The third question: Aren’t you afraid you’ll get writer’s block?
Writer’s block doesn’t frighten me. This is not because I view myself as exceptional or immune. I am not afraid of writer’s block for the same reason I am not afraid of talker’s block: it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t happen unless I give in to the resistance that provides the petri dish, and the real cause is not some strange malady that attacks writers but fear that coils around a heart and strangles hope.
Everyone who writes anything is hoping for something. Writer’s block is an excuse supplied from the subconscious, that part of us that wants to keep us safe, to protect us from harm, to spare us the possibility of the brokenness we might feel if our hopes don’t come true. With writer’s block, it is not better to have written and lost, it is better not to have written at all. I disagree. I believe there is value in the work and that those who do the work—no matter how they feel—are valiant.
I do understand that there are those who struggle—mightily—to get their thoughts out of their heads and into the world so that others may read them. I have a friend who is having this problem, now.
She is one of the smartest people I know. (I went through high school with friends who got perfect scores—legally—on their SATs, who became college professors and public defenders and patent attorneys and musicians, friends I ran behind mentally, gasping to keep up). She speaks in a rush of words and gestures. My mother once asked, “Is she the one who came into the party a ball of energy?” Yes, mom, that’s her.
But now my friend’s fingers are curled into a ball and she speaks of being “blocked.” I say to her, “Just write what you say, or say it to someone else and have them write it, or use transcription software.” It does not help. There is a part of me that is afraid her words will never get out. Maybe there is a part of her that is afraid of that, too.
Here are two things I believe should be carefully tended to keep writer’s block at bay:
- Your beliefs
- Your writing process
With hope that it might be helpful to someone, detailed below are things that work for me.
My beliefs about writing rest on the mighty shoulders of Brenda Ueland, who in 1938 wrote, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” That is the title of the first chapter of If You Want to Write and it is tremendously freeing. It means that it is not egotistical of me to think that I have something important to say because so does every other person on the planet. Isn’t that a wonderful way to think and to feel?
I believe we have too much regard for writers. I did. I believed writers were special people, so special that I couldn’t possibly be one. Then I started going to author talks. I listened to authors who looked like normal people, whose names I knew from seeing them on the covers of books in the airport newsstand. One author was asked how she selected the various locations for her books. Her plebian answer: “They followed my moves. The scenery was based on what I saw out my kitchen window.” Writers are human. If you poke a writer with a sharpened number two pencil, they will feel it. Margaret Atwood would probably slap your hand. (I could have listened to her—and Colson Whitehead—for hours.)
My Writing Process
There is a reason Steven Pressfield has a construction worker’s metal lunchbox and thermos on the cover of Turning Pro. That is how he approaches his work and that is how I want to approach mine: blue collar. Show up, do the work. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I remember my father took me bowling once and I struggled. We were four or five frames in and I was about to toss my ball down the alley, hoping for a good result, when he stopped me. “Jule, for your first throw, when you have all ten pins, you are not trying to do something different every time. You are trying to figure out what will knock over the most pins and you are trying to do that same thing every single time.” That is how I want to approach my writing. I want do the same thing every single time, to give my brain a solid foundation so my brain can focus on getting out the words, nothing else.
- Get out of bed at 6:21 a.m. I had a standard time to exit the bed when I had a job and writing is my new job, so I still have a standard exit time.
- Do yoga for thirty minutes. The mind resides in the body and a functioning mind requires a functioning body.
- Get dressed, walk dog, eat breakfast, etc.
- Walk 1.1 miles to the library. This allows mental separation from the laundry and the fridge and the stuff of life in my condo. It also gets the blood moving which is good for getting the thoughts moving.
- The library opens at 9:00 a.m. Arrive by 9:10 a.m. so that I am ready to start writing by 9:15 a.m. I treat being ready to write the same way I treated being ready to answer the phone when I was responsible for a call center.
- Take all necessary items out of my backpack: binder, composition book, three pens, laptop, cell phone, thermos of tea.
- Open composition book and follow the checklist that is taped to the inside front cover. If doctors in an emergency room follow a five-step checklist so they don’t forget to do something as basic as wash their hands, then a checklist makes sense for me and my writing.
Here are some details about the checklist items:
- I don’t get bent out of shape selecting the writing prompt. I simply get up from my chair, walk over to the magazines, flip to a page, point my finger, and read the sentence my finger landed on. That becomes the first line for the prompt. Here are some examples of prior prompts: “For more than fifty percent of the kids, college is net bad.” “There is no evidence that Pallidio had a hand in the design of frescos.” “The initial market for CORA would be as an air taxi.” At my mom’s this past week I was in a place where there were no books or magazines so I used the headline from a poster hanging by the mailboxes: “The reading of the Haggadah.” You don’t even need to know what it means to use it.
- I write my writing prompt and my first drafts in longhand, not on a computer. I’ve found that when I write the initial words on a computer my mind gets distracted with the red squiggly line that points out spelling errors or I start to think about formatting or other thoughts that take brain space from getting the words on the page.
- I never leave out any step. I never say, “I’m feeling good today, I think I’ll skip the writing prompt.” Again, I’m training my brain that certain things happen in a certain order.
- When the moment comes, as it does almost every day, where I am not just writing but evaluating the words as they exit to the left of the ballpoint and I think, “This is boring and/or awful,” I say to myself, “You can’t make it better if you don’t get it out,” and I keep writing.
Chewing the Cud of Good
A woman lives in the same retirement community as my mother. Her daughter lives alone on an island off the coast of Maine. She studies lobsters and she is the only person on the island during the winter. I talked with my mother’s friend about Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing because I thought she would enjoy the book. I had read it and mailed it to my mom. I was planning to take the book home with me but then realized I could loan it to my mom’s friend and she could return it the next time I visit. I had told the woman about the book and she had written down the title in a little notepad she carries so she would remember it. I gave her the book at breakfast and she was happy to get it. She put her hand on the book (her hand couldn’t lie flat because it is bent with age) and she said, “I will start reading this afternoon.” Her eyes sparkled and it made me happy that she was so happy to have the book.