5 ways to be a writer when you’re not writing.

When you're not writing, get into your writing mind
When you’re not writing, get into your writing mind

You may burn to be a writer, you may understand that it is your true calling and be prepared to put in the hours tapping away on the keyboard or scribbling with your pen but depending on your work situation and personal/family circumstances, there may be stretches of time when you are not able to be physically present with your manuscript. It’s still possible to be in your writing head and to progress with your story or piece even when away from it.


1: Let things simmer (incubation 1)

Psychological research has identified incubation as one of the key elements in creativity. Incubation is defined as ‘a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time’ [2]. Seabrook Rachel, Dienes Zoltan (2003). Incubation in Problem Solving as a context Effect (Wiki)

Incubation is the period between your conscious and practical outlining of your piece and the point where you come up with the hook or the usual slant on your proposed story. It’s the time when all your ideas mingle and coalesce and form unusual associations.

Writer Louise Wise recently commented on this blog Once I’m in my writer’s head my best writing has come from cooking the family dinner, wiping a 5 year old’s runny nose and mopping up a grazed knee! Somehow in between all that I’ve written a lovey dovey scene! Multi tasking? No sweat!!

Let things simmer


Sometimes when you are finding it difficult to begin or to progress with your writing you may just need to give your ideas time to incubate. While going about your daily chores, travelling, listening to music etc you can still orient your mind towards your writing project and with a sort of Zen wait and watch approach be receptive to new ideas rising to the surface of consciousness. By placing the elements of your story into a pot and letting it simmer you may find resolutions to your sticky writing problems, you may find an exchange between characters rising fully formed from the stew or a plot angle from a real news story attaching itself successfully to a stuck place in your novel.

2: Get the pot really hot: Engage in a cultural activity (incubation 2)

One writer I know makes it a policy to set aside time for regular cultural trips to museums, art galleries, music recitals, readings, and dance shows. Exposing yourself to a hotch potch of creative ideas allows you to come at stories from different angles, to experience them through a number of senses, to see the world upside down and back to front. Benedict Carey in the New York Times recently wrote on How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect. The article outlines psychological research which shows that the human brain strives for order. Exposing it to the bizarre makes it work harder to make sense of the world and preserve narrative cohesion by identifying patterns. Thus ‘disorientation begets creative thinking’. So while you are immersing yourself in a flood of fascinating ideas, your brain will be working to find a common thread and the juxtaposition of unusual ideas may result in a unique story or piece of writing.


3: Remember and record your dreams (incubation 3)

We all dream, whether we remember or not. Freud made a career out of the Interpretation of Dreams as part of his psychotherapeutic technique. It is true that our dreams may carry many of our conscious and unconscious concerns. Dream interpretation also suggests that many aspects of our dreams can be symbolic. For example a dream of a bath, can mean a tub, or a vessel that carries something important. I am not convinced that we can be absolutely reductionist about our dreams. Any analysis should be done broadly. I believe that our dreams are our subconscious efforts at creating narrative out of our experiences, fragments of memories, subliminal cues, peripheral inputs. We are programmed to make sense of things, to tell stories and our dreams do that while we sleep.

Record your dreams when you wake
Record your dreams when you wake

It is the narrative genius of dreams – making sense out of the utterly bizarre – that makes it so worthwhile to try to recall and record them. It’s not often possible to do this and if we are woken suddenly our dreams often retreat out of reach. However I did, for a time, keep a dream notebook and with practice was able to write down many dreams.

There are, of course, many common themes, what may be called Archetypal stories, and these may as Jung suggested be common universal concerns. As a novelist we aspire to make explicit these universal stories. Our dreams can present us with unusual paths through our personal material that can give us an original voice when dealing with those themes.

4: Pay attention and Notice Difference


Decide to take notice (or notes) of things. I have spoken about this before but compared to children, for example, we take so much for granted, we are rushed, preoccupied etc and don’t take the time to notice the small details surrounding us, the details that can make a reader catch their breath with delight.

