As part of a major renovation of Old Settlers Park (Tavernier), I wrote text and donated photographs for the history and natural history panels of a kiosk now installed in the park. Thanks to Jill Patterson and Alice Allen (Friends of Old Settlers Park), Janice DuQuesnel (Florida Department of Environmental Protection), Peter Frezza (Audubon Florida – Everglades Science Center, Tavernier), and Jerry Wilkinson (Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys) for the local expertise that fueled much of my writing. I learned a lot!
Every writer who even begins to imagine someone reading their writing comes up against “writer’s block” at some point. It’s mostly a kind of stage fright caused by the common delusion that writing is easy. So the first step in dealing with it is to accept that while writing can be fun, even exhilarating, it’s work–hard work. Even the stuff that flows out like manna usually has to be edited or rewritten or trashed. In the introduction to “On Writing Well,”* author William Zinsser describes participating in a panel discussion about “Writing as an Avocation” with a retired surgeon who had sold a few articles to magazines. The surgeon keeps saying how amusing and easy writing is and Zinsser keeps saying it’s actually difficult. “Maybe I should take up surgery on the side,” he muses at one point. Writing is hard because, like any art, it’s a discipline, a skill that has to be learned and practiced–and the learning and practicing never end.
Writing is also translating thoughts and emotions and imagination into words, all of which can create a disturbing, paralyzing, overwhelming mess until you sort things out enough to fit the maddening confines of language. So after you deal with stage fright, the second step to recovery from writer’s block is to recognize that your thoughts and emotions and imagination have become unmanageable (to paraphrase AA): some devilish combination of one of more of those three dervishes is whirling around in your brain, confusing you. The solution (for me at least) is to write an outline, anything from a few scribbled notes in some kind of sequence to an elaborate hierarchy built with Microsoft Word’s “outline” feature. If I’m really confused, I say to myself, often out loud: “John, what ARE you trying to say?!?”, which is mainly a primitive verbal reminder to my herky-jerky brain to stop whining and dilly-dallying and get back to work. Then I generously, cordially give myself enough time to actually think, or talk to someone else who’s interested in what I’m writing about, or do some research to jump-start clearer thoughts and figure out why I’m stuck. Then I write down one thought, then another, then another, and arrange them in some kind of barebones order and hierarchy–an outline. Often I just write them down as they come to me, then go back and number them.
Here are some other remedies in my first-aid kit for “writer’s block”:
- Especially when I’m in the thick of writing something challenging, I keep at least one small piece of paper handy (I like index cards) and have a pen or pencil on me or stashed somewhere nearby at all times–I never know when an idea or image or solution to a writing problem might bubble up and whirl off into my inner space before I can grab it and write it down. (Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning poet, used to hide paper and pencils under rocks along the path she walked around a pond by her home in Connecticut.)
- If I’m not making headway writing with a computer, I switch to writing with a pen or pencil and often that works better. I’m pretty sure that has to do with reconnecting some of my oldest neuronal networks with the visceral childhood thrill of drawing the letters of the alphabet in my first-grade exercise book for the first time, by hand, using them to build words, actual words, on paper, like the words I’d seen in books, feeling the ink or lead flow right onto the paper and sink into it without a clunky machine between me and what I’m trying to say. It probably also has to do with all the potential distractions of a computer, and how much faster I can edit and correct visually (with lines and arrows as well as words) by hand, and the portability of paper and pen compared to most computers, including tablets.
- I edit something I’ve already written to begin feeling successful again (“You did it before, you can do it again!” Pathetic, really… but you do what you gotta do, right?)
- I remind myself of what first made me to want to write what I’m trying to write (Talk about something, some place, or someone I love? Describe a wonderful scene? Amaze and delight Important People? Pay down a credit card balance? Tell a story that must be told?). “Eyes on the prize, laddie, eyes on the prize,” sez I to myself. “Git ‘er done!”
- I talk into a tape recorder, or have a friend ask me questions–then talk into a tape recorder… and transcribe my answers.
- I play music I love–to wipe my mind clean, reboot my emotions and switch my attention from thoughts and meanings to sounds and rhythms.
- I just give up for a while, go for a walk or swim or play with the dog or visit friends, do something, anything, that’s not writing, with the dark edges of my latest perplexity held close in my mind (how they say you should hold your enemies).
- I pretend my butt is glued to my chair and keep telling myself it’s perfectly okay to sit there doing absolutely nothing and feeling like an idiot and isn’t that a pretty boring thing to do so why not entertain myself with a little writing?
- I read someone else’s writing that I love, then gallop that spirited horse back to my “writer’s block,” which is now just a hurdle, and soar up and over it (sometimes… if I’m lucky).
- I promise to reward myself somehow if and when I get a certain amount of writing done–the old “carrot-and-stick” routine.
- I start and finish writing at set times; I work on schedule. Long-time New Yorker writer and book author John McPhee calls that “fanny time.” Says William Zinsser (author of “On Writing Well”): “If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.”
