When You Can’t Think of Something to Write

One of the most challenging things we do as writers is attempt to have a new thought.

When you can’t think of anything to write, what do you do? I’ve always found the easiest way to get people writing is to discuss something, anything, they disagree with.

river-clip-art-11In an educational setting, giving someone something to write about is called a writing prompt. From my experience as a teacher, though, it’s clear that some writing prompts are better than others.

The way you measure ‘better,’ when you teach writing, is to see how much writing emerges; an effective writing prompt stimulates a lot of thinking and responding.

Let’s say you’re one of those writers who prefers to sit down at your computer, typewriter (do people still use typewriters?) or pad of paper, with an entirely cold brain. If you’re the type of writer who gets up in the morning, looking at the blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike, my challenge to you, especially if you find your thoughts are as blank as the screen, is to think about something you particularly disagree with.

Your disagreement might be anything from very small to very large. You disagree with your child’s choice of music. You disagree with the government (that’s very easy to do, it seems to me). You disagree with the way world hunger problems or blue whales are dealt with.

At every step of the way, we think barely-articulated thoughts that we never write down. Instead, we attempt to live around them. The thoughts end up being big black rocks in the flow of information streaming, like a river, through our days.

water-flowing-over-rocks

Each rock represents a thought that is potentially interfering with your flow.

However, these big ‘rocks’ are there, sticking up out of your flow of thoughts, waiting to be noticed. These rocks represent something that bothers you.

Sometimes, what bothers you needs to be articulated, but perhaps you haven’t given yourself permission to talk about this big, black idea.

My suggestion is that, at least once, try to articulate something you disagree with. The primary reason you should try this is because the words really flow; upset, disagreement, anger, irritation—these are negative spaces that often prevent us from writing at all, and the energy we’re using to suppress them is what’s preventing us from writing.

An important reason to release negativity is to locate our personal values; we find out what’s important to us—who we really are—when we let ourselves disagree with something or someone.

Another reason to release thoughts of negativity is that we are blocking our real writing—the writing that’s waiting to come out, that lies just underneath the surface—and this is a useful way to gain access to what we need to say.

Once these states of irksome angst are recognized, we find that we’ve released a lot of other emotions we were holding back. Once we allow ourselves to express negativity, lethargy and depression also float away on the stream of words. Often, what remains is our true subject, the thing we’ve been waiting to write about, and that’s a precious thing to finally find.

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Step One To Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

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Here is step one in the six-step, developmental process I’ve created to help you think of yourself as writer. Subsequent steps can be found at The Collaborative Writer’s Online Course website (you’ll need a password for access to the self-directed online courses, so let me know if you’re interested in going forward). 

In the first step, we focus on the idea of ‘inspiration’ and begin with a poem intended to get you thinking about what what we mean by ‘inspiration’—where does it come from? How can we best use our ‘ah-ha!’ moments? How can we harness the energy of inspiration? These are all fundamental questions every writer navigates over time, and it’s where we’ll begin our journey. 

 
Inspiration
As to the flash of inspiration
and traffic laws on writing’s path—
what comes can’t be stopped, 
what leaves will not be restrained.
It hides like fire in a coal
then flares into a shout.
When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back; 
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush
that colors brim out of your ears 
and music echoes in your eyes.
—from The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters
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Inspiration: What it is, what it isn’t

WHAT IT IS

Out of nowhere, a thought, feeling, or response to something you’ve read or heard enters your consciousness. What was unformed energy is suddenly a perception. You have something to say! Quick, write it down, because if you don’t, this idea is so unformed, it will be lost in an instant, and another brilliant thought will be lost to posterity.

WHAT IT ISN’T

This is not a subject, theme, or three-volume novel—yet. You have not yet discovered your subject, what it’s about or the why of it. All you have right now is an idea. This is not the time to call an agent to arrange a contract with a publisher. You are not in pre-writing yet. Nothing concrete might come of this idea. It is a start, a place to begin.

THINKING ABOUT IT

Invention is a stage in the writing process we don’t understand very well and therefore tend to mythologize, largely because it seems so entirely out of our conscious control, yet it’s where creation seems to begin. It often seems like the most magical moment in the writing process. Because of this, I believe we often invest too much in the notion that we must always sound utterly original and unique; otherwise, why bother?

