How to write when you’re not writing

In 2009, I left my job as a high school English teacher and ran right smack dab into the Great Recession.

It hurt. Nobody was hiring. I couldn’t get an interview, much less a job. After a few months of false starts and throwing myself at the wall, I harnessed what was left of my entrepreneurial spirit and started a wedding videography business. Wedding videography was something I had done part-time while living in New York, and I loved it. I bought a couple cameras, put out a shingle at a couple of wedding shows, and hoped for the best, hoping that running my own business would give me more time to write than being a full-time teacher had.

I wouldn’t write again for eight years.

Wedding videography had come a long way from the old days where a guy would show up wearing two VCRs, an unkempt beard and a canvas jacket. By 2009, fabulous cameras could be had for a relative song, and by 2009, those of us who grew up making visual media were bringing multiple cameras to a shoot, using soundtracks, non-linear editing and all of the Hollywood tricks that were remotely affordable. The difference between my experience as a pre-HD videographer in New York and a post-HD videographer in Florida was night and day.

In New York, you taped the wedding and gave the client the tape. In Florida, I was far too busy to write. There was a lot more to do. I was having fun, but my studio was all-consuming. Once the business started to be a success and gigs started rolling in, I hardly even had time to make coffee in the morning, let alone dawdle about in Word. Writing went out of the window, replaced instead by hours planning out shoots, shooting video, editing video, and making physical products like DVDs and their covers. By my third year in business, I was working eighty hours a week or more.

When I started writing again years later, after closing my business and moving to Baltimore, I thought I’d pick up where I left off. I thought I’d be the same kind of writer.

But I was better.

Seriously! I was better! Massively better, and the only thing I’d been writing were client e-mails! It was mind-boggling. My writing itself was objectively better — trust me, I’m type A, I dragged out the old stuff to compare.

My pacing was better. I’d never been good at that before, but now, I could tell when a scene had gone on too long, or when I needed to add a little more action. I was suddenly obsessed with little details. Everything was a little more visual, which was great, because a lot of my writing occured in “white rooms” before. My dialogue had become more realistic. Since I had to make split-second decisions about what elements to cover—my camera could only be pointed one way, and I only got one chance to decide what to film—I had gotten a lot better at figuring out what was important in a story. I had to properly identify the crucial element in my client’s story the first time, every single time. It was amazing writing practice.

I don’t think I could have gotten a better education in developing pure story anywhere else.

While I wasn’t banging out words on the keyboard, I was thinking about story on a deeper level nearly every day. I was listening to my customers tell their own story and translating that into a visual medium. I was teasing out subplots and giving them space to breathe — the mother of the bride’s quiet conversation with her daughter, the nervousness of the groom as he shifted from foot to foot right before the bride appeared. I was choosing music that supported those details and making sure the pacing worked in the edit. I wasn’t writing, but I still becoming a writer.

So if you’re stuck in a position where you’re not writing for whatever reason, don’t worry. Perhaps you’re a parent of small children, or just got a promotion at work that requires you to put in many more hours, or you’ve started your own crazy business — and maybe you’re afraid you’re leaving behind writing for good. Just know this: you won’t. All you need to do is look around and find those places where you can flex your storytelling muscle: telling stories to your kids, talking with clients, booking new gigs, even listening to strangers’ conversations at lunch. Tell yourself stories.

You may not be writing, but you’ll be doing the right work. When you get back to the page, you’ll bring your experience and voice with you.

And that’s priceless.

Author: Karen Osborne

KAREN OSBORNE is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny and Fireside. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.