Navigation menu

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Writing by Not Writing by Chelsey Clammer

For the past year and then some, I’ve been writing an essay while not writing. Right now, while I write this, I relax into my knitting. Because I’m writing. This is what I do up here in the mountains while I wait for the words to fully come to me. Words forever brewing in my mind as I do anything and everything but write and as I mentally jot down the ones I want to explore the next time I carve out some space to put pen to page. I’m writing in my head, basically. Always. My thoughts as a continuous essay-in-progress. Thoughts as an un-ending symphony of potential essays.

Because writing is all about rhythm. Whether you’re writing nonfiction, fiction, poetry, whatever—even just jotting down your thoughts for the day—writing is about sinking into a flow of words pouring out of you. You know that feeling, that sweet spot. When writing just happens.

Oddly related digression: The rapper Lil’ Wayne doesn’t write down any of his lyrics. He’s been rapping for over 20 years without a single word written. His process is to listen to the beat, get into the rhythm of what the music is saying to him, then he says, “Alright. Record.” And the words just flow once he starts rapping them.

That’s how I consider knitting. Or running. Or showering. Or cleaning. Or just breathing, really. Doing something other than writing, but feeling the rhythm of life around me, writing in my head the whole time, getting that beat of an essay to build up. Then go.

I used to write my way toward finding that flow. Used to take my pen and get at it for hours every day. Now I knit and consider the writing in my head until I put down the needles and pick up the pen and pour the words out of me.

This is a new process for me. A few years ago, I’d handwrite over 100 pages—front and back—each month to figure out what I had to say. In 2014 alone, I filled up 14 college-ruled spiral notebooks just getting the words out of me, used up both sides of 1,400 sheets of paper to sort through the words and discover what my stories meant to me. And I write small.

“Slow down,” one (ultimately unhelpful) mentor in my MFA program advised me. She thought that because I was churning out essays and racking up publications like crazy cakes, I wasn’t really considering what the words were saying. What she didn’t understand was that I wasn’t rushing through the words. I was voraciously getting them out of me to see what each essay wanted to explore.

Chelsey Clammer
And then I started knitting. I don’t know why I got obsessed with it, but I did. It has something to do with that rhythm and fingers working. Creating something I can hold up. Look at. Creativity in the act of making. Like writing. In the past three years that I’ve been knitting, I’ve created almost 500 projects—hats, sweaters, dresses, tank tops, bracelets, blankets, t-shirts, dish towels, pillows, wall art, bookmarks, scarves, cowls, and even shorts. SHORTS. My knitting knerd friends say I’m a prolific knitter—which is what my word nerd friends used to say about my writing.

So now with all the knitting, there’s less writing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My first drafts are stronger than they used to be when they do appear. I sit and I knit and I write in my head and so when pen hits page I know more of what I’m doing and where I want to go with it. They’re more intentional words. Now, I fill up about 3 or 4 notebooks a year, and while this means I’m not getting published on a monthly basis anymore, the words that I do get out of me have more depth. Not that I was surface-level writing earlier, but after publishing over 200 essays, you have to dig deeper and think wider to find your story.

I’ve written extensively about my father. Those moments of interactions that embedded themselves in the story of myself before he died. Moments that I turned to in a number of essays to hold them up. To look at them. To see what they had to offer me in the notion of narrative.

I’ve written about these moments—have perhaps even written all of my father’s story out of me. I didn’t think I had anything dad-related left to write. Then, when knitting one day and syncing up the rhythm of my thoughts and fingers—memories melodically pulsing through me—I remembered a shirt he used to wear around the house when I was growing up. I hadn’t thought about that shirt in I don’t even know how many years. Decades, probably. It said: “Why do men die before their wives? Because they want to.”

Considering my father died 16 years ago—when he was just 54—and my mother is now approaching 70, this shirt is beyond ironic.

A few years ago, I would have written the hell out of that shirt’s irony. Would have used up so much ink and paper, scrawling out my understanding of the shirt’s metaphors and meanings. Now, I sit. Knit. Consider. And slowly the story drips out of me. The story of my fit mother and binge-eating father. How they clashed. How she taught Jazzercise for 15 years and how we found bags of doughnuts stashed around the garage after he died. The story is still forming within me and has been for over a year. It’s steadily finding its way out—molasses-like—after much considering and knitting and more intentional writing.

