I haven’t written in a while, at least not for myself and not for this blog. I’ve been editing – actually, rewriting someone else’s book: his ideas, my words, a syncopated rhythm rather than a steady beat. But for the faithful reader who may wonder about my silence, I confess: writing is hard, and I tend to hyperfocus on one thing at a time.
Wrestling with a writing block
So much advice, so many handbooks – we know what to do, but the step from theory to praxis is dauntingly steep.
Begin by writing something
I’ve often been told that to break through a block, you have to start writing. About anything, anything at all. After some undetermined number of words, pertinent ideas will bubble up. Keep writing. Finally, you reach a point of exasperation and a real need to get to work. Fire up the computer and open a new file. (When I am ready to tackle the task at hand and don’t know where to begin, I find it easier to write on paper. It’s more efficient to scribble, scratch out, tear up and restart than to copy, move and paste lines on the computer that you’ll probably discard anyway.)
Organizing – or not
As I see it, there are two ways to begin when faced with a formidable writing task. There are those who know what they want to say, so they map out the work in an outline the way we were taught to do in school: intro, chapters, conclusion.
I belong to the other group. I have lots of ideas knocking around in my head, but as former New York Times columnist James Reston said, “How can I know what I think until I read what I write?” That was my paradox. How could I begin if I didn’t know what I was going to say?
I used to begin with the introduction, struggling for countless futile hours until a good friend gave me valuable advice: write the intro at the end, when you’re done. Of course! How can I introduce something I haven’t written yet? Then I learned that for me the easiest place to begin is not at the beginning — the lede is so important! — but rather, in medias res — somewhere in the middle, at a point in the story that particularly interests me. After doing that, I write about another aspect or another episode. By then, a structure and a rudimentary outline begin to emerge.
When I was given this advice, I couldn’t see how a structure would just “emerge.” But amazingly, it does. How can this happen? “Because it was there all along. These are your ideas, but you didn’t know it yet,” I was told. I begin to see a big picture. These two chunks belong together; this other chunk sounds like the basis for a conclusion; this chunk isn’t relevant; these chunks can follow sequentially…. I may begin to see themes and realize that a better plan might be to organize thematically, a horizontal progression rather than a vertical one. Back to the drawing board.
There. Random thoughts that may perhaps prove useful to someone.