Psychology also tells us that we are attracted to people who are similar to ourselves, we are also programmed to gather evidence to support our own theories of life and notice environmental cues that feed into our preoccupations. For example if you are buying a house a drive around the neighbourhood will have you noticing all the For Sale signs. If you are into cars, you might take note of what is parked in the driveways. We need to make an effort to see things differently, to pay attention to the kinds of people we normally disregard, to take an interest in a different aspect of a scene, to watch or read something we might normally never consider.

This puts me in mind of an entertaining BBC comedy quiz show called Have I Got News For You. One of the quiz rounds is the fill in the missing word round. Phrases are taken from a guest publication. The guest publications chosen are a esoteric and ecletic mix including Welding and Metal Fabrication Monthly, Barbed Wire Collector, Hairdressers Journal International, Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club Newsletter. While some examples are hilarious, these publications go to show that there are so many specialized interests out there, some you may never have imagined. What kind of people are interested in these sorts of things, what sort of lives do they lead? Aspire to see difference where ever you go.


Inspiration at the washing line

5: Finally find Inspiration at the washing line (Inspiration 1)

/in the car wash/emptying the dishwasher/having a shower

I don’t think there is a reason I chose washing related examples but it’s at moments of mindless activity where our garrulous consciousness coasts into automatic and goes quiet  that the subconscious gets a chance to speak its mind. I knew many years ago that I wanted to be a writer but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to write about. It’s true to say that the experience of years provides material. It strengthens associations and references that lend depth to writing. However I have discovered since I decided to just BE a writer that you can write about absolutely anything. And it’s at the washing line that all the phrases, news items, emotions, characters merge together and instantaneously throw out several fascinating ideas.

Why the washing line? It’s peaceful. I am momentarily (and I mean momentarily) away from the clamour of the children. It’s usually pleasant, uplifting weather (the reason I’m hanging out the washing in the first place). There may be a fresh breeze or bird song. The action of hanging out the washing is repetitive and soothing and requires little concentrated brain power. It is here that the fruits of all that incubation are realised, I become inspired and I find my way through. I trace the narrative thread of the line until a story falls from the bright blue sky. A man with an obsession with weeding is an emotional tyrant who bullies his wife. A pigeon’s coo reminds me of a time and a place and first love. A jokey remark made to one of the children becomes a possible children’s picture book story.

I am a writer in my head, in my dreams, in my outlook, in the middle of my chores. I nearly trip over the washing basket as I run back inside to find a pen to pen the ideas in and prevent them from getting away. So don’t sweat when you can’t be writing, get into your writing head, feed your subconscious and let it do the work for you.

35 thoughts on “5 ways to be a writer when you’re not writing.

  1. Excellent post – I can relate to SO much of this! I always seem to start buzzing with ideas the minute I turn off the light to go to sleep! I ‘write’ in the shower, in the car, making dinner, chatting with my boys (they are a brilliant source of material), and yet I so rarely spend time here at the PC uninterrupted. So you’re spot on with this one. Ever considered bottling your advice – it’s priceless! 🙂

    1. alisonwells

      Thank you all for your kind words. I am not joking when I say the washing line features highly in my writing life and I can see you all have your own important arenas of inspiration. Here’s to more housework! Or maybe not.

  2. An art director once told me that creativity is like an iceburg. We only see the tip, but the mass underneath the water is constantly growing. Of course that was before global warming so now it may be shrinking, but you get the idea. Most of the work is done out of sight.

    1. alisonwells

      Very true that most of the work is done out of sight. I think there can be a lot of emphasis on wordcount and productivity but not as much on the mechanisms for engendering creativity and originality. However sometimes the two work hand in hand. I’ve been told that the freedom of the Nanowrimo exercise allows people to just dive right in and follow their instincts without worrying too much about the nuts and bolts. Many people are letting ideas for Nanowrimo float round in their mind during October. In November those brave enough to let go and see where the experience takes them often find it a cathartic, inpirational and productive exercise.

