Wishing Not to Write

This article was written by Noelle Sterne.

At my usual Friday table in the mall Starbucks, writing supplies spread out and tall cardboard ambrosia cooling at my elbow, I look around. In the atrium café, people sit, sipped, stare at passersby, look back at me. A grandmother corrals her kidlets, two stylish females exchange gossip, a young couple prop bulging shopping bags against their knees and whisper over their whipped toppings. A man alone, munching on mixed nuts, reads a foreign newspaper, and a very senior woman rummages in her oversized handbag.

Sighing and Wishing

I sigh, glanced down at my notes, up again, and around the atrium. Pull out my purse notebook and quiet the rattling in my head by adding to the perennial errand list. Put the notebook away and sweep the area again. The foreign man left his newspaper on the nearby table, but I resist reaching for it. Almost get up to go drool over the vampy shoes in the shop window behind me but stop myself. I sigh again and eye my clipboard with something close to resentment. And let myself be drawn back to the customers and mall shoppers.

I just don’t want to write.

What if the Phoenicians hadn’t invented the alphabet? What if the Sumerians hadn’t whittled their cuneiform writing sticks, ancestors of our Bics and Parkers? What if Gutenberg had kept his wine press pressing grapes rather than spewing printed pages? What if my parents hadn’t subscribed to The Saturday Review and The New Yorker?

Then, ah then, I wouldn’t have to write. Just think. I could be free to “enjoy” life, the American unworking dream: visit the mall daily, eat out incessantly, read magazines and romance novels, watch every primetime TV show every night of the week. I could take long walks, snooze in the sun, chuckle at children playing in the park, even stop and talk to their mothers. I could take in the latest movies, indulge in long, giggly dinners with friends, or sign up for a course in Greek culture. I could go everywhere without a notebook.

And more. I wouldn’t have to take incessant notes that interrupted every activity, or wake at 3:00 am with brain dictating brilliant dialogue that I knew would vanish at first light if I didn’t get it down. During social occasions, I wouldn’t have to excuse myself frequently to run to the bathroom, others staring at me like my bladder had quit, to surreptitiously capture the worst cliché I’d heard in two years. Watching movies or TV, I wouldn’t have to reflexively trumpet every plot flaw and, to my husband’s perpetual annoyance, announce the final outcome before the second commercial.

I’d use my computer only to email crosscountry friends pictures of the sunsets from my balcony. Or check out new acquaintances on Facebook and see what they were twitting. On the way to boot up, I wouldn’t have to trip over the huge stack of embryonic writing projects whose births alone will take me 250 years.

Ah, I wouldn’t have to write.

Sitting at my mall table, frozen before my clipboard, I think of, and empathize with, the admission of a novelist in Jean Rosenbaum and Veryl Rosenbaum’s The Writer’s Survival Guide:

Occasionally I envy normal people. . . . They never have to disappear during a party. I lack the social graces to explain my actions as I rush away to capture a certain phrase on paper before it falls through my memory sieve.

His wife, he confided, “dreams out loud of a serene life married to an easygoing, regular guy, content to watch television without yelling at the announcer or blurting comical dialogue for the actors.”

Facing Up

But, maybe like you, I find I can’t just not write. I’m not talking about a block that locks your brain and fingers like a strait jacket. Or an illness or legitimate depression at losing someone dear, although writing about it can prove great catharsis and excellent work, as Joan Didion proved in The Year of Magical Thinking, her acclaimed book about surviving and coping with the sudden death of her husband of forty years.

I’m talking about stopping in the regular middle of life, with only the usual traumas to deal with—refrigerators too often emptying, laundry too often mounting, car too often failing, and unexpected astronomic bills too often shocking. At these times, have you ever almost dared yourself—and your life—not to write, rebelling like a tween at the insistent inner parent who shoots you that look decreeing you must write, if not daily at least regularly?

Once in a while, I’ve tried not writing. Sorry to say, it solves nothing. I’ve discovered and rediscovered, as that novelist said, I’m not one of those “normal” people who can be content with anything less than constant creativity, from attempted to actualized.

The Threat and the Promise

Facing my nature, despite fantasies of “normality,” probably comes from an admonition that has long haunted and spurred me. It’s Jesus’ words in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, reproduced by scholar Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (p. 257, Verse 70):

If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not [bring forth] that within you, what you do not have within you [will] destroy you.

The lesson here is this: When we admit and accept who we really are, allow and discipline ourselves to write, the doing itself will “save” us. But when we deny and stifle our writing drive by convincing ourselves we shouldn’t have it, don’t need it, and don’t want it, and so deprive ourselves of even a little writing time, we suffer the unavoidable repercussions.

We feel guilty because we’re rejecting our gift, and we harm ourselves by slowly killing our creative drive. The drive, bottled-up, convolutes, grows ugly, and finds other outlets—we become depressed, get sick, overeat, overspend, oversleep, overTV, overWeb, and snap at everyone within mouthshot.

Most of us can probably tolerate a day to a week “off” from writing. We may even return refreshed. But I see, ruefully, that to turn our figurative backs and literal productions on writing won’t give us happiness, peace, or minimal contentment. And just as dire, our self-denial will probably sour other, more ordinary, pleasures.