Many developing writers don’t think of writing as a way of discovering what it is they want to say. Instead, they sometimes believe that they need to know precisely what it is they want to say before they begin to write, that writing should reflect a thinking process that is more or less complete. After all, we read only the finished works of Hemingway or Shakespeare. Society praises these works as brilliant, ignoring the writer’s process, with all its complications and confusions.

Something to keep in mind is that we often discover what we think, feel, or believe during the writing process itself. The physical act of writing (whether it’s by hand on paper or by hand as we type) forces us to make connections in our mind that we wouldn’t have otherwise perceived. Likewise, brainstorming, allowing yourself to write freely, without expectation of grammatical or editorial correctness, is an excellent way to allow your deepest, most authentic thoughts to surface.

Focus, at this stage, on exploring ideas, rather than imposing structure on your work.

WRITING EXERCISE #1

There are traditional methods of invention; the Ancient Greeks were using them over two thousand years ago. Coming up with ideas might seem the hardest stage of all in the writing process, but the easiest way to think of something to write is to have an emotional response to something you’ve experienced.

Strong emotion is a useful gauge of what’s important to us. There’s no faster way to know what you value; what’s important to you is an excellent place to begin your writing. You come to know yourself better when you allow yourself to explore your emotional responses.

Find a piece of writing (a newspaper article, a blog entry, an editorial of some kind) that spurs your response. Without editing yourself (especially without predetermining which emotional responses are appropriate) write as much as you can in response to the article. If it helps, imagine you’re speaking directly to the person who wrote the article. Disagree with him or her; tell the writer exactly what you think. 

If you’re angry, let yourself be angry; if you’re excited, let yourself be excited. Write by hand in your writer’s notebook, or write online and save your document. When you feel ready, share your response with me, and we can discuss what you’ve learned about yourself. The next step will be determining whether or not you’d like to develop an idea you discovered during this writing exercise.

Write to me when you’re done; let me know how your process goes. Or, if you’d rather work on your own, go to The Collaborative Writer Online Courses for more information.

What To Do About Serious Writer’s Block?

When writer’s block becomes writer’s BLANK

Writer’s block can seem very serious when you’re experiencing it, but it’s nothing compared to writing apprehension, which is a fear of writing so profound it often leads to resistance to the act of writing itself.

With that fear comes a great deal of crippling self-doubt.

How can you tell when your block is serious, and could possibly be a sign that you’re actually afraid to write? What can you do about the truly serious block? These are questions that virtually all writers contend with at some point.

A block becomes truly serious when the writer senses, but doesn’t understand, that he’s actually experiencing apprehension—he’s afraid to write. He is actively resisting writing—but why?

There are a few basic reasons why people actively resist writing, but they primarily come down to safety—losing it or having it. Counterintuitively, being successful at writing might not lead one to a feeling or sense of safety; instead, ‘successful’ writers often feel very vulnerable.

The common thinking about writer’s block (which, from my perspective, is a relatively simple problem that can be solved) is that you’re putting off writing; you’re procrastinating. For many people stuck at this point of the writing experience, writer’s block feels like writer’s blank.

Water images and metaphors make sense for writers

Ideas don’t come, and your response is a feeling of frustration. It’s as though you were once a full cup that has now run dry. Water, container, and fullness/emptiness metaphors make a lot of sense for writers. Many of the descriptions you might use at this point are of a “well gone dry,” being “tapped out,” or having a feeling of emptiness, as though you were once full of thoughts, ideas, creativity.

Nonetheless, this experience of writer’s blank is not particularly painful. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating; you might have negative thoughts about writing, and yourself—your ability to write—but you’re not actively preventing yourself from writing. You’re not afraid to write, you’re just not writing, yet. You will.

Deeper problems begin when writer’s blank is transformed into something much more serious. It begins with self-doubt and loss of confidence, but the real problem with self-doubt is that its roots go much deeper than a “mere” lack of ideas. This affective difference is what makes writing apprehension so much more complicated and profound than ‘mere’ writer’s block.