    1. alisonwells

      Sorry Louise! I was writing and posting at 6 am. No excuse though! Will correct. Any visiters to your site will have noted how wise you are. Best wishes!

  3. janflora

    Fabulous post! New reader who will come back for more. I have three children, a part time job and more laundry than I wish to think about. I have been writing in my head since I was a child, telling myself stories to get to sleep. Now, I find myself plotting while driving, making notes on receipts and have definitely been inspired by some of my dreams. I love to think of my constant mind flow as “incubating” rather than daydreaming 🙂 Good luck to you!

  4. alisonwells

    Hi Janet

    Really good to have you here, glad you could spare the time from your manic schedule! That’s really interesting about telling yourself stories to get to sleep. Feeding stories INTO your subconscious! I agree the concept of incubating is great, it’s the hatching bit that can be tricky! Hope we can share more about writing head space in the future.

  5. You are amazing, Alison. All these incubations are absolutely essential. How beautifully you express the various processes of writing. I think one of the reasons I lost touch with the joy of writing was that I only ‘counted’ the words on paper as the process of writing when I was so busy. And it was never enough, of course, and because it never satisfied, it never incubated. I wonder if being a mother has helped you become so wise as a writer?

  6. Alison you are a treasure. I have often felt so bad when I am not writing and although I have been thinking and planning, it is easy to feel you are being useless unless tap tapping on the keyboard.

    I also love the idea of learning to see things with new eyes. When I left work to stay at home I had about 6 to 12 months of new eyes and did some of my best writing – 2 weeks on radio’s thought for the day thingy and 2nd place on a Quiet Corner (Lyric) competition. Then I adjusted to the new vision. Thank you for reminding me to be aware of the need to see detail and see beauty and poetry in the world around us!!

    Your site is great inspiration and encouragement!!!

    1. alisonwells

      Thanks Barbara,

      It was really interesting to hear about your radio and lyric writing which seemed in particular to be the kind of writing that required a fresh impulse of feeling. How do we keep that freshness of observation and utterance within ourselves? A writer’s constant challenge.

  7. yearzerowriters

    I will definitely second incubation. It was the technique that got me through my degree. After first year exams, it’s the usual practice to do nothing in second year and work like blazes in final year, but after being tipped a technical wink by a tutor, I worked ridiculous hours as a second year (well, third year – I did 5 terms before first exams owing to doing Classics), understood absolutely none of the 2 books and 10 articles a day I was reading but noted them anyway. And spent my final year doing pretty much nothing but playing bridge – but come the exams hundreds of connections between seemingly random facts had, as if by alchemy, formed, and I was able actually to enjoy the exams and choose questions I thought were fun rather than the only ones I could answer.

    Same workload – but done in a different order.


    1. alisonwells

      Hi Dan,

      Good example of how the connections can take off and that makes for novelty, layers, surprise and the killing of cliche in writing. I’m also intrigued how the process takes place without us being aware of it, making the ideas and phrases seem to come out of no-where. The book almost wrote itself you hear people say. I’ve been in a bit of a ‘stew’ since Nanowrimo. I think my brain wanted to switch back off for a bit, I found it difficult to start writing again but in the last couple of days I’ve just thrown stuff down in an almost diary fashion. It seems to have gone up a level in the novelty of phrases, the juxtaposition of ideas. The stew has done its work.

  8. This is one my favourite posts on writing. I come back and read it often. I like the concept and process of incubating ideas. Makes me feel better about not having time to write, because I am constantly thinking about the plots, characters and new ideas. Good to know all that brooding is not wasting time or procrastinating. 🙂

  9. Hi Alison!
    Some good sense here! My problem can be that I have lots of ideas in my head & no paper! By the time I’m near something to record the ideas on, most of them have flown or just don’t have that extra edge they had in my head!

