"I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer's block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done." - Barbara Kingsolver
"Discipline allows magic. To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that b**ch." - Lili St. Crow
"There is no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write." - Terry Pratchett
"Writer's block? I've heard of this. This is when a writer cannot write, yes? Then that person isn't a writer anymore. I'm sorry, but the job is getting up in the f*cking morning and writing for a living." - Warren Ellis
Okay, so writer's block can be a bad thing to bring up around professional writers.
So what, then, do you write when you don't know what to write?
The short answer: something, anything. Just not nothing.
It was asked yesterday, in one of those Internet forum things, why I'd recommend that someone write every day. I answered, but Lili St. Crow's response is much more eloquent than mine was.
See, writing isn't a mystical artistic form that should only be practiced when in the proper frame of reference at the top of a mountain or in a cabin in the very back parcel of long-deserted woods. Writing is, instead, a skill, a craft that must be practiced, no matter where you are. And the term "practice," unless you're a doctor or a lawyer (why do they get away with calling their professional enterprises "practices" anyway?), implies that it's not all going to be good stuff. That's okay. Just write.
But the Big Guys--the famous writers--they're past that, right? We look up to their pedestal tops and imagine that they never have the problem of writing muscle cramp. But nope, not true, at least not in the sense most beginning writers think. If you read the original Stephen King On Writing, you'll find out that he suffers from periods when he doesn't know where the story is going, too. They all do. The difference isn't that they don't run into dry spells. The difference is that they write through those spells.
So, back to the original question: what do you write when you don't know what to write?
If the short answer didn't satisfy you, consider this. Writing, as an art form, is a mode of storytelling. Are all stories epic tales about grand fellowships who save the land by destroying evil rings or kings? Gripping accounts of love affairs between sparkly vampires and werewolves? Poorly-written yet titillating narratives describing kinky sexual liaisons between executives and college girls?
No, they're not.
In fact, most of the tales you take in every day aren't those types. I mean, sure, we all love to escape into a book that lures us elsewhere, and so we all dream of writing a book that will capture us as well as those, um, did. For the most part, anyway. But more often, the tales we find--or, sometimes, the tales that find us--are more everyday-flavored. Think about what you read most often. I just, yesterday, received my first check for my freelancing efforts. Wasn't a great amount of money, but it was enough for dinner. It also wasn't the result of writing anything that I considered grand. There was an article on military schools in Virginia, and another on Amaretto cheesecake, to specify a couple of the topics that don't really wake me up in the morning with excitement. Yet someone found those stories important enough to pay me for the time it took to write them. Hopefully someone will enjoy reading them.
See, that's the point. Life is a huge story, interweaving gazillions of plots and characters at the same time. It's made up of bajillions of little stories. Pick one, write it. It doesn't have to be big. I wrote a blog post about an orange sign I saw on the side of the road once, for example. The key isn't to find something magnificent. The key is to observe for the small. The small is frequently interesting, and if not, it can usually be made interesting by thinking about it differently.
Take cats, for example. They must be interesting, right? After all, approximately 17% of the pictures on the Internet are of cats.1 A picture, of course, should be considered a story. Photography is kind of like the opposing twin to writing, in fact--writing uses words to build a mental picture, while a picture creates mental words, and yet both manage to insert a story into our brains. So go, look at the first picture of a cat you can find. Or look down this page at the Puppy of the Day. Ask yourself, if the animal in the picture could talk, what would it tell you? Maybe it knows you're a writer and that you're concerned about writer's block. If so, what does it say?
And there you have it: a topic.
Go. Write. Right now.
Footnote 1: (as estimated by me using a random sampling methodology on a concentrated sample)