Embracing Read-Only Mode

Sally Kerrigan
Published in
6 min readOct 1, 2020


It seems like writing should be the easy thing to do as a quarantine project. I mean, all the ingredients every introverted writer dreams of are right there: no social obligations, mostly sequestered, possibly underemployed. But ideas meander, and while showing up to write every day does help (I’m told), the ideas won’t linger long enough to become realized in a creative work if you’re exhausted on a psychic level. Which, let’s be honest, most of us are.

I’ve experienced a sense of blankness this year, which I took a while to recognize as exhaustion. In theory I know how to have a writing discipline; I’m a word person. Shouldn’t I be writing, like, daily blog posts? Sometimes I’d look at a partial draft, recognize that there was good stuff in it, but my mind would be a total blank and a helpless despair began to roll back in.

If you’re too exhausted to do creative work, you need to find ways to fill yourself up. Yes, this is a self-care thing, but it’s more than that; when you’re in an environment where creative works are able to influence you in a passive way, your subconscious has material to work with. It’s time to take a look at what you’re feeding on.

There’s a file attribute called read-only mode, which indicates that a file can be read but not edited. Only when files are in read-write mode is it possible to take a more active approach and add your own content to it. I think a lot of writers, certainly myself, feel a certain responsibility to always be in read-write mode, to use our knack for communication to offer clear commentary on the world around us at the same time that we’re taking it all in.

But this year, I’ve been deep in what I’d call read-only mode. The more I think of it that way, the more I feel a real intention around it. Sometimes, especially years like this that involve a lot of external recalibration, it’s more important to listen to what’s going on than it is to have something to say.

All kinds of passive consumption counts towards this “listening” mode; podcasts count, TV counts. I started to keep track of articles I read thanks to other people’s tweets and realized this counts, too. Way too often we write off time reading Twitter as “not doing anything.” If you think doomscrolling doesn’t enter your subconscious creative reservoir, let me introduce you to the dream I had the other day where the Trumps had hired me to be a speechwriter for Don Jr. without, like, doing any kind of background check on me or my political leanings. (I didn’t get far enough in the dream to do any serious subterfuge but was definitely beginning to scheme.)

Take it all in. Fill up. And most importantly, don’t draw any conclusions while information’s still coming in. That’s active work, the part that comes after you’ve been able to synthesize the incoming data points. It might take months; it might take you until next spring. But don’t beat yourself up about not “being creative” during this time. Passive intake is an essential part of the creative process — and compared to fixating on a desired accomplishment, it’s far more likely to help you survive a stressful year. Focus instead on making sure Twitter isn’t the only thing you’re reading, and on diversifying your sources. This will ground you and help shape a stronger sense of perspective.

Honor the active mind by giving it a break

Writing and reading are very different acts. They require different modes of thinking; one is active, and the other is passive. One pulls from whatever you’ve built up internally to work with as creative fodder; the other feeds you. (Have you ever “devoured” a book?)

When something is easy to read, quick to digest in your mind, most people assume that the concept must have been a simple one from the start. If it’s easy to read, surely it was also pretty straightforward to write. After all, there’s not some pained metaphor to slog through, no artful levels of abstraction. But writing is active. You’re not following a map, you’re drawing it, and finding all sorts of dead ends along the way.

How often have you read a really funny passage and thought, wow, I bet that was really fun to write? I promise you the writer probably did not have the same experience coaxing that sentence into existence. It could’ve been a one-off — I’ve definitely had it happen where the funny lines in my finished work are just things I threw out there and didn’t delete — or it could’ve been workshopped so much that the writer began to see it almost like a piece of architecture. Often the perfect zinger is the crux of some argument that’s been laboriously echoed in subtle ways throughout the other parts of the writing, so that the punchy takeaway line gets even more weight.

In short, writing is work, it’s active, and it isn’t always fluid — almost never as fluid as reading. Compounding this is the grind that most of us face in our working lives and the ever-pressing need to be productive. Productivity, in writing terms, seems pretty clear-cut: you can literally just count the words. Part of me, a lot of me, agrees with the write-regularly-even-if-it-sucks idea; just by sheer statistical probability, the more words you accumulate, the more not-shitty words you’ll be able to pull out of the word swamp you’ve pushed and pulled out into existence.

Do I make writing sound exhausting? It is. With good focus and mental organization, it’s still doable and even a little fun. But this year has thrown off a lot of people’s baselines, including mine, and that brings me back to the core of my argument here.

If you want to write, you need to prepare your mind for it by reading. A lot. And not just the stuff that’s similar to whatever you want to be writing. God, no; if anything, put a quota on how much you immerse yourself in that, or skim just enough of it so you’ll know if you’re edging into someone’s territory and can thank them properly as an inspiration.

Personally I pick up a lot of other writers’ voices when I’m immersed in their books, for better or worse. It makes me more playful when I do get back to writing mode; sentences flow a little differently, because having someone else’s writing in your brain is a little like having a song in your head. That’s why writers should read as much as possible. For one thing, it’s way more fun. And for another, it’s simply important; it opens something in the mind, and I think that’s the result of having that cup filled up.

Be human first

We are living through Important Events in 2020, it’s true. But the pressure to produce (marketable!) art or creative work in homage to the chaos is a relic of capitalist pathology. Why do we scramble to connect everything to potential profit? It’s a myth that hardship produces authentic art. Hardship produces authenticity because it strips away the inessential, and sometimes artists are lucky enough not to starve to death in the meantime.

Paying attention is enough. The Thing you will eventually write about is likely something you still need to fully live through. The blank wall will only stay there if you keep staring at it. Make your inner world a little larger by filling up with creative beauty—reading, meeting new characters, visiting new worlds—and before long that wall won’t be more than a small rock you can sidestep with ease.

Personally, this is one of the first things I’ve managed to get in writing in a while, aside from copious personal journaling. I figured I’d share what I’ve been learning even though I feel like I’m still only midway through the lesson. Once I allowed myself to be in “read-only” mode, raising the possibility that I might not write anything for a whole year and that’s okay — I don’t know why, but something about that woke up all kinds of new ideas for me and lo, here I am, writing. I’m hopeful that it’ll help someone else who’s been struggling with creative motivation — very possibly myself, a few weeks from now.

Good luck out there.