Writer's block, an owner's guide: Start with an email
Chanpory Rith over at lifeclever.com suggests If writing stirs a panic attack in you, try this: start with an email. Instead of launching an imposing behemoth like Microsoft Word, call up your humble email program and begin your next writing piece as a simple email.
Read the article: Chanpory has a lot to say on the subject. And I like the idea. I routinely email myself notes of things I want to write, and notes on things I am writing. Including my draft of what you’re reading right now. The problem I find with that is that when you email yourself, Gmail assumes you’ve read it and doesn’t bother putting it in the inbox. So you have to put it there by hand. An annoyingly slow process that you can easily overlook, and which I haven’t found a way to automate with filters or anything else. I suppose I could just not hit Send, and let it lie in the drafts box forever (better ideas please?). (Afternote 2/2/08: that’s what I’ve been doing since I wrote this, and it works well, if you don’t leave too many things lying in there. Which we unblocked people don’t, right?)
Published on December 29, 2007 at 8:34 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/start-with-an-email.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: The Lunch of Self-Loathing
“Back in New Hampshire, when I had a bad case of writer’s block, I’d go to the icky convenience store across the street and buy what I called the Lunch of Self-Loathing: a small can of…” the rest of this is not as bad as you might fear, but do take a moment to consider kopisusu2’s final question to the reader. I think it says a lot about writer’s block. Maybe it doesn’t. What do you think?
Published on May 30, 2007 at 8:38 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/172.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Duh
Talking to my productivity coach this morning. Yes, like I said before, I don’t just sell coaching, I also believe in it. And I happened to say that I enjoy the rewriting part of a project more than I enjoy the initial drafting. So my coach goes, why don’t you remind yourself of that when you need to write a draft? Might make that phase easier?
And I had no answer. So now I’ll be testing that idea.
After reaching my tumty-tumth birthday the other day, I’m still learning the flaming obvious. I suppose that’s good. Better than not learning.
Published on April 19, 2007 at 10:38 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/duh.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Inaction in action
Ernest Rutherford (who discovered the atomic nucleus) “believed with some passion that experimental work was worthless if it was not accompanied by reflection and analysis, and from his own experience he felt this could best be done at home. When research students begged him to let them work late he would always tell them firmly to go home and do some thinking.”
I’m reading Brian Cathcart’s The Fly in the Cathedral, you see, an interesting story of creativity in action. And I’m not writing my own next paper about creativity. I have it all safe inside here and I trust it to come out, after the reflection and analysis, when it’s good and ready, ready and good. Not believing in writer’s block makes me free to have “writer’s block” and be productive anyway. Try it.
No, really. Try it. I know that being “blocked” is a safely familiar place and that it’s more comfortable just to lie there blaming the block. But instead, try telling yourself “I’m a working writer who is in the reflection phase right now.” And see what happens.
“Reflection phase” is what you tell yourself, of course. You’ll allow yourself to lie to others about how well the writing is going.
Because it is.
Published on March 16, 2007 at 8:51 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/inaction-in-action.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Writer’s block is caused by print
Walter Ong wrote about the differences between (primitive) oral culture and (our) print culture. He said print encourages a sense of closure, a sense that what is found in a text is complete and final. Print “suggest[s] self-containment. Print encloses thought in thousands of copies of a work of exactly the same visual and physical consistency”. Print culture, because of the self-contained nature of the printed text, “gave birth to the romantic notions of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’, which set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its origins and meaning as independent of outside influence, at least ideally.”
The print culture described by Ong, it seems to me, poses three new challenges to the writer. Here’s what they are.
First, print demands that everything we write is worthy of widespread distribution and eternal preservation. This alone is enough to cause a disabling humility.
Second, print culture enlarges the author’s and the reader’s knowledge of earlier works and makes it harder to be original. I mean, harder to feel original. As Ong puts it, “modern writers, agonizingly aware of literary history and of the de facto intertextuality of their own works, are concerned that they may be producing nothing new or fresh at all, that they may be totally under the ‘influence’ of other’s texts.”
