I wish I had this simple key in high school and college because it would have saved me from a lot of stress and guilt, and it would have spared every teacher who has ever read one of my shitty academic papers from a lot of pain as well.
The Key: We are not blocked. We are empty.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes:
The word “block” suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty… This emptiness can destroy some writers, as do the shame and frustration that go with it… if you accept the reality that you have been given – that you are not in a productive creative period – you free yourself to begin filling up again.
Simple. Are you empty? Write what you can and go take a break. Fill up on something. Read more about your topic. Take a jog. Watch that episode of How I Met Your Mother that your significant other keeps making references to that you don’t understand. Do something else. Anything else. Then you can come back with a different mind.
Sitting and staring at a blank sheet of paper is good sometimes, but always trying to force your mind to come up with fantastic ideas in this way is kinda like trying to get your untrained puppy to pee on your boss’s shoes at the company picnic by leaving him in the car. What your mind needs at the very least is a change of scenery.
Live as if you are dying.
Anne Lamott has this suggestion:
I remind myself of this when I cannot get any work done: to live as if I am dying, because the truth is we are all terminal on this bus. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence… instead of staring miserably at the computer screen trying to will my way into having a breakthrough, I say to myself, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today?” Then I can decide to read Wallace Stevens for the rest of the morning or go to the beach or just really participate in ordinary life. Any of these will begin the process of filling me back up with observations, flavors ideas, visions, memories.
Go forth. Procrastinate!
Well, not really. It is important that you write down whatever you can, no matter how terrible so that you have something to edit later. This step is something most of us have figured out on our own. But instead of feeling guilty about getting away from the project for awhile, think of it as fuel.
Most of the time you “write” is really spent living. You walk around, think, observe, and internally digest material on an ongoing basis. This fertilizes your mind and allows your ideas to develop and mature so you can voice them on paper and eventually submit the darn thing.
Abe Lincoln is credited with the saying, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.” Writing is like that. In an eight hour time period, you don’t take all eight hours to write something. You spend about six or seven (or perhaps an entire semester) reading about your topic, sleeping, chatting on Facebook, and pacing nervously while drinking a gallon of coffee and possibly smoking a bunch marijuana cigarettes. And provided you didn’t mess up and accidentally commit suicide in the process, you have probably had one last, victorious thought before submitting your work: “Screw it.”