Without all that knitting and not physically writing, I don’t know when that memory might have come to me. I want to say it wouldn’t have, but that’s probably just because, as a writer, I’m trying to justify the hours I spend every day knitting instead of writing. Regardless, in this different approach to writing, I found something new to say about something I thought I was done saying things about.

Point here being two-fold:

1. No matter how many times you write about something, there is always more to say about it because each time you approach the narrative it’s inherently from a different personal space and explored with different words and written in a different rhythm.

2. Sometimes the best way to write is not to write. Not that I’m discouraging you from writing, rather I think there’s so much writing that can happen when we’re not physically writing, and we need to foster that.

Need to sit. Consider. Need to knit. Get rhythmic. Because some of the best writing might happen when you’re not writing. There is no wrong way to write, no incorrect path to crafting prose and poetry. You just have to be open to the narrative. Let it come to you. Let it come out of you. Let if form inside you and then give it form on the page.

Sometimes you just have to sit with the words to understand what they have to say and how you want to say them.


Chelsey Clammer is the award-winning author of Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). A Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist, she has been published in Salon, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, Hobart, The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and Black Warrior Review, among many others. Her third collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Chelsey received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rainier Writing Workshop. You can read more of her writing at:

Chelsey is also a WOW! Women on Writing instructor. Check out her upcoming workshops, Curiosity and Creative Nonfiction and When Life Fissures: Writing About Grief in Fragments, both starting August 16th!


  1. Thank you! I 'write' in my head while I'm driving, cleaning house, and knitting or quilting. So while I don't have a prolific amount of actual words on paper (or computer), they are there - in my head - as I figure out how a scene should go or figuring out a conversation between characters.

  2. Chelsey--I also knit. However, I've seen what you knit. Incredible sweaters. Works of art made from yarn. Me? I just knit scarves. Wide ones, Skinny ones. Long ones. Fatter, shorter ones. However, it is a form of meditation (for me). It's so mindless (for me) because all I do is knit, knit, knit or purl, purl, purl (I'm not sure. I just do it) and there's no pattern I need to attend to. So, while our fingers are working, our mind is able to go elsewhere.

    I think it was Pearl Buck who said she did most of her writing while she was washing dishes. It is sooo true.

    Chelsey--I'm going to plug your skill as a WOW instructor. I took your "anonymous writers writing fiecely" class (I cannot remember the correct title of the workshop) and it was incredible. Your feedback was invaluable, and the readings you chose were so thought-provoking. I sing your praise whenever I get the opportunity.

    Thanks for this post. It reminds us of how much of our life is (or should be) writing...

  3. This is by far the most exciting essay I've read at WOW! Women on Writing this entire year! I'm sorry, to everybody else! You do well, too. But this one is, to me, the most inspiring. And the most sensible, and likely the most helpful to my own endeavors.

  4. Thank you for reading Judy, Sioux, and Carole! I'm glad this piece is inspiriting and helpful. Re-reading it, I can still feel the moment I thought of the essay in my head while I was knitting, and then had that urge to put the knitting down and start writing. I hope you all continue to get your words out of you as they flow through you in those moments!

  5. Terrific post, Chelsey. This will be so encouraging to writers at any stage of their development. I'm going to point my late-August newsletter readers to this post as I know many of them will appreciate the inspiration.

  6. Evie Preston1:37 PM

    Chelsey's comments sing to me...her insightful critique of my essay that won a small prize was a course in itself. I value her take--a writer's gospel--and tho I'm incredibly un-crafty,I'm now more tuned in to the on-going conversations with myself.
    It was James Thurber, New Yorker wit, who said, "Spare me those people, mainly women, who leap up in the middle of the night and say 'I've just got to write that down!'"
    I'll take Chelsey's advice, and permission to write-on sans writing down. Thanks...

  7. As a creative, I often knit or do some other creative thing and write in my head. This so resonated with me.

  8. Walking, knitting, folding laundry. All the while, running lines of text in my head. And those are always the pieces that come together with relative ease. Thank you for inspiring more knitting and crochet!

  9. Chelsey, I love everything about this, and agree with you and the other commenters about doing various activities that are basically pre-writing/building up to writing. But you also said something else I really needed to hear, which was, "No matter how many times you write about something, there is always more to say about it." I guess I didn't think that was true (for me). But coming from you, I believe it! ;)


We love to hear from readers! Please leave a comment. :)