Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, April 9, 2018

Much Ado About Writer's Block

Much has been written about writer’s block. In fact, I have spent countless hours searching online and seeking out books that will help me to overcome being blocked. Over time, I have realized that writer’s block is really another name for perfectionism. You can’t out anything down on paper, or type anything on the screen, because everything you can think of to say sounds wrong even before you’ve written it. The longer you sit in front of the blank page or screen in front of you, the harder it gets to put something down, and eventually, you just get up in frustration, telling yourself that you are blocked. 

Incidentally, I am a master at writer’s block. I spent years planning the first chapter, the first scene of a memoir that I wanted to write. This was going to be my first book, my most important book. If I didn’t nail the first scene, then the book wouldn’t come together. I never thought of writing the chapters I did know how to write, and simply putting the initial chapter in place later. Eventually, of course, I did employ that approach, and wrote other books; but because of that thinking I lost years of writing time. 

Perfectionism in writing is an insidious thing. It creeps up in the guise of “standards”. Who wouldn’t want to write well? Or ensure that they do a good job?

But there is a difference between having standards and perfectionism. Having standards means you care about quality, maybe you go over your work one more time, you take extra care while editing, you strive harder to get better as a writer. Perfectionism tells you that you have to get it right in one draft. There is no room for improvement, no room for error. With that attitude, no wonder we freeze up when faced with the prospect of having to write a first sentence. We stare at the blank page, aware of the importance of that first sentence and think - “This has to grab the reader. This has to be witty and entertaining and shed light into the mysteries of life”. No wonder we are paralyzed. 

How do you get away from perfectionism? You remind yourself that what you’re working on is just a draft. I had a professor in law who introduced our class to the concept of the ‘zero draft’. This was the stage even before the first draft, which even though it has the word ‘draft’ in it, most people including myself, associate with the final or near-final version of something. That way, having a zero draft gives you a chance to write an unpolished, messy draft. Ever since, I always started my academic papers, and later my books, with a zero draft. 

Which hasn’t stopped me from having several other drafts as well. When asked how many drafts a piece of writing might need, writing coach Hilary Rettig said, “As many as it takes”. 

I think the best way to combat the tendency towards perfectionism in your writing is to give yourself permission - permission to write something that needs to be edited. Permission to write something that isn’t quite finished yet. And permission to write and publish something that isn’t perfect, but is something better - it represents you. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Making Time to Write

Time is the one resource that you can’t renew or get back, as the saying goes. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, its how you use it that counts. We have all heard these cliches about time, and yet that is because they are true. As anyone who falls in love will testify, no matter how busy you are, you make time to call or text the person, you plan fun things you want to do together, you daydream about them all the time. You make the time for what you care about essentially. 

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert said that your relationship to your art must be like that of a secret lover, you steal time away when you can, you think about them and look forward to the next time you see them. It's exciting and passionate. 

Time is also relative. The main reason we think that we probably don’t have time to write is because we think that we need to have “large swathes of uninterrupted time, like bolts of fabric” (Julia Cameron). The reality is that you can write in snatched or stole time, like meeting your lover in the stairwell for a spontaneous make-out session. I’m writing this chapter in longhand on a crowded bus on my morning commute to my day job. In fact, I once wrote half a book longhand on the back of one-sided printed paper during my daily commute to college on the bus, while juggling a full load of classes, a part-time job and several extracurricular actives including being the editor of my college law magazine. I was busy, but I had a commission from a publisher to write the book, and as a fledgling writer, that’s all I had ever wanted. How could I let my dream slip away? With the deadline looming, I spent every spare minute jotting down sentences and paragraphs, racing to get the book done in time. 

As I write this, I am on a bus passing by Singapore’s breathtaking skyline - a picturesque grouping of iconic buildings that feