It might give you comfort to learn that America’s friendliest writing coach on occasion succumbs to writer’s block. On a rare occasion, he refers to himself in the third person, but will stop doing that — right now.
I am thinking about this now because instead of revising my 300-page book manuscript, I am writing this essay on writer’s block. I could be watching the hockey game or mowing the lawn, but this will do for the moment.
Writing this will remind me of lessons I have shared with others for years but too often forget to apply to myself. As I was rehearsing these lessons last night in my half-sleep, I realized how eccentric they might seem to a curious observer.
However odd they may seem, they have worked for me now into my 20th book as author or editor. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Stop reading.
See what I mean by eccentric? I watched an interview in which the brilliant novelist Lauren Groff revealed that she reads 300 books per year. God bless her. While she is doing that, I am probably watching Netflix. I own about 2,000 books. When I did my taxes, I calculated that our family spent $4,178 on books last year. But two things happen when I read too much: First, I lose time when I could be writing; and I can become intimidated by the quality of the writing of others. Self-doubt has been known to creep in.
2. Stop writing.
I’m not a writer who can stare at the ceiling. If it’s not coming, off I go, full of energy to do my favorite things: take a walk, drive my car, visit the coffee shops, go to the bookstore, hit a few golf balls. Something interesting happens. The words that will not flow through my hands visit a trapdoor in my brain, acting as a form of rehearsal. I can often return to my desk and build momentum in my writing.
3. Clean something.
I remember that just before each of our daughters was born, my wife Karen would accelerate her preparation. I have heard it referred to as a kind of nesting. Before I can make progress in my writing, I need to feather my own nest. I clean my desk, my closets, my bathroom, the workbench in the garage.
4. Zero draft.
I did not invent that lovely term, but I zero draft when I can. Rather than practice the avoidance behaviors described above, I imagine I can write much earlier than I think I can. Don’t wait till you have done all the reporting or all the research before you write. Instead, go to your keyboard and very quickly and uncritically write — without reference to your notes. Write what you think you already know. It’s not even a first draft. It’s a zero draft. It will teach you what you still need to learn, saving you time and focusing your reporting.
5. Lower your standards.
This surprising advice comes to us from the Oregon poet William Stafford. He argues that we expect too much too soon from our writing. We disappoint ourselves. There are various ways to lower your standards. My favorite is to write on a yellow legal pad. Not white, but yellow. No one expects anything written on yellow paper to be any good.
6. Finally, if you are stuck on one topic, write about something else.
Which is what I have just done. In fact, I think I have just achieved escape velocity from the forces of literary gravity that have been weighing me down. Up, up, and away.