven’t had a new idea in so long (at least a year) and it’s starting to depress me. Especially because I would eventually like to try to find a way to make a career for myself that’s more related to writing than my current day job. I don’t want to wait forever to do that but it feels like I can’t start that process unless I’m actually, well, writing.

How do you find new ideas when the well is dry? How do you learn how to think again?

Out of Ideas

Dear OI,

Thank you for your letter. It’s understandable that you are frustrated and worried that your writing may never recover from this pause. From your letter, I can see a few different factors at play, some you are not doubt already aware of, and others that I hope will dislodge you from this rut you’ve been in for some time.

First, to deal with the obvious: you’re putting pressure on yourself to write more so you can have a writing career, and you want a writing career so you can write more. Even saying this out loud, of course, shows how circuitous it is: writing is the thing that you want, right? So why don’t you write?

I used to say to myself that if only I had the time, I would be a writer. My big lesson of 2021 was, in fact, that having time doesn’t make writing happen. I, and you, make the writing happen. When the writing isn’t happening, it can feel as though you’re proving to the critic inside of you that you don’t have the talent or work ethic to actually be who you say you are.

Take a second and honor those feelings, OI, if you can sense you are so stricken. You have to, actually. Else, you’ll find yourself doing strange things, like writing things that don’t give you any pleasure (like grocery lists), writing things that you actively hate (like essays you’ll regret), or avoiding writing in all ways you can, so you can save yourself from kicking up those anxieties.

Then there are the fluxes and permanent changes roiling through the world today. I would be surprised if your life or the lives of your loved ones haven’t changed in these two years of pandemic and climate change, years that have been roiled, too, with continuing political turmoil around the world.

Your inability to think isn’t an innate flaw—it’s a symptom of a prolonged emergency response to the cascading instabilities around you. How can you reasonably envision a future when everything you’ve learned to expect in life may not exist when you get to it?

Now, I’ve written about writing in chaos and the pressure of making a career in the past, so I won’t delve deeper into those aspects. Today, for you, I want to talk about another kind of block: boredom.

I’m thankful that you shared your previous essay process with me. I’m able to make this observation about boredom because you did. What you described, to me, was a formula for writing. There’s nothing wrong with formulas—you might even call them forms. A structure is a question: how will you fill it this time? And with different inputs going in—in your case, books and movies—there’s enough interest to keep you growing, at least for a little while.

But something changes when you use the same structure repeatedly: the nuts and bolts begin to sag with wear; the previously shiny stops keeping your interest. You take longer and longer to find something you want to respond to. You start to notice patterns, like how in popular house tracks in the 2010s the drop always happens at around 1:00.

This is not, as you may fear, a death knell for your creativity. It’s actually quite a good sign. Your being bored indicates that you have engaged with enough material through this form that you’re starting to see the same arguments or themes it can offer you. It’s just a sign that you’ve grown and you’re ready for something new.

Here comes the fun part: how will you get to this “something new?” Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what that is. However, I can say that what you need now, beyond anything else, is difference, difference, difference.

Boredom and burnout are similar in that they physically and emotionally drive you out of situations in which you no longer wish to be. Routine keeps us thinking the same thoughts and using the same words—it’s possible your old way of writing has not borne fruit because you don’t have anything new in your life to relate to it! Change that. Take a vacation, even if it’s a local one. Move around the furniture in the space you live in. Read on about a topic or in a genre you’ve always been curious about but never gave yourself the time to do.

If you imagine a plant, it doesn’t, and can’t, both grow and stay in the same spot. Expansion requires the search for light. Plants also have growing seasons. If you’ve ever had a perennial, you’ll know that it dies back once winter comes along, but spring will bring a hint of green again.

There’s a necessary component of writing that requires death—death that brings the worms, the fungus, the decomposition that holds the wisdom of all that has been eaten up by those organisms. Your writing dies in order to make room for new growth. It also dies in order to submerge itself in the wisdom of all that you do not yet know. The work happens when it is unseen.

In other words, give yourself space to dream stupid and big. I’m not talking about career moves or life milestones—I mean what kind of art have you told yourself you’ll “get to later,” the art you’ll do when you can truly relax? What would you do if that time was now? Whether it’s crocheting, poetry, or building a computer, gift yourself the luxury of time and security. Allow yourself an hour of suspended reality—or fifteen minutes, if an hour’s not possible.

You’re already well-equipped to weather this change. You know to make a change when your original thesis no longer serves the work. You know how to give this flexibility to yourself. Now apply that kind of flexibility to where you house your creative energy.

Your last question was: how do you learn how to think again? And the truth is, much of the world we live in now makes it terribly difficult to think. You might be having a nice time on a walk and then—ping!—a notification tells you that there’s another variant on the loose or your family member is in the hospital. The vulnerable are more vulnerable. And we can’t adjust to a new normal that never seems to settle.

Thinking is not easy to do in more stable times, let alone now. I would give yourself a little grace around this. But I will say, also, that there are ways to think even in the worst of times. This letter contains only some of them.

One does not lose the ability to enjoy pleasure when it does not come around often, or when it is something one has given up entirely. Rather, the question becomes, how can you still enjoy being alive and enjoy being human even in the worst of times? What can you give yourself that helps make living feel worthwhile again?

Your life is still happening. The best thing about “nothing” is that it costs nothing to make. It can be something you recite to yourself, phone dead, no paper, while waiting for the subway. You can have nothing when you are alone in your home quarantined from your loved ones. The beauty of art is that it makes the nothing we can give ourselves. It never ceases to be nothing. It can always come home.

Postscript: The optional notebook

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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, 1 March 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.

To discover more letters and to find out more, check out the index.