Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Blank Page

This morning I sat down in front of the machine without any clear idea of what I was going to write. Not suprisingly, I haven't been able to write anything. Fortunately, this reinforces the line I have been pushing of the last few weeks, so I can write a bit about that.

My problem this morning is not that I don't feel like writing, it's that I don't know what to write. And that's simply because I haven't decided what I'm going to write about in advance. This last point is important.

According to my schedule, I'm supposed to write every morning for about half an hour (before the kids get up). In order for that to work, I have to set my alarm clock and I have to respect it when it goes off. I have to get out of bed, put on a sweater, turn on the computer, drink two glasses of water (you don't do this?), make a cup of coffee. Etc.

But this process doesn't start with the routine of getting out of bed in the morning. Each iteration of the process begins (or should begin) just before setting the alarm. It is at this point that I normally remind myself of the specific task I've set myself for the morning's writing session.

This is sometimes very straightforward. When I was writing those five-paragraph essays, the predetermined outline of essays themselves made the decision for me. In such cases, I was able to make a more specific decision about the details (what exactly will I say about the sentence, or the point of view?). But it is enough to bring to mind a specific area of your current research (a passage of an interview transcript, a theoretical notion, a knot in your methodology) and resolve to write about it.

On this point I try to practice Hemingway's combination of discipline and mysticism: work hard at regular intervals but give your "unconscious" a chance to keep up. The best way to do this is to keep a promise to let it, i.e., your unconscious, express itself on a specific topic in the morning. To make this promise, you just have to make a decision: what are you going to write about when you get up?

As with any relationship, it takes time to build trust between the dream life of your unconscious processes and the conscious work of writing. You have to believe that each has the best interest of the other at heart. The conscious part comes to depend on the material delivered by the unconscious part. But your unconscious life comes to depend on the conscious process for its expression.

Like I say, there may be a bit of mysticism in this. I don't know if it would stand up under the scrutiny of a qualified psychologist. But it works for me.

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