Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

This First Cut is the Deepest: Getting Past Writer's Block

Polonius (upon seeing Hamlet engage in a book): What do you read my lord? Hamlet: Words, words, words. [Act 2, Scene 2]
     About half an hour north from where I live on my little ten acre homestead in rural Southeast Ohio, the local community college used to host an annual fair and trade show for foresters and lumberjacks. One of the regular features of this expo was an ongoing demonstration of wood sculptures carved entirely through the use of chainsaws. It was one of the displays that kept folks coming back year after year. No matter how many times I witnessed it firsthand, the intricacy of the detail that the carvers could achieve with such large, heavy, awkward, and dangerous equipment never failed to surprise and astonish. It wasn't magic, but it seemed like it. It was almost something you would have to see with your own eyes to believe: burly men swinging chainsaws with wild precision attacking huge logs to whittle out beautiful works of art. That artists can create beauty at all is a mystery worth careful consideration; that such beauty can be made with raucous implements that can devour human flesh as quickly as it can chew lumber moves our contemplation from an appreciation of the sublime to an admiration of the surreal.
     Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don't sling chainsaws; I sling words. Big fat clumsy words that are just as dangerous in their own ways as chainsaws but without the risk of immediate amputation.
A slip of a chainsaw can cause a wood-carver to lose part of a foot, but a poorly reasoned idea can wound a reputation for a lifetime. I don't really expect that anything I write will be discussed in the distant future, but if any of my views should somehow escape the black hole of obscurity from which I compose, I would want them to be good ideas. I suppose that is as much as any of us who write can ever hope for: a gratuitous optimism that somehow our good ideas will linger awhile beyond our mortal time frame and the bad ideas will rest with our bodies beneath a solid six feet of dirt. Beyond my own little world of experience and verbiage, I want the same to hold universally true for all writers; regard it as my “rhetorical creed,” perhaps, but I want to believe that good ideas that have been well articulated have a Darwinian advantage over bad ideas that are poorly expressed.
     Here's the deal – almost everyone of us has had one of those rare moments when an excellent idea has presented itself and then, while considering the prospect of the enormity of the task of putting the idea into writing, has walked away from the project because the climb to articulation seemed too steep. Those of us who write (and teach writing) face the same mountainous climb as Sisyphus when it comes to putting ideas into comprehensible prose. The understanding that the words that end up in our sentences will never fully live up to expressing our ideas can produce a vertigo that prevents many people from writing altogether. While chainsaws threaten to tear into skin and muscle, criticism of our writing, especially the writing we care the most about, threatens to rip into our souls. It's not just the effort to climb the mountain where we reach the peak to where we have said what we needed to say that intimidates us; it's the expectation that behind us, holding on to our rope, is the deadweight of the internal critic who wants to find fault with every verbal choice we make. Sometimes when we are trying to write, it's as though we can hear that annoyed and anxious climber behind us saying, “Be careful where you put that comma or you could fall to your doom! Are you sure you want to use that adverb there? It could mean something else to another reader, and the next thing you know you're out fifty feet of good rope.” Given the difficulty of saying things well with an interesting style that nonetheless conforms to the dictates of Standard English, it is a wonder that mere human beings strive at writing anything.
     The question, then, is “How do we do it? How can we carry our ideas up the steep mountain of composition without getting overburdened from either the weight of our own condemnation or the heavy criticism of others?” There is, unfortunately, no single easy answer to this problem; there is no sky lift that will hoist you effortlessly up to a finished composition. There are, however, many solid techniques that struggling writers can use for making the journey easier. The first, perhaps, is to stay aware that writing is usually difficult for most people. Knowing that writing is difficult doesn't excuse you from not doing it, but it can help you get past the idea that it should be easier.
     The second trick for developing fluency in writing is to focus on where you are now instead of continually reminding yourself of where you want to be. As an alternative to feeling overwhelmed by the amount of distance you need to cover to finish the project, think about how much easier it is to merely write the next sentence or polish off the paragraph you're working on. Instead of thinking in terms of “miles to go,” think in terms of “steps ahead.” Slow progress builds momentum. Once you get so far, writing often takes off on its own.
     A third strategy for getting writing done is to realize that everything and anything can be changed later so it's better to just get things down poorly and revise later than it is to attempt perfection on the first try. Perfection is never going to happen; you can reach a point of deep satisfaction with your prose without harboring the needless expectation you have to love every word as it appears in your composition.
     A fourth important tactic to keep writing going is to see readers as co-travelers instead of as audience members. A co-traveler is someone who goes along with you for the journey, but an audience member is there to witness a performance. While writing can be thought of as a performance, it shouldn't be the point of your writing. When performance takes precedence over message, the point of the journey (your message) can get lost. Your concerns regarding other people's opinions on how well you are climbing can overshadow your concern for completing the journey. A co-traveler is there to help you find your way and to enjoy your company; thinking about how best to accentuate your reader's experience is a better alternative to feeling the weight of worrying about responding to a critic's displeasure.
     Finally, and perhaps the best trick for making writing easier is to take yourself and your prose less seriously. While writing is always going to carry the risk of misinterpretation or offense to other people's sensibilities, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you are almost certainly going to care more about the inadequacies of your writing than other people will. If you start up a mountain and realize this is not the scenery you expected, then you've got the choice of plodding on ahead to see where it takes you or starting afresh up a different mountain. Sometimes, allowing the words to come out to see what they have to tell you is completely worth the anxiety of not knowing what lies beyond the turn up ahead.
     If writing isn't your thing, I guess there are always going to be chainsaws. On the other hand, if you want to write on a Sunday morning, you are far less likely to disturb the neighbors than if you were in the backyard knocking out your next masterpiece with your 110 decibel Husqvarna. Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.


  1. I really like the co-travelers concept! Thanks! I needed this word today with some serious writing ahead of me!

  2. I appreciate the comments, Sue. I'm hoping some writing instructors might share this one with their students. Students take their writing struggles so personally that they don't often recognize that everyone struggles with writing.

  3. Thanks for the topic; it's great timing--your second point (among others) is a major personal hang-up. Presently, my writing projects appear to be penned by someone with a personality order jumbling genres and littering recycling bins. I think my career is more similar to the log-rolling competition, and I'm out there with a club-foot and inflatable giraffe ring. At this juncture, I wonder if I should cast aside other projects and (attempt to) simply focus?

    I was whelped on the writings of Ed Abbey and Gary Snyder. Departing OU, I half-expected to be reporting in from the summit of Denali or tracking “lost” Amazonian tribes. Less-glamorous technical writing provides work, but tech firms don't appreciate when I try channeling my inner Tom Robbins. Abbey quipped “I'd rather be dead than not read at all.” Personally, I'd rather remain wed. As stifling as tech writing can be, I lack the confidence to move beyond the short story when on my own time. As much as I enjoy fiction, I don't feel like such originality is in me and self-doubt would derail me along the way. When you dig-in, Dr. Dudding, are you more of a plot/character gardener or architect? Also, I am curious as to your sense of conducive writing place as well as soliciting feedback from others in the writing process. Beyond the classroom, I've never reached out to any sort of community “workshop”—I expect I'd find a homogeneous pack of Daniel Steele diehards who suggest I consult a dermatologist when mentioning my TC Boyle.

    Last I was going to ask about perspectives in fiction writing. I am comfortable with personal narratives in nature/environmental writing and general non-fiction. At the risk of being judged disingenuous or outright dishonest, third-person feels confidence-inspiring when navigating topics that I would otherwise neglect. I'm a health-conscious honey bugger who can manufacture meth; torture his parents and terrify little old ladies. Yet when imagining longer projects, my contempt for my own characters rules and dialogue feels either forced or phoney (no doubt solved be reading/writing more.) On the other hand, perhaps a misanthropic introvert should just skip character dialogue altogether.

    1. Thanks again, Ryan, for your comments. I always enjoy reading what you have to say. As far as writing fiction, I like to start out thinking I know what's going to happen but letting what occurs unfold as though I really don't have much say about it. I've found a lot of caffeine can really help in that process.

      I'm hoping that retirement will give me the time to see the progression/completion of several writing projects that has struggled to survive over the past few decades. Of course, once I have the time, I'll need to fight to find the motivation. It seems the Muse would rather play video games.


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