To be a writer searching for ideas is a normal state of affairs. To be a writer who can’t or won’t let herself write, however, is indicative of something much more profound.

Procrastination is usually linked to laziness, and if you’re experiencing a “lazy” writer’s block, it might be because you aren’t terribly motivated, but it can also be because you’re overwhelmed by earlier efforts that have exhausted you.

The one way in particular in which this type of block becomes a real problem is when we inject blame and judgementalism into our response to the writing situation. Societies with a strong work ethic often veer into overwork, believing that if you’re not working, you must be wasting your life. Those of us raised with this message tend to be very hard on ourselves. If we’re not working, we feel very guilty.

Since I work with seriously blocked clients who want to write, but can’t let themselves, I learned to differentiate between a block, which feels bad, often for long periods of time, but is surmountable; and writing resistance or apprehension, which has deeper root causes and requires more assistance to overcome.

True resistance or apprehension has certain characteristics that indicate the writer is emotionally troubled about more issues than just his or her ability or inability to write.

For a writer to experience a writer’s block, she has to be writing, and something has to stop that flow. Loss of confidence due to rejection, or fear of external judgement are two common reasons for many blocks.

The thing about experiencing a block, though, is that it is usually temporary, even if ‘temporary’ lasts some years. A block can be overcome with time. Your core self is not affected. You might feel insecure during the period you experience the block, but you do not doubt yourself and immerse yourself in self-criticism. You don’t have anything to say, or you can’t finish a piece you started; or you’ve gotten a rejection letter and can’t see the point of writing again, until that ‘magic’ day when you pick up your thought, or your pen, or you begin jotting down notes for a new article.

In other words, the block was temporary because your core self was not wounded; your ego might have been damaged or shocked, but you recovered, and now you’re writing again.

In contrast, a relatively short-term block can turn into writing apprehension and then resistance if writing becomes associated with negative emotions. Apprehension might prevent you from becoming a writer in the first place, however. This is why apprehension and resistance are much more serious than a block, even one that lasts for years, because apprehension stems from something crucial to your core being: your self-expression.

Loss of control: Those who are afraid to write fear the various stages of loss of control. The first stage of loss of control comes when you are forced, against your will, to produce a piece of writing you’re not interested in or do not feel ready to write.

This happens most often for the writer when she’s in school, and when a writer is under a deadline. Facing someone else’s expectations under these circumstances brings up a host of emotional responses, not limited to the obvious (anything from fear of judgement, to fear of losing control over one’s writing).

Another stage of fear of losing control occurs when one’s writing is taken out of your hands. This happens to students, but it also happens to any writer who puts his writing in the hands of someone else: a reader, an editor, the public.

The final stage of loss of control comes for many writers who hand their writing over to others, and have no say over what is done with the writing. This on its own can be enough of a deterrent to many writers that it prevents them from wanting to be put in a situation where we’ll have to make this compromise with our vision or our creativity.

Fear of outcome: It requires a fair amount of courage to write, largely because unless you write exclusively for yourself, every time you send off a piece of writing, particularly writing you have not distanced yourself from emotionally, you have no idea what will happen, or how the writing will be received.

Fear of outcome means that you now have to wait in the ambivalent silence of doubt. This silence can lead to an intense amount of self-doubt, in which every decision you’ve ever made is up for analysis. It takes a strong soul to withstand silence. In fact, being emotionally beaten up by harsh criticism is easier for most people to withstand than having to listen to the sounds of silence.

Fear of finishing: Writers frequently speak of ‘grieving’ the loss of their writing process when they come to the end of a project. Now what? The fear of the blank page becomes a fear of the blank life. Many professional writers have more than one project going at once to avoid ever having to deal with the nothingness of the blank life they dread facing.

Fear of failure: Not everyone bounces back from rejection letters and critique sessions. Some people are devastated by responses that lead them to question their writing—and themselves.

Writing becomes, for most people, a measure not of their intellectual ability (an arguably cognitive skill we can distance ourselves from emotionally) but instead a measure of ourselves—the deepest parts of ourselves we can’t articulate very well, not without some help of the compassionate kind (this doesn’t have to be from a therapist, although sometimes, that’s what the resistant writer really needs).

