Writing Tips Season 3 Episode 7: The Empty Tank

On what to do when the writing won't come.

Writer friend,

Welcome to my free creative writing newsletter. This season we’re talking about what to do when there is nothing in the tank.

The memoir that inspired this season’s theme, is out this week. It’s publication week for ol Shuks! My memoir, Brown Baby: A Memoir Of Race Family And Home is out now!!!!! It’s a hopeful book about raising kids and grieving a parent, about how to bring my kids up to be joyful and boundless in a bleak scary world that makes me feel sad. It’s a hopeful book! I swear! Anyway, these newsletters are free and I’m happy to keep them free. At the same time, though, I’d really appreciate it if you’d consider buying the book. Here is a set of links where you can buy the book!

Right to this week’s writing tip:


I’m going to be honest. I’ve got nothing in the tank this week. Absolutely nothing. I handed in two big projects this week, and as I sat down to write this, I realised I had nothing in the tank to write this newsletter. Which brings me to the meta-writing tip: what to do when the tank is empty?

It happens, right? You work so hard on something and you run out of steam. A book gets announced that sounds eerily similar to what you’re working on, so what’s the point? You reply to too many damn emails and you do too many damn zooms and twitter has got too many damn Wandavision theories, and you realise that all this is actually consuming your energy. You have nothing. No creativity. Nothing for yourself. Also, we’re in this never-ending nightmare of covid and we’re anxious about our friends, family, ourselves, our jobs, our health, all manner of things. Even considering when this might all be over, if indeed it is all over at some point, can be utterly paralysing.

And so you have nothing in the tank.

Never fear, my friends… for I have been here before, many times over. And here are some things I do to refresh myself.

1) If you have access to Lego, get some Lego. I am not sponsored by Lego. But I find Lego utterly therapeutic, for a variety of reasons. I can build something specific, I can build until something emerges, I can piece together nonsense, I can create scenes and act them out. Kinda like writing. Honestly, there are people on ebay selling bags of Lego by the kilo. Trust me, it’s fun. The construction of things, the making of things, the discovery of things is incredibly satisfying. And it engages your creative brain in a way that’s different to forcing yourself to write.

2) Close the computer, go for a walk. Change the scenery. Get some fresh air. Find some nature. Immerse yourself in something that is away from your screen and your notebooks. Look at horizons, up at the sky, down at the ground, run your fingertips across trees. Be somewhere other than in front of your manuscript.

3) Try writing in a different way. If you write on screen, try a notebook, try dictating a voice memo, try visioning a script as prose, a piece of prose as a screenplay. Turn the work on its head. Try to look at it from another angle, in another format.

4) Re-read a favourite book. Read it as slowly as possible.

5) Try writing a scene featuring your characters that has no consequence to the plot. Set a scene the day before the memoir starts, one where the story hasn’t started yet so the people involved aren’t acting towards a plot. They’re just existing. (I mean, they should always feel like this, but you get what I mean. The point of this is to write in the world you want your characters exist but without worrying about fitting it into your manuscript.)

6) Don’t put pressure on yourself. Everyone is tired. Everyone has stuff going on and stuff in the basement and stuff to be worried about and stuff that’s really taking all our attention. If today isn’t the one, this week isn’t the one, this month isn’t the one, that’s okay. It’s better to write when you’re compelled to do so, not because you want to hit some arbitrary target.

7) The biggest myth about creative productivity is that it’s about volume. It’s not. It’s about showing up to do your best work when you’re willing and able to do so. Sometimes life gets in the way and that’s okay. Sometimes you’ve got no energy, no ideas, and that’s okay.

8) Finally, can you prepare a meal that reminds you of the times you’re trying to recreate? Something about the preparation and the smells and the taste that might evoke something for you.

Good luck, you’re not alone. We’re all going through this at the moment. It’s totally okay to admit you’ve got nothing in the tank. It’s better than sitting down to go through motions of writing and hating everything you do.

Right, that’s enough for this week.

Thank you for sticking with me this far. If you enjoyed today’s writing tip, please do pick up a copy of my memoir, ‘Brown Baby’, which is, incidentally, quite funny.

Here is a link to signed copies of Brown Baby from Waterstones

Here is a link to signed copies from my local indie book shop in Bristol

Here is a link to the book on bookshop.org