Why I Am Not Writing

David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

I’m reading instead.

I’ll take your questions now. (Joke.)

Actually, that opening answer is very much true, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it’s not the whole picture.

It’s also not the case that I’ve stopped writing entirely. I just turned in a story I was asked to provide for an anthology benefitting Democracy Docket, the organization run by Marc Elias fighting against the multiple voter restriction and suppression laws springing up all over the country. The anthology is the third in a series, Low Down Dirty Vote Vol. III, and my story is titled “An Incident at the Cultural Frontier,” based on my own experiences and concerns serving as a poll worker in my hometown, a liberal mixed-ethnic enclave in an otherwise overwhelmingly monocultural conservative county. Given the editor’s response to my submission—“You wrote the HELL out of that story”—I don’t believe my writing skills have atrophied in any significant way.

But I had hit a wall in the novel I’m working on. I’d managed approximately 150 pages and just felt adrift, not solely because of the work itse

The novel is the second in a series, and my attempts to find an agent for the first book have so far been unsuccessful. My editor, Zoe Quinton, is taking but another look at the manuscript to see if anything jumps out at her as being a red flag, but I’m increasingly inclined to believe it’s not the book that’s the problem. It’s me.

At a recent Craftfest luncheon (Craftfest is the teaching adjunct to Thrillerfest), an editor for a major publishing house remarked, “We don’t invest in books. We invest in writers.” He meant that publishers typically do not consider a book as a one-shot deal, but expect its author to deliver at least five books with increasing sales numbers book to book. If sales don’t rise, the writer is let go, and the process repeats with another pigeon—ahem, writer—for there is never a dearth of aspiring authors desperate to be published.

At the beginning of my career, I was one such writer. I had some notable success early and was even considered a rising star by my publisher, with the caveat, “David’s not for everyone.” (If they’d slathered that across the cover of my books, they would have sole better. But I digress.)

Be that as it may, after my sales failed to increase through the fourth book, I was let go. I’ve been wandering the publishing wilderness ever since, and the poor showing of my last novel, despite a prize nomination, most likely nailed the proverbial coffin shut.

I felt bad about this for some time but have finally come around to regard it instead as liberating. I continue to write if only to ensure that, as a teacher, I do not lose touch with the process, because I believe I owe that to my students. I need to be able to identify with their struggles and the best way to do that is to share them.

But it may be that I am one of those “pre-published” authors who goes the route of self-publishing, not to become rich or famous but to provide readers who have enjoyed my work a chance to read more of it. The numbers may not be impressive to a publishing house, but they’re still my readers, and I’m grateful for their support.

All of which returns me to my stalling out on my current project. Some of that, yes, resulted from my disappointment at the first book’s reception and my uncertainty of the merit in continuing with a follow-up. But there was something else at work, as well.

I was writing about the future, and I realized I had a woefully poor grasp of the present, let alone where it might lead. I’m a voracious consumer of news, but that comes at you so scattershot it’s difficult if not impossible to form a coherent view of what forces are shaping the larger patterns of events and where they are predictably heading.

And it wasn’t just a vague sense of uncertainty I was feeling. It was a gnawing sense of doubt. I kept hearing the voice of my favorite math professor, Dr. Arnold Ross, who constantly told us, “The difference between the great and the not so great is that the great think deeply about simple things.” I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply about anything, simple or not. I was inhaling the stream of data from the fire hose of information being aimed directly at my head.

So I went beyond flipping through articles on the foreseeable future of society, politics, and technology and started reading books—big fat ones, full of ideas that I’d brushed up against but not fully integrated into a coherent view of myself, my world, and what lies ahead. An incomplete bibliography, some already devoured, the others comprising the proverbial TBR pile:

Culture, Identity, Philosophy and Technology:

  • Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor
  • Consequences of Pragmatism; and Objectivity, Relativity and Truth, Richard Rorty
  • Sapiens; Home Deus; and 21Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Hariri
  • The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence; and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzwell
  • Scary Smart: The Future of Artificial Intelligence, Mo Gawdat
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond
  • Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker
  • Notes From An Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, Mark O’Connell
  • The Black Swan: The Impact of Highly Improbably Events, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion, Dr. Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne

History and Politics:

  • There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, Fiona Hill
  • The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey From Torture to Truth, Dianne Ortiz
  • Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Mahmood Mamdani
  • The End of the End of History: Politics in the Twenty-First Century,  Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, Philip Cunliffe
  • The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
  • Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Thomas Sowell
  • Listen, Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, Thomas Frank
  • Mindf*k: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, Christopher Wylie, Graham Halstead et al
  • Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns, Sidney Lens
  • Paddywacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster, T.J. English


  • Perdido Street Station; and The City & The City, China Miéville
  • Lighthouse Island, Paulette Jiles
  • Touch, Claire North
  • Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan
  • 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

In a sense, I “went back to school.” I’m still in the library, not without recognizing what I myself have cautioned before: “Research can all too often become just a creative form of writer’s block.” But given how I presently conceive the work in progress, I can’t imagine merely plowing ahead blindly. I will always be hearing that nagging voice telling me: “Too soon.”

That’s a danger, of course. It could be mere self-doubt masquerading as a judicious need to be thorough. I risk disappearing down the rabbit hole, constantly putting off the actual writing due to the suspicion I still don’t know enough to create my story intelligently—more to the point, truthfully. And yet something tells me I’m on the right track. Time will tell.

  • Have you found yourself unable to write of late. Why?
  • Have you ever disappeared down a research rabbit hole? How did you get out? When did you now it was time to start writing?
  • Have you found yourself strangely silent in the face of current events—or your own imagination?

About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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