When we’re afraid of expressing these deeper parts of ourselves for fear of ridicule and humiliation, apprehension can overwhelm any desire we have to express our feelings. Feelings are difficult enough; expressing them to the outside world requires tremendous courage. Why would you want to do that when you’re scared and feel vulnerable?

The answer is, you won’t. You’ll do everything you can to avoid sitting down to your writing. In the process, you negate yourself and your deep need to express yourself.

Fear of success: Let’s say you very much want to get the writing done. You want to be published. You know your writing will be out in front of the judging, commenting world. Suddenly, this becomes the world you can’t control, with responses that feel overwhelming.

Fear of success means you won’t want to deal with the world if and when you do get published. Success, at least as it is defined by the rest of the world, is very scary for many people, much scarier than failure. The ‘logic’ of fearing success is that we tell ourselves, at least I won’t have to deal with the demands of success. I’m safe. I can stay as I am.

The key to serious writer’s block, then, lies in the feeling of a lack of safety. Because our society imbues so much emotional and psychological weight to writing, and further imbues the writer with so much social capital, we are right to be cautious before we set out on this path. Conquering these fears is a process, one that might have to be dealt with at every step along the way.

If you are coping with any of these fears, and still want to write, I hope you will feel comfortable enough to contact me. We can discuss options. The last thing I want is for you to feel alone with these fears. I started this website because too many writers deal with these fears on their own. 

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Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Ever

One of the rules we learn early on as writers is to use our ‘authentic’ voice when we write, but learning how to access that authentic voice is usually an elusive skill, not easily taught. It seems authenticity is like art: we know it when we see it.

If you don't feel quite this enthusiastic, don't worry.

If you no longer feel quite this enthusiastic, don’t worry.

When writing relies on tricks, gimmicks, gratuitous experimentation, or cleverness for its own sake, we feel manipulated, especially when it comes to replicating the voice of a child, I’ve noticed.

As a reader, I am particularly critical of reading books written from a child’s perspective, since children don’t have the vocabulary writers like to imbue them with. Also, children live very complicated lives, and can’t always make sense of what happens to them. I rarely feel as though I am reading a story authentically written from a child’s perspective. Children don’t seem to write a lot of stories for adult audiences, and the reason for that is key to what I’m trying to convey about finding one’s authentic voice.

Most advice about accessing your authentic voice tells you to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder. What happens, though, when guileless innocence is gone, and you are left feeling rather used up by life? Should you simply stop writing? Does this mean that you will never find your authentic voice? Maybe it means you are not meant to be a writer, because you can’t remember what it feels like to be a child, and, at least for the moment, the sense of wonder we associate with childhood floats away, a dimly-remembered colorful kite growing smaller and smaller on the breeze of all your yesterdays.

If, like me, locating your authentic self through a ‘childlike’ sense of wonder does not come easily, consider this: each day of your life, there has been at least one moment when you discovered something for the first time. It doesn’t matter how small—in retrospect—the moment might seem to you now. What matters is that you write about it from your own current, in-the-moment perspective. The ‘voice’ you write in has never seemed as important to me as the simple fact of the writing itself.

Most people stop themselves from writing, and then regret it later, because they trip over things like ‘voice’ and ‘authenticity,’ instead of saying to themselves some version of “I just need to write this down for myself.” That need is more authentic, in the moment, than worrying about what someone else thinks, and at least you’d be writing!

We are held to an impossible standard when we’re told we must somehow recreate our childhood sense of wonder, in my opinion. I remember feeling more confuddled by childhood than in a perpetual state of joyful wonder, and maybe you did too. 

The underlying emotional reality of authenticity is the feeling you get when you discover something new.  In essence, an authentic awareness of your own personal reality requires two things: being conscious, awake and aware of how you feel, and acknowledging your feelings instead of ignoring them or pushing them down, or denying you feel what you feel. If you want to deaden your authentic self, denying you feel what you feel is the fastest way to do it.

Authenticity is not about forcing yourself to do something you can’t. And if you can’t notice the world around you in a constant state of wondrous glee, I don’t blame you. Days of being in a bad mood are just as real as days of letting your thoughts wander into your inner rose garden; they may not feel as pleasant, but they’re just as real. Okay, maybe the sun isn’t shining on your inner landscape; maybe you don’t feel terribly imaginative. But consider that stories are written every single day about the most mundane things: washing dishes, cleaning up after children, changing flat tires.

Accessing authenticity when you’re no spring chicken becomes the question of one’s middle years

A great deal of writing is motivated by authentic curiosity. That means that most writing begins with curiosity about some subject or other; your curiosity leads you to do some form of research (either formal, through books and libraries, or informally, by observing your own or others’ behavior). We’ve all been told that this curiosity is fundamentally child-like, and of course children are curious, but so are adults.

You are, authentically, an adult. I have grown very tired of hearing, over and over, ad infinitum, how every single emotional state reverts back to our childhood. I disagree. Most of the emotions I experience now, I did not have the maturity or depth to experience when I was a child, if I could ever even remember them. If I were to write from my authentic childhood memories, I’d have to try to recreate that lack of sophisticated vocabulary, and that would mean my writing was highly inauthentic.

I say, start now, today, from where you are. If you want to begin with a state of wonder, let it be okay that your wonder might lack the same kind of wide-eyed innocence so valued by all the how-to books I read. I lack wide-eyed innocence; that fact does not make me inauthentic, nor should your maturity or age in years make you feel as though you cannot write ‘authentically.’ Seems to me that it’s more authentic to write about what you’re looking at through your kitchen window than it is replicating the experiences of yesteryear.

As an adult, if you want to jog the part of you that is far too jaded and experienced, all you have to do is take yourself out of your comfort zone. Go without electricity for 24 hours (a not uncommon experience here in the ‘great’ Northwest in the winter, it turns out). Stop eating meat. Don’t use your car unless you absolutely have to. Read a book you would never have read under any circumstances. Wear a color you usually avoid. Drink something electric blue. The key is to write about your response to anything you do, taking note of your feelings and what comes up for you as you try each new thing.

The primary difference between being an adult and seeing the world and being a child and seeing the world lies in how many things you have already done. As an adult, you have gotten used to doing many things a certain way, but it is disingenuous for us to pretend that as children, every single thing was new to us and we experienced each new thing that happened consciously and with total awareness. Childhood was not idyllic or even all that interesting for a lot of people, and is not necessarily representative of an emotional state we all want to hark back to. Maybe you felt idiotic and dumb as a kid; that’s okay. Just as many things are, or can be, new to you now. 

Therefore, never think you can’t write with new eyes, or authentically from a place of surprise and wonder—even if your sense of wonder is tempered by age and experience and is no longer dripping with the dew of your own personal spring morning.

All you have to do is step off the place where you currently stand, and do something even just a little bit different. You will have a new experience, and for most readers these days, reading about how you handled that new, yet very real, experience, is fascinating. This fact will always be true: humans want to know the real, true, authentic stories about other humans, fictionalized or not, and will always find those stories interesting. You might not believe that, but the next time you’re stuck in a long line at the grocery store and you catch your eye wandering to the bright cover of People magazine, you will be another moth drawn to the flame of the human drama.

Tell it like it is (for you), as they used to say. That’s as authentic as it gets—or needs to be, for that matter. 

Setting your writing compass

Begin with where you are now, in the present

When you set out on a journey of any length, it’s reassuring to have a general notion of where you’re going.

The same can be said of writing, but since there are few absolute parameters set for most writing situations, knowing your ultimate destination, as though you were a train heading for a particular station, can be daunting.

There is much about writing that feels intimidating, and the idea of having complete control over one’s writing experience is illusory if you’re not sure why you’re writing, what your goals are, or what your intention is.

Your response, if you’re overwhelmed, is not to write at all, so as to avoid something that feels confusing and difficult. Think about the issues that then become barriers to writing:

  • Not knowing what to say; precision eludes you; you’re confused
  • Feeling unfocused and irritable, barely perceptible thoughts poke at you, demanding shape and form that you can’t give them
  • Now knowing why you should write, or what your motivation is
  • Negative self-talk: the chattering inner voice of self-criticism, self-doubt, fears, anxiety, ego, anger, obsession
  • Attachment to outcome
  • Wasting time, or using the time you do have available for writing to complain that if only you had more time, you’d get more writing done

There are useful steps to take when you want to write, but you’re feeling overwhelmed and directionless. The antidote to not knowing one’s intention, purpose, goal or direction can be found in the concept of mindfulness. If getting started presents this much of a challenge, learning how to practice mindfulness, where you are consciously aware of each action, each thought, in any given moment, helps focus your mind on the direction you want your writing to take.

