There's nothing like sitting alone in a room for hours, staring at a blank page on a computer screen, to get one thinking about why writing can be so difficult. Fitzgerald
compared the process to holding one's breath under water. And almost every writer has a well-developed procrastination strategy to put off the unpleasantness as long as possible. As I wrote RJYH
, all thirteen pained drafts of it ? twelve of them in the past tense, the final in the present ? all this was very obvious. But something gnawed at me: if writing
is so hard, why is writing an email
You probably know the phenomenon: have to write something for work, or on that novel you're working on, and the fingers seize up; the mental equivalent of a New York City store-front security gate slams down between your consciousness and the page. But when you have to dash off a note to a pal about that cool thing that happened last weekend, or about lunch plans next week, your brain suddenly opens for business, and the fingers start firing like pistons in a wide-open drag racer. What's up with that?
I did a lot of thinking about that question, and then, when I couldn't crack the code on my own, a lot of reading about it. The goal of course was to try to find a way to live completely in that logorrheic state, to never get gummed up. I may have found some answers, and thinking they might be useful to other writers out there, I'll offer them up here.
The primary difference between Writing and writing an email, it seems, is that we assume, rightly or wrongly, that people will judge us ? our intelligence, our charm, our winningness ? through our Writing. Emails on the other hand, are expected to be sloppy, poorly punctuated, perhaps all lower case, and aren't viewed necessarily as reliable evidence of an author's sprezzatura. It's that sensation of being judged and being evaluated, I think, that makes writers question every word, every comma, every idea, sometimes to the point of paralysis. It's as though someone were reading from behind us, and like a particularly vicious focus group participant, turning a knob back and forth between "favorable" and "unfavorable" ratings with every word that hits the page. Robert Graves had a name for (and wrote a book about) this nasty creature: the Reader Over Your Shoulder. This ogre doesn't pay much mind to emails or casual correspondence. But when a person sits down to Write, he suddenly appears, scowling, birch rod in hand, ready to punish for any but the most brilliant and original locution.
It's no wonder we've come to fear this ogre. Throughout our formal educations, we've been told explicitly that writing is a measure of intelligence. We're graded on our writing ? remember those menacing red marks?? ? assigned books that haughtily demean any imbecile who might put a comma in the wrong place or mix a metaphor. Not only that, but we're raised on the Classics; if you didn't feel inadequate as a writer before reading Shakespeare and Tolstoy, you certainly will by the time you're finished. After this kind of conditioning, how can a writer not have a little performance anxiety when stepping on stage to face the blank page?
Not that any of this is wrong exactly. There's nothing more bothersome than bad writing, nothing more infuriating than dropping $24.95 on a new novel and being disappointed by the prose on page 1. And there's a Darwinian usefulness to all of that negativity and disapprobation. It weeds out, Simon Cowell-style, many pretenders who might take up precious bookstore shelf-space with drivel. But if you're a writer or aspire to be, and plan to survive the gauntlet, and are one of the 99% of writers who aren't born geniuses and who will have to work to succeed, it helps to become aware of the Reader Over Your Shoulder, which means becoming conscious of the psychology behind your writing process.
To use a nautical metaphor: grammar, vocabulary, diction, and the like are the hardware of a vessel. The psychological component of writing, invisible but empowering, is the wind. You can have a great boat, but if you can't see the puffs to steer for them, you won't go anywhere, or at least, nowhere fast.
So how do you learn to see the wind? For me, I started first by reading about writing, and the writing process.
There are a lot of self-help type books about writing that I found useless and infuriating, but a number of good books that take a practical approach to understanding your own creative abilities ? that teach you how to learn what works for yourself. One of those is Ralph Keyes' The Courage to Write; another, expensive because it's an academic binding, is Robert Boice's How Writers Journey from Comfort to Fluency. Another: Stephen King's On Writing. I found it helpful to read about how other writers work, whether in the Paris Review, or in interviews and essays. (E.g. James Frey's essay here on the Powell's site.) The cumulative effect of all of this was that I began to become aware and more in control of not just of the words on the page, but of the psychology of getting them there, the way a placekicker may know the mechanics of kicking, but has to work separately to master the anxiety of kicking a last second field goal in front of a crowd. In the case of writing, the crowd is that Reader Over Your Shoulder, and the opinions of critics, peers, readers, bloggers and the whole of humanity; it makes kicking in front 90,000 seem relatively easy.
Sometimes the solutions for me were almost laughably obvious. For example, I knew that writing an email was easy, but Writing was hard. So when Writing my book or now articles for the Times, I simply start out by writing an email to myself about what I plan to say. More often than not, the result is a first draft. All that's left then is the hard work to get it into the shape I want. No one else has to know the linguistic mess that preceded the polished, published prose, just as no one has to know how many studio takes went into the production of "Stairway to Heaven." That may sound ridiculous, but give it a try and see if it doesn't help you send the Reader Over Your Shoulder back to the naughty corner, where he belongs.