But the third challenge to the writer is the one that interest me most. The work becomes crystallized. The writer becomes helpless to correct or improve it. By publishing it he claims that it is as close to perfect as it can be. In making that claim he also admits that he has reached the limit of his skill and talent.
A writer could be understandably doubtful about making that claim and that admission.
Making the claim means exposing himself for judgment in a definitive form. He can be studied in detail and at leisure. The work’s inevitable imperfections become an unchangeable part of how strangers and future generations know him. The potential for diffidence and shame is obvious. The further risk is that the writer will never decide the work is absolutely complete and will never allow it to be set in type. And then the readers are deprived of his work completely. You could call that writer’s block, couldn’t you.
To end with, a cheery thought about block. I believe today’s mass distribution media are making writing easier again, by removing the permanence of published words. Why else are there so many blogs?
Published on November 12, 2006 at 6:07 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/writers-block-is-caused-by-print.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Bath, bed and bus
You can’t always cudgel your brain to come up with a good idea. Some gestation time is essential.
I’d promised my coach (yes, I don’t just sell coaching, I also believe in it) that I would write a particular proposal by yesterday afternoon. I wrote and wrote and I had 50% more words than I’d planned. But I never got to the point, because I didn’t know exactly what my point was. And I stopped and left it. I knew that my brain was working on the challenge and the answer would pop up when it was ready.
Away from writing, there are lots of stories about creativity happening by itself when you have been working hard on a problem and then take a break. The best known story is the one about Kekule dreaming the structure of the benzene molecule. Here are some other dreams. And then there’s Poincare revolutionizing geometry as he stepped onto a bus. Here’s a complete description of that.
Bertrand Russell said it: “It appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking.”
Now if people don’t know this, they’re gonna feel bad about not knowing what to write, and they might make the mistake of calling it “writer’s block.” This is not block. This is something writers do. This is writing.
By the way, my title comes from this article by Shane Magee.
Published on November 4, 2006 at 10:58 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/bath-bed-and-bus.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: The last minute, and more
A friend and I recently launched a therapy group. I won’t go into details of that. The story I want to share is that by the scheduled start date, we had no new members signed up at all, so we did not hold the first meeting and we both got on with our lives. Goodness knows I was busy enough with other things and didn’t mind too much.
During week two, people began to call about joining the group. We decided to enroll them. Seven days late, we held our first meeting with the membership more than half full.
Enrollment continued and by the second meeting the room was full.
My personal guess now is that calls will continue and we may find ourselves having to open a waiting list for a second group. But as for that, we’ll just see.
Anyway: I’ve been involved in groups for the last five years, but usually they’ve been ongoing groups where members come and go all the time. The exceptions have been in prison situations where people had limited choice about whether to join. So I didn’t have experience of how you set up a new one.
And I’m thinking: you know, this is one way people make decisions. It’s possible to put a thing off until it’s almost too late, and then attempt it. And that way it feels like you’re leaving it up to God / the Universe whether the thing happens or not.
Kinda like the way I’m deciding whether or not to take part in NaNoWriMo.
This post is not about the behavior of any individual I might or might not have met recently. I’m aware that most of the group members hadn’t even heard about us by the original deadline. This post is just about a thought I had about life in general.
Published on November 1, 2006 at 11:52 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/the-last-minute-and-more.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: The romance of block
Another fragment. Again in rather stuffy language. Sorry, too busy writing to stop and edit.
It was in the Romantic period that difficulty with writing began to be widely reported.