Ask yourself what truly matters to you

To be mindful, as a writer, means being consciously aware of your environment, your feelings, your visceral self.

Your visceral self exists alongside your intellectual self, the self with all the racing thoughts that lead you nowhere. If thoughts are the rats in the maze, your viscera are observing the rats, the maze, the thoughts themselves. Your visceral self is highly aware, at any given moment, of your perceptions of reality.

Awareness of one’s sensory perception is taught to creative writers. Creative writing teachers say: Pay attention to your surroundings; notice what that woman over there is wearing; describe her clothes. Notice what color the sky is, and try to describe it accurately. Don’t say ‘it’s blue.’ It’s not blue, not if you look carefully. When you really look, you’ll see it’s dove grey with light blue-tinged clouds shading into silver.

I remember this lesson very well from my creative writing classes, because without these teachers, I possibly would never have learned the word ‘obsidian,’ a wonderful word that perfectly describes some shades of grey sky, as well as being a variety of rock. Some dark clouds have obsidian underbellies in the moments prior to pouring stinging cold rain on your head.

Once you start to really notice the world around you, to pick up and touch stones, and feel their soft smoothness; or notice if your body is tired, if you’re thirsty, how your skin stings when the sun gets too hot; to notice when you suddenly hold your breath, or are aware of how that glass of water tastes… how cool, sharp and hard the glass feels in your mouth, against your tongue… all of these fractions of moments are part of what it is to be mindful.

When you approach your writing from this perspective, your thoughts are already focused, conscious and aware. Sit in this open state, quietly, with no distractions, for a few minutes, noticing with acuity everything around you—the quality of the light in the room, the precise color of your chair, the way the fabric feels under your hand—and then add deep, repetitive breathing (two or three deep breaths) until some kind of answer to this question comes to you:

Why do I want to write [fill in the blank: this book; this poem; at all]?

There was a time when I had no idea why I wanted to write, because I had no idea what it was I wanted, or needed, to say. In 1991, I started teaching adults creative writing classes at night. Did I know, in 1991, what my goal was, my ultimate purpose for writing? I did not. It took me years to discover what I want and need to say, and how I want my contribution to be that I help change the paradigm we have inherited about writing. This goal is what fuels almost all my writing now, but I didn’t know it consciously when I got started. I had to listen for this knowledge along the way. I had to wade through ego, too.

Listen to yourself; you know what you need to write about

At one point, about ten years ago, when I asked myself (again) “Why am I writing?” the answer was “to get published.” At the time, I believed I needed to get published. I needed it for my ego, for one thing, and I needed it if I was going to be taken seriously as an academic. However, I also have the conflicting lack of desire to be on display, to be ‘famous,’ or even to be known. So there was an egolessness warring inside of me, alongside my egoic need for achievement.

The middle ground I found to put those conflicting needs to rest began to emerge over time. I had to sit with my desire to write many times, asking, over and over again, “Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? What is it that I need that I can’t get any other way?” before it became clear to me that no matter what happens, whether I get published or not, I really do need to get this message out: that we need to see writing differently, we need to have a different way of looking at our need to create, to express ourselves.

So that eventually, when I asked myself “Why am I writing? What is motivating me, what is my purpose?” the answer came back: I want people to be free from their limiting self-talk. I want everyone who wants and needs to write to feel free to do so. I want people to stop believing that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write.

So, that’s why I write. Because if I don’t, I won’t get this message out, and it has to be heard until it is believed, until the paradigm changes, until our beliefs change.

Now we need to find out what motivates you. Why do you write? Why do you want to write, if you’re not currently writing? Once an answer comes to the surface, or the forefront of your mind, then we can state an intention: I want to [fill in the blank]. Only then can you set a direction on your writer’s compass. Without intention, you are directionless, and you will write aimlessly, with no discipline, if you write at all.