Writing Our Music

The warning in Thomas isn’t the only one that reminds me of the crucial sacredness of surrendering to our gifts. In an NPR radio interview, the magnificent American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein made an unwittingly sad and cautionary statement the summer before he died. He said, “There’s so much music I still have to write.”

Later, I read inspirational teacher Wayne Dyer’s words in Dr. Wayne Dyer’s 10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace about our “music.” Directed to all of us, the second secret, an often-quoted dictum, is this:

Don’t die with your music still in you.

Have you felt the shaking truth of this advice? It’s at the source of my petulant rejections of writing and finally, again, returning.


What’s the solution to wishing not to write? For me, it’s heeding such counsel, accepting our need to produce, and recognizing we’re not like “normal” people. Corollary to Dyer, my sane self centers again with George Bernard Shaw’s words in Man and Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap . . . .

Yes, I want to be thoroughly written out by the end. The only way is to yield to the drive and desire and rejoice in it. Sure, go out occasionally with friends for lunch, or sit in a first-run movie or take a course. But come back, always come home to our calling.

Now, at my Friday table in the mall Starbucks, I turn from the outer scene and let my eyes go where they want to—my clipboard. No need for sighs, anger, or shopper-watching. I spread out my notes, take a sip of divine latté, and pick up my pen.


Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces of fiction and  nonfiction in print and online venues. Her column in Coffeehouse for Writers is titled “Bloom Where You’re Writing.” With a  Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations.  Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) uses examples from her practice,  writing, and other aspects of life to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. 

With Trust Your Life, she has been invited to participate in the Unity Books “Summer of Self-Discovery,” a reading series on  Goodreads with two other Unity Books authors of positive messages. Goodreads members and others are invited to join the  Unity Books book discussion group on Goodreads and take part in free author webcasts. For more information, see the Unity page unitybooks.org/summer (as of May 1, 2013) and the Unity Books Goodreads discussion group: http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/100799-unity-books. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.
Noelle was recently featured at Author Magazine. You can read her article here.


  1. Anjali Amit

    “I just don’t want to write.” Isn’t that so true? Sometimes writing is like pulling teeth. You go in, shouting and screaming, but don’t want it. The truth is that every gift comes in with its own demands, its disciplines, and we cannot own one without acknowledging the other.

    Write on…

  2. Noelle Sterne

    Beautiful, Anjali, smart and and, as you say, so very true. Screaming acknowledgment of Idontwanna is often followed by an inexplicable sudden desire to just dive in.

  3. A.

    Noelle, what a thoughtful and beautiful post. I enjoyed it immensely.

    I go through bouts where I don’t even want to get near a computer keyboard. I have to channel that reluctant energy into something else. Usually, painting or some sort of artistic outlet. In that way, I think I might be considered an ‘unconventional, lazy writer.’ At least, by writers who follow strict guideline and timelines. Murakami, for instance, wakes up super early and then writes pretty much all day long.

    I don’t like following other people’s advice or methods, though, you know. Like, drink three glasses of water and then stand on your head. Everyone has a way, I think that works for them, and them only, and your post really drives that home – the fact that if you’re a writer, you will write eventually, no matter what. You have to, it is more than an urge, it is an addiction.

    I read an article on Slate awhile ago about Kafka’s writing habits and I think a lot of people can relate: “In 1908, Kafka landed a position at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, where he was fortunate to be on the coveted “single shift” system, which meant office hours from 8 or 9 in the morning until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. This was a distinct improvement over his previous job, which required long hours and frequent overtime. So how did Kafka use these newfound hours of freedom? First, lunch; then a four-hour-long nap; then 10 minutes of exercise; then a walk; then dinner with his family; and then, finally, at 10:30 or 11:30 at night, a few hours of writing—although much of this time was spent writing letters or diary entries.” (If you want to check out of the rest, here it is: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/features/2013/daily_rituals/franz_kafka_was_a_great_procrastinator.html)

    Again, fantastic and I look forward to reading more of your writing soon!


  4. Noelle Sterne


    So, so many thanks for your heartfelt and provocative response. Your own experience and inner listening are the best guides for writing, or not writing. I sometimes cook or file (or hopefully throw out) old piles of stuff . . . . Love the Kafka information–imagine if he had email capability. Heartening to see that he too “stalled.” But then, look what he produced.

    Your posts too are wonderful and thought-provoking. And your art sounds the perfect complement to your writing. As Brandon says, Write on. And . . . Paint on.

  5. Chris(ty)

    I loved this post. Been out of town on a press trip, so almost missed it in the email overload. Great stuff, Noelle, beautifully written and very sincere. I find that when I stop creating I start to feel more than a little crazy in no time at all. Even on vacation in Puerto Rico I dragged along my laptop for writing and watercolor paper, ink, and paints. I didn’t use them daily, but they were there when I needed them.

  6. Noelle Sterne


    Appreciate your lovely words. Have enjoyed your many posts here. When we’re not creating, I’m sure many of us feel at least itchy. Always a challenge to reach a balance of acceptance of the absolute need and a relaxing of doing as we’re moved to. I too always carry a clipboard, or at least a pad and a few pens.Again, Chris, thank you.

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