Not everything that is offered as evidence of difficulty in creating can be accepted as evidence of what we think of as block. For example, Storr gives George Sand’s description of Chopin as “shutting himself up in his room for whole days, weeping, walking, breaking his pens, repeating and altering a bar a hundred times, spending six weeks over a single page,” as evidence that he found creation very difficult. But the quotation is out of context. In the same passage Sand had just explained that “his creation was spontaneous and miraculous. He found it without seeking it, without foreseeing it. It came on his piano suddenly, complete, sublime, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he was impatient to play it to himself” and that the subsequent difficulties were in accurately transcribing his creation – difficulties indeed, but far from what we usually describe as blocking.
Similarly, the number of alterations seen in the manuscripts of great creators is not necessarily evidence of their torment as is sometimes suggested. It is evidence that they were working: evidence, in fact, that they were creators. Niecks mentions Beethoven’s sketch-books, Balzac’s proof-sheets and Pope’s, Milton’s and Goethe’s manuscripts as showing the amount of effort routinely required to produce the greatest work. This seems a much more realistic view of the documents, for after all few creators are satisfied by their first drafts. Niecks adds that those great creators, such as Mozart, whose first drafts do need little revision, perform comparable amounts of work but do it before setting pen to paper.
Again, the Romantic fashion for preserving and even publishing “fragments” as though they were complete works is far from being proof of blockage. In Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth and others it is proof of productivity in excess of what was already a sufficient body of great work to make them immortal. As Leader says – arguing a case opposite to mine – “what is noteworthy here is less the fact of incompletion than the age’s implied acceptance of it, even the celebration of it”. In the present age, it is not unlikely that prolific writers generate the same quantity of unfinished work, but receive less encouragement to publicize the fact.
And so – as a psychologist and writer unlearned in composition studies – I question whether blocking, as we understand it, is as much a defining feature of the Romantic view of creativity as is often suggested. I do suggest that the various difficulties reported by the successful and productive writers of that age may have brought into the public mind a less complex and rather different possibility – the possibility that one could be a “writer” while failing to produce publishable text. And I suggest that this led to the popularity of block as an explanation of such failure.
I suggest further that our belief in block, as an acceptable excuse for silence, has the effect of reducing the need or pressure for actual writing, leading to a reduction in productivity which validates and reinforces our belief in block. And so on. So like I’ve been hinting here in more tentative language since 2004: once we know that block is a fiction, what choice have we but to stop doing it?
Published on October 24, 2006 at 5:26 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/the-romance-of-block.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Today I Wresearch
Last year, as reported here, I used National Novel Writing Month as an opportunity to meet tens of thousands of creative writers and to recruit a few dozen of them as research volunteers. It seemed to benefit their productivity, and it certainly benefited mine. I answered the research questions I had, including getting some surprises, and learned some other stuff too.
I’m doing it again, mostly digging deeper into one of the interesting things I discovered last time. If you’re thinking about taking part in NaNoWriMo, think also about signing up with me on this page. If you’re not, consider it. Of course you can’t write a novel in a month. But you can write a first draft.
Consider: if the draft is crap, first drafts almost always are. It’s part of the process. Some researchers recommend a deliberate two-step process: first write out all the things you want to say, without any regard for literary merit, and then go back and edit. They are two different mental processes, and trying to combine them may be one cause of blocking.
Consider also: if you don’t have an outline of your novel yet, you can still start. Saying you can’t is just a rule you made up for yourself, and you have the right to change that. Other researchers have pointed out that writers have more fun when they’re totally creating than when they’re following an outline. And exploring and having fun must be good for your productivity, mustn’t they?
Published on October 17, 2006 at 8:58 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/today-i-wresearch.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Do it anyway
“If you are going to fail, you might as well fail at a difficult task. Failure causes others to downgrade their expectations of you in the future. The seriousness of this problem depends on what you attempt.”
Avinash Dixit, economics professor at Princeton, and Barry Nalebuff, economics and management professor at the Yale School of Organization and Management as quoted by Guy Kawasaki, who in turn was quoted by Carson McComas who was quoted by me.
Published on February 22, 2006 at 8:25 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/do-it-anyway.htmlNext Page »