Monday, February 17, 2014

Writer's Block

I am sometimes asked to help people with writer's block. I always warn them that we will be dealing with the problem in the same way that we would if they told me their house is haunted. The trick is recognizing that the affliction does not exist.

Writers who are "blocked" normally experience every waking hour as passing without getting any work done. So the first thing we have to decide is when their so-called block is relevant. If you are "blocked", don't say you didn't write yesterday or the day before; say you didn't write between, e.g., 9:00 and 11:00, when you had planned to. Now, if you've got two hours of planned writing time, you should have four things to say: four paragraphs to write in 27 minutes each with three-minute breaks. These four paragraphs should be chosen the day before. So, if you are prevented from writing by some sort of block, what you are now saying is that at 9:00 you cannot write a specific paragraph supporting the first of four specific claims. Your inability to write may now persist for exactly 27 minutes. You take a break and go on, experiencing your "block" as preventing you from writing a different paragraph for 27 minutes. And so on.

If you are truly blocked, then, you will sit down at the computer and not write four specific paragraphs, the central claim of each of which you already know. But at 11:00 you stop not writing and go on with your day. At the end of the day, choose what you will try to write about to tomorrow. This time, however, choose a smaller task to fail at. Choose two claims to write about tomorrow, and resolve to write between 9:00 and 10:00. If nothing comes of that, try one paragraph the following day. The important thing is to actually sit there at your desk, with the machine on (or the pen in your hand), specifically not writing a specific paragraph. If that doesn't work reduce the length of the session from 27 to 17 minutes. Finally, to twelve minutes. Notice, that on day 1 you now did not write four paragraphs, on day 2, two, on day 3, one, on day 4, one in 17 minutes, and on day 5, one in 12 minutes. That's nine paragraphs in all that you didn't write. If you really didn't write anything at all those five days, your problem isn't writer's block. It's clearly something else.

You may object that I'm shifting the problem to the choice of paragraph the day before. Why should it be easier to choose what to write about than to actually write it? The short answer is that everything is easier said than done. The long answer will have to wait until Wednesday.

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