January 7, 2015

Don’t Write a Word

By Marla Cantrell

Writers like to talk a lot about not being able to write. We attach all kinds of angst to it, and we blame our busy lives, our lack of inspiration, and our obsession with social media. So what happens when we’re specifically told not to write?  If we’re lucky, something spectacular.
I learned this trick a few years ago, in an online class. The instructor asked us to come up with a plot or a main character, if we weren’t plot-driven writers. (I am not.) “Jot it down,” she said, “just the basics.” And so we turned in our one paragraph. Mine was iffy at best; you couldn’t have picked out my main character from a police lineup with what I’d written. “Thirty-something,” I said, “with an attitude,” I said. “Angry, but doesn’t know why.”
During the next session on the next day, I expected to be told to work on my story. But that’s not what the instructor said. Instead, she told us not to write. NOT to write. I couldn’t believe it. She wanted us to sit with our story, to let it come to us, and so we were instructed not to write a word for seven days.
At first, I thought she was shirking her duty. Still, I did what she said. On the first day, nothing much happened. On the next day, while at Walmart, I saw a woman with a butterfly tattoo on her ankle. My main character had a butterfly tattoo, I suddenly realized, but hers was on her left breast, just above her bra line. These revelations kept coming. I saw a yellow Honda, so old it was mostly rust. That was her car. By the fourth day, I could hear her voice, the familiar twang of a country singer, and that attitude I said she had. She was showing me that in spades.
By the time I sat down to write, I knew this girl. Her story flowed as I typed away. All that waiting caused me to consider who I was writing about, why I chose her, and what I wanted to let her say.
I can’t imagine the mess I would have made of that story if I had written it just after being given the assignment. I was not an experienced writer, and it felt as if everything I wrote sounded depressingly similar. I remember those last days, waiting to write, itching to write, more excited about writing than I’d been in a long time. The reason was I’d been told not to do it. That gate the teacher put in my path made all the difference in the way I saw my story.
I’m not suggesting that as a writer you stop all writing for a week. What I am suggesting is that if you’re having trouble getting started on a story, or if you’re stuck trying to finish one, that you put it away, that you forbid yourself to work on it for a week. Spend those seven days internally trying to write the story. Think about it at odd hours of the night when you can’t sleep, or on your drive to work. Keep your story alive, try to remember all the lines you think are perfect, and let your characters chatter all they want. But don’t write a single word until the eighth day.
It could be the break you need to restart your engine. You could come away with a story you absolutely love.
Marla Cantrell is a 2014 Arkansas Arts Council Fellowship award winner for her work in short fiction. Her work has been published in several publications, including Deep South MagazineDo South Magazine@Urban MagazineWord Haus, and in the Show Off Anthology. She is also the managing editor/writer for Do South Magazine, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Her work can be seen at her website,, and at

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