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Writing What You Know, On the Days You Know Very Little by Emily Henry

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Women’s Fiction
Beach Read

By Emily Henry

I had writer’s block. The worst I could remember. Usually, there are spare fragments of ideas floating around my brain when I finish one project: a character, a backstory, a problem. But before I wrote Beach Read, there was a merciless blank.

After delivering two young-adult manuscripts in two years to my publisher, I felt like a sponge squeezed dry then left out in the sun for a couple of centuries. And still the sudden change in seasons—from the chilly, damp spring to the first gloriously sunny summer days—had me aching to write. I wanted to immerse myself in a summery love story, but all the usual fragments had depleted themselves. No characters, no backstories, no problems.

I, like any consummate professional, have a way of dealing with writer’s block. I lie on my rug, stare at my ceiling, and groan until I give myself a headache. Shockingly, this has yet to yield positive results. It’s a strange thing, wanting to write so badly without actually wanting to write something specific at all. Usually, when I write, I’m chasing my own curiosity down rabbit holes, desperate to find out what comes next once I’ve set a plot into motion. But on this occasion, I was just chasing that feeling, the desperate excitement itself.  There’s nothing else like it.

They say write what you know but what happens when you’ve run out of knowledge, crammed it all into your last two books, feel like that used-up sponge with nothing left to squeeze out?

And then one of my rug-groaning sessions actually paid off. A thought struck me. It wasn’t a lightning strike of inspiration so much as a snowball rolled from the top of a mountain. The only thing I knew about, right then, was writer’s block. And not anything helpful. Just that it existed. Just how it felt. Just the things that made it worse.

There was nothing I could imagine writing ninety-thousand words about so easily as I could picture writing about my inability to write. I had stumbled over a rabbit hole, and for the first time realized that it wasn’t a wealth of information so much as an excess of questions. Rabbit holes, after all, aren’t piles of dirt but tunnels.

So I took that urge to write a book about a sun-drenched, warm-breeze-infused love story, and within it, I created the character of January Andrews: a woman who could not write, no matter how badly she wanted to.

I had never before wrenched myself out of a creative block with the sheer force of will, so I had no idea how January would be able to do so, but what mattered so much more than the solution was the problem itself. The first time I asked why she couldn’t write, I felt the snowball go over the edge of the mountain, my foot slip into the tunnel. The questions piled up.

What if she writes loves stories? What if she no longer believes in love? What made her stop believing? What would make it even harder for her to write? What further complications can I throw in her path?

It wasn’t about what I already knew. It was a matter of what I wanted to know. I wanted to understand why sometimes I couldn’t work. I wanted to know why, when the world felt bleak and cruel, I couldn’t lose myself in a book. I wanted to know why seeing other writers’ success sometimes seemed to make my own creativity shutter in on itself. I wanted to understand the fear of failure that felt like a physical weight on my chest every morning before I forced myself to type that first word.

I had nothing to give so instead I just asked. Question after question. And for once, no wall sprang up in my path. Because it wasn’t my job to get January through her writer’s block. It was my job to create the obstacles, and I knew those well.

What if the snobbery against women’s fiction and romance has taken its toll on her? What if her next-door neighbor is someone who writes Serious Literary Fiction? What if, not only that, but he was her college rival? What if she’s in dire financial straits? What if she needs to sell a book immediately to pay her bills? What if she’s forced to work from within a setting that’s so far from ideal it’s almost funny?

Of the many (mostly unpublished and hilariously unpublishable) books I’ve written, nothing has ever been quite so easy as it was to write Beach Read, my book about writer’s block. Probably no book will be ever again, and that’s okay. Because either way I learned my lesson. It’s not writing what I know that excites me, penning out careful bits of wisdom and revelation I’ve been storing up in my pocket; it’s writing about what I need to know. It’s about following the questions deeper and deeper until I find the answers.

So on those days, when you feel like you know nothing, try asking yourself what do I wish I knew? Follow your curiosity down a rabbit hole. Maybe you’ll find a dead end, but maybe, like me, you’ll be lucky enough to uncover an entire book.

(c) Emily Henry

About Beach Read:


January is a hopeless romantic who narrates her life like she’s the lead in a blockbuster movie.
Gus is a serious literary type who thinks true love is a fairy-tale.

But January and Gus have more in common than you’d think:

They’re both broke.
They’ve got crippling writer’s block.
And they need to write bestsellers before summer ends.

The result? A bet to swap genres and see who gets published first.
The risk? In telling each other’s stories, their worlds might be changed entirely…

Set over one sizzling summer, Beach Read is a witty love story that will make you laugh a lot, cry a little and fall head over heels. For fans of The Flat Share and If I Never Met You.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Emily Henry writes stories about love and family for both teens and adults. She studied creative writing at Hope College and the New York Center for Art & Media Studies, and now spends most of her time in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the part of Kentucky just beneath it. Find her on Instagram @EmilyHenryWrites.

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