Writing without Pen in Hand

Numerous myths have grown around writers, and all are almost unshakable. One of these is that real writers write every day.

I was thinking about this last week because I finished a manuscript, wrote a blurb and a short synopsis, and sent everything off to my agent. And then I tackled a short story that had been germinating in the back of my mind for weeks. When that was done, I looked around and wondered, “So, what’s next?”

Last year at Crime Bake, Walter Mosley said, “When I finish a book one day, I begin another the following day.” He just keeps writing, day after day, and never gives a thought to taking a break. Many writers I know take their laptops or notepads with them on vacation, and make sure to get in a few hours or less on their current project. I’ve done the same. These thoughts rambled through my brain as I spent more time on FB, reading articles on crime fiction, and wondering if now was the time to wash the windows. It was.

Before I headed off to remove the grime of years in the living room panes, I made two pages of notes on a talk I plan to give later in the year. But because it wasn’t a story or a novel, I didn’t consider it real writing. Standing on a stepladder outside trying to reach the top storm window (we have windows built and installed in the 1880s), I got a different look into the house. The dog stood in the doorway looking back at me, confused and hurt that I was outside and he was still inside. I could see into the hallway, where my husband had left his shoes. I took note of more details, the new perspective, thinking, I could use this in a story. It was a sunny day, perfect for a stroll and dog walking. I enjoy watching people pass by from the porch. But outside, hidden behind shrubbery, I heard more and longer snatches of conversation, and, again I thought, I could use this in a story.

By late afternoon I finished washing the fourth window just as it started to rain. I collected my ladder and Windex and towels, and headed inside. This was a good day of rest away from writing, or was it?

Whenever I think I’m going to take time to regenerate after finishing a story or novel, I come back to the same observation: I can’t stop seeing the world in terms of writing and story, as a moving frame of scenes to be captured and considered, with certain ones pulled out to use in other narratives. While on vacation in India a few years ago, I came across an article about rising debt in the villages, which reminded me of the debts our maidservant had contracted when she worked for us years ago. In a moment, waiting for my tea in a cafe as I watched waders in the shallow waves, an entire novel came to me. I hadn’t been looking for a new story idea, but there it was, When Krishna Calls, the fourth Anita Ray mystery.

Writers write every day with or without pen or laptop because we never stop seeing the world in terms of narrative, story-telling, a drama playing out in front of us, inviting us to reinvent, shape, and share what we see and imagine with the rest of the world.

18 thoughts on “Writing without Pen in Hand

  1. I loved seeing in print what I’ve experienced for years. I don’t always have a chance to sit down and write (either on a pad of paper or on the computer), but the story (or stories) are always playing in the back of my mind: a new idea, plot twist, or way of describing a scene. Characters talk to me, explain why they act as they do, or refuse to do as I order. I love it when I mention this to new writers. I can tell by their smiles that they’re glad to discover they’re not crazy…or maybe they simply think I’m crazy.


    1. We live such private and isolated lives as writers that we need to hear others speak our thoughts, to hear that basic affirmation. I’ve found that this is the aspect of a writer’s life that is so intriguing to non writers, especially the idea that characters take over or talk back to the creator.


  2. I spend a lot of days at a local Gulf of Mexico beach and often plot and scheme with only a small notepad, sometimes writing out pages and pages of dialogue by hand in a larger notebook. Occasionally I see something that inspires a story, like a little girl building a sand castle, which turned into a story where the sand castle is haunted. By whom? Her grandma. How? That’s where her ashes were buried. Grandma and grandchild start “talking,” and then stuff happens. I usually start with “What if?” and then go through “What then?” “How?” and “Who?” And out comes a story. And like you, I find it hard to shut off filing the observations away for perhaps later use. Hundreds of index cards, mostly disorganized. Ah well.


  3. I love how you ended your post – “Writers write every day with or without pen or laptop because we never stop seeing the world in terms of narrative, story-telling, a drama playing out in front of us, inviting us to reinvent, shape, and share what we see and imagine with the rest of the world.”
    How true this is. Thanks for putting it into words.


    1. Thanks, Jackie. And thanks for reposting. When I begin something like this, I’m never sure where it’s going but I go along to discover and try to put into words what I sense.


  4. What a great peek into the mind of a writer! Well done, Susan! I agree with everyone and you, I am always picking up tidbits that can be used in a book or start an idea for a book and like Marilyn, my characters will come into my dreams as well.


  5. Hi Susan,

    I just finished cleaning up after entertaining family in celebration of my husband’s and younger son’s birthdays. Now my mind again turns to thoughts of writing. I think about writing as I clean, take walks and observe the world. Like you, it’s never far from my mind.


  6. I was just asked the other day if I spent my life thinking about the world around me and how it fits into the world of mysteries. Without hesitation, I replied, “yes!”

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  7. How true! I even dream about my work in progress. And yes, when out and about see and hear things that give me ideas for what I’m writing or a new plot. Great post.


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