  10. Wonderful article, Alison. On the recording dreams part, I once spent several months taking a page from Carl Jung’s autobiography. Instead of writing down the details of dreams (always a struggle for me as the details seem to vanish so quickly and my handwriting so unhelpful in the first hour of the day) I drew mandalas. Through that, the details and textures awoke and stayed with me throughout the day.

  11. Brilliant post, Alison. The poet Maitreyabandhu posted a mini-film recently “Don’t just do something, sit there” and it’s so true that, as long as you remain open, the creativity will flow in.

    1. alisonwells

      So true Josephine. I am so startled every time I go for a simple walk how I am inundated with ideas while not looking for them. (and i wish i brought a notebook!)

  12. Thanks for this post Alison; in a bad writing (non-writing!) space at the moment – it is intensely frustrating, to the point where one wonders ‘Why? Why bother? Do I have anything to add? Anything new, different – even just enjoyable, for either myself or some dreamed of reader.’ Some wonderfully practical tips here – I’m off to start noticing things again. Thanks again!

    1. alisonwells

      Hi Evelyn. Really happy this helped. I so often forget to do this and it feels almost magical when the ideas start percolating and you feel the excite again. Come back and say how you got on with your noticing.

  13. This is a great post! I’m going to use the thoughts from now on in my daily life….I’m a mom of seven children, six horses, four cats, three chickens, two dogs and one mule! During the summer when everyone is around I find it hard to sit down and write — but now I can use all my time as writing simmer time. Thank you.

    1. alisonwells

      Oh my goodness Jane, that list itself should be a book title. It’s good not to feel discouraged when we don’t have the physical time to write junks and great if we can stay open to ideas as we go about our tasks. Thanks so much for commenting, lovely to hear from you. 🙂

      1. My Pleasure!! You really helped put my mind at ease about writing and also looking at all my other time in a new way! I have procured a little notebook to put in my purse and in my pocket to carry around with me to write down all my amazing ideas. I’ve heard other people mention they do this, but until I read your post I didn’t really give it much thought. Thank you!

  14. gerryodonnell2000

    Alison, many thanks for this really useful guidance.
    I hope your selfless altruism is rewarded in this world
    as well as in the next in book sales at least.

    Though I’m only a novice to writing, I’ve found so far, that incubation
    and the understanding of its process, is the single most important
    stage in writing.

    Sometimes though, I’ve been fooled into thinking that I’ve properly incubated,
    only to discover that I haven’t left it cooking long enough.

    In the same way as a half-cooked turkey looks cooked on the outside you
    discover that half incubated writing sparkles on the surface but lacks substance and depth

    Thankfully in writing you can’t overcook (I think) but you can definitely undercook.


    I waited for them all evening with pen in hand
    But they would not come
    They were coy and illusive
    They hid in dark recesses

    I slept long and deeply
    But they woke me in the morning
    Pulling at the sleeves of my mind like little children
    Wanting to dance on my white pages

    1. alisonwells

      Hi Gerry, that is a really good point about the half cooked turkey. I think there is a big emphasis these days on getting work produced rather than finding the layers in your story that will give it greater quality. Sometimes when we write our first draft we might just have a rough impetus that something in us needs to be said and we discover the full story and it’s resonances as we go. At other times we might make a slightly more conscious effort to add in richness and connections, especially in novel writing. But the best stories are the ones that seem to write themselves and usually it’s because, to use your analogy, the turkey really is fully cooked! Thanks for your poem, it’s a lovely way of describing how incubation bears it’s fruits.

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  17. sonja wilbert

    Thanks for the great post. I try to also keep a pen and small notepad in my apron as I do housework. No time wasted. All four of my kids think I’m nuts for this, but it works when I am in a writing slump.

    1. alisonwells

      Hello Sonja, having a notebook is just perfect and at least the kids recognise that you are writing as well as caring for them.

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