One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Carroll, maintains a decidedly non-techy blog (Bill Gibson and Charlie Stross, not surprisingly, tend to be much more webizens in their online writings). He’ll sometimes share links but usually it’s small observations of the wonder of the mundane (his or his readers’), or excerpts from his writing that are appropriate for his mood. It’s a very nice blog, actually, rarely more than a graf or two a day but always worthwhile.
Today’s entry is more involved and descriptive than most, and quite helpful. I always enjoy reading writers writing about writing (or any practitioner writing about what they do, but given that I spend quite a bit of time fiddling with words, writers’ perspectives are especially useful to me). Not necessarily because their approaches are always applicable – neither profile of creativity/productivity Gladwell explored in “Late Bloomers” is anywhere near how I work – but just to see how all sorts of people approach the same issues.
Along those lines, here is some of what Carroll discusses:
One of the questions people frequently ask is do I ever get writer’s block and if so, what do I do about it? Luckily I’ve never had that gruesome beast but I do have some thoughts about it, and those thoughts run into the idea of creativity in general.
I like to write. I always have. I consider writing my friend. We sit down together in the morning and do our job. But (and this is a big but) if my friend Writing (notice the capital W) says not today because I’d rather goof off, or drink coffee, or nothing at all, I say fine—no work today. If that extends to a week, then so be it. Like the wild animals living so incongruously but comfortably in a gamekeeper’s house on the Serengeti Plain, Writing stays friendly so long as I let him come and go as he pleases. If he doesn’t want to stay in the house and walks out for a while, I simply do something else like read a book or go to the movies. I never, ever grab Writing by the neck and say you sit back down here and go to work. I’d never treat a friend like that, nor would I treat a tiger like that. So why treat the thing I love as much as my creative ability like that?
I believe people get writer’s block a lot of the time because they panic when the flow stops. Then they run around the house shutting the ‘doors and windows,’ trying to trap their creativity inside. Bad idea. I do think that if they were to just move away from the work for however long, many of their problems would solve themselves. Some of you could say yeah but I’ve been blocked for six months—what about that? I’d posit it’s likely some of your block, perhaps not all, is because you are frightened and trying to close all your windows. Which in turn has scared your Writing and made IT panicky. You get my drift. Of course there are exceptions. But I really do believe the greatest trick to either get going in the morning, or after a long dry spell, or even trying to conquer the fearsome mountain of ‘I don’t know where to go from here’….is to get up and walk away. At least until you feel comfortable. Or in the best-case scenario, until you are eager to get back to work again. Because at that point your friend Writing or Creativity says okay, I’m rested and ready to go. I’m so happy you left me alone to go out into the world a while to recharge my batteries.
Obviously it’s easy to take this advice too far, and just endlessly postpone dealing with the problem of Writing the Thing. There’s probably a contrast here between professional writers – for whom eventually finishing whatever they’re working on results in a paycheck and promise of another – and graduate students, for whom delaying completion of the dissertation can (to a point, after which the “Done yet?” questions feel like lead basketballs [or so I’ve heard]) extend a very pleasant life of inquiry and intellectual discussion in a nice place.
As I write this, I’ve just received the first feedback from my advisor on a very preliminary draft of one of the several chapters of my literature review. It’s a very incremental movement of the status bar across the screen, but it’s movement, and for me that’s one of the most important parts of the writing process. I tend to view writing as a problem-solving process: solving the problem of writing [WRITING OBJECT X]. This has been true for as long as I can remember, whether it’s a research paper, a newspaper article, a two-pager, an agenda, or what have you.
The first part of this process is understanding what the parameters are of [WRITING OBJECT X] – what are the variables I need to be aware of, what does it look like when it’s completed, what am I trying do here, etc.? Once I can quantify what needs to happen, I can start assembling the various elements and putting them together, and have at least a fair idea of how it’s going. The status bar is not a perfect analogy – at least for me, there’s no explicit “XX% complete” flashing – but useful nonetheless in that as I’m working I can definitely see/feel the movement towards completion. Iterations, drafts, processing of notes and citations are of course as important (moreso, actually) for me as the actual laying of words on the screen.
I’m lucky enough that this is all a pretty enjoyable process for me, which makes graduate school both a great place and something that is necessarily going to end as part of its nature. If there’s one central takeaway that I have found as a key to this whole process for me, one piece of advice that people seem to find useful, it’s this: words are not precious. Conceiving of the writing process as a problem-solving exercise allows me to let go of attachment to any particular set of words, phrases, or formulations. Revisions become not an ego-wounding and heart-wrenching process of letting go and moving on, but rather something more like adding a second (third, fourth…, nth) coat of paint to a room – something that is simply part of the project. And just as with any project that’s a problem-solving exercise – tilling and planting a garden, putting together a bed from Ikea, etc. – at the end of writing [WRITING OBJECT X] I tend to feel not the disgust and loathing that many writers describe with their just-completed works, but simply the satisfaction of a job done.
Speaking of which – back to work, now.