How a bigshot writing coach beats writer’s block
It might comfort you to learn that America’s friendliest writing coach succumbs to writer’s block on occasion. On rare occasions, he refers to himself in third person, but he’ll stop doing that – right away.
I’m thinking about it now because instead of revising the manuscript for my 300-page book, I’m writing this essay on writer’s block. I could watch the hockey game or mow the lawn, but that will do for now.
Writing this will remind me of lessons I have shared with others for years but too often forget to apply. As I repeated these lessons last night in my half-sleep, I realized how eccentric they might seem to a curious observer.
Strange as they may seem, they have worked for me now in my 20th book as an author or editor. Here they are in no particular order:
You know what I mean by eccentric? I watched an interview in which brilliant novelist Lauren Groff revealed that she reads 300 books a year. May God bless her. While she’s doing this, I’m probably watching Netflix. I own about 2,000 books. When I did my taxes, I calculated that our family spent $4,178 on books last year. But two things happen when I read too much: first, I waste time when I could write; and I can be intimidated by the quality of other people’s writing. Self-doubt is known to creep in.
I am not a writer capable of setting the ceiling. If that doesn’t come, I’m off, full of energy to do my favorite things: take a walk, drive my car, visit coffee shops, go to the bookstore, hit some golf balls. Something interesting is happening. Words that won’t flow through my hands visit a trapdoor in my brain, acting as a form of repetition. I can often go back to my desk and build momentum in my writing.
I remember just before each of our daughters were born, my wife Karen was ramping up her preparation. I heard of some sort of nesting. Before I can make any progress in my writing, I need to pluck my own nest. I clean my desk, my closets, my bathroom, the workbench in the garage.
I didn’t invent this pretty term, but I write nothing when I can. Rather than practicing the avoidance behaviors described above, I imagine I can write much sooner than I think. Don’t wait until you’ve done all the reporting or research before you write. Instead, go to your keyboard and write very quickly and uncritically, without referring to your notes. Write down what you think you already know. It’s not even a first draft. It’s a zero draft. It will teach you what you still need to learn, saving you time and focusing your reporting.
This startling piece of advice comes to us from Oregon poet William Stafford. He argues that we expect too much too soon from our writing. We disappoint ourselves. There are different ways to lower your standards. My favorite is to write on a yellow notepad. Not white, but yellow. No one expects anything written on yellow paper to be good.
That’s what I just did. In fact, I think I’ve just reached the speed of escape from the forces of literary gravity that have weighed me down. Up, up and away.