- I tell myself it’s okay to be stupid, just keep your hands moving, writing something, anything, no matter how badly it seems to be turning out. I ignore the fussy little editor who sits on my shoulder niggling and haggling and chirping at my every word and thought, calling me clumsy, boring, stupid, unoriginal, until I grind to a halt in frustration. Anne Lamott devotes an entire chapter of “Bird by Bird,” her book of “instructions on writing and life,” to that just-do-it technique. She calls those intentionally careening, car-chase initial outputs “shitty first drafts.” Usually I can just chuck them and hunker down to writing better stuff because I’m warmed up, but sometimes I root around in them and salvage a few ‘bons mots’.
- I tell myself to let go of any and all future fantasies of success or failure and just bore in and have fun coming up with just the right words (“les mots justes”).
- I write one sentence, then another, then another, like a brick layer. (That’s where Anne Lamott got the title for her book, “Bird by Bird,” from something her father, also a writer, said to encourage her little brother, who couldn’t get started drawing birds for a homework assignment.)
- I take a break, come back and read my writing out loud to someone else, or to myself, and usually I hear what’s wrong, what’s right. Then I edit, smooth off the rough spots, try to make it all more musical, drop down through to deeper meanings, repeat all of the above (edit, edit, edit… rewrite, rewrite, rewrite) until a deadline forces me to abandon my darling offspring or at least part with it until we meet again.
* Zinsser, William– “On Writing Well”
** Lamott, Anne – “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”
A thunderous sub-tropical rainstorm had me up early yesterday, The Glorious Fourth, standing on our front porch, soaking up the pretty sight of our new little trees in the front yard drinking it all down. Retiring to the sofa, I woke up Anne-Marie’s iPad and downloaded Wikipedia’s page about the Declaration of Independence. This passage in particular got my patriotic, writerly dander up:
During the writing process, Jefferson showed the rough draft to Adams and Franklin, and perhaps other members of the drafting committee, who made a few more changes. Franklin, for example, may have been responsible for changing Jefferson’s original phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
What a glorious edit, by one of America’s most famous minds!
Here’s all of that famous second sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“Sacred and undeniable” would have been flabby, wordy, pretentious, somewhat defensive; “self-evident” is simple, straightforward, boldly confident, in-your-face. It says: “These truths are obvious to any decent, thoughtful human being. Get used to them! No further justification is necessary!” I like to imagine that more than any other word in that sentence–maybe even in the whole Declaration–it sunk in deeper or bounced off harder when it was read or heard by King George III and his minions in England a few weeks later…
In the complex flurry of writing marketing copy that sells (a service, a product, an idea), I always try to remember the “motivating sequence” Robert Bly outlines in his classic “The Copywriter’s Handbook”*:
(1) Get Attention. Bly: “This is the job of the headline and the visual. The headline should focus on the single strongest benefit you can offer the reader.”
(2) Show a Need. Bly: “All products, to some degree, solve some problem. […] However, with most products the need for the product may not be obvious or it may not be ingrained in the reader’s mind. The second step of writing copy that sells, then, is to show the reader why he needs the product.” The key word here is “show” – with an example, a story, a statistic, whatever you think will most appeal to whomever you’re selling to.
(3) Satisfy the Need. Bly: “Once you’ve convinced your reader that he has a need, you must quickly show him that your product can satisfy his need, answer his questions, or solve his problems.”
(4) Prove Your Superiority–and Reliability. Bly: “It isn’t enough to say you can satisfy the reader’s needs; you’ve got to prove you can.” Talk about the benefits of your product. Present testimonials from happy customers. Compare your product to the competition’s. Cite reliable, recent research as proof. Talk about your company’s number of years in business, growth rate, etc.
(5) Ask for the Order. The “call to action” – call, stop by, order now (with an incentive to act promptly), and make it easy to act (map/directions, phone number in large font, etc.).
All of the above may seem obvious to anyone who knows how to sell – but if you visit almost any business website you’ll soon see how easy it is to skip one or more crucial steps in this fundamental sequence and to forget that it’s a sequence, not a checklist.
As of last Saturday, the world has felt more blurred, poorer, plainer: Peter Mathiessen is dead. Over the years I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and it’s all been a splendid feast of food for fantasy about wild places and being fully present and fully human in them. So many of his sentences are so boldy wrought and clear you can almost hear the sharp “tok!” of a wooden Buddhist gong sounding when they end. Mathiessen’s years of Zen practice and their influence on his writing is the most intriguing thread in this fine piece about him published by the New York Times a few months before he died. At one point the author, Jeff Himmelman, describes a conversation with him about “Far Tortuga,” by far his most stylistically daring book:
“The trouble with metaphors and similes is they bring the author into it,” Matthiessen told me, “and I was trying to stay out of it.” The elimination of the ego is a standard part of Zen training, as is the admonition to keep things simple and free of adornment. “A roach out from underneath the cook shack with its antenna up, that was so striking and strange and beautiful that you don’t need ‘like a radio antenna’ or something like that,” he said. “You just don’t. The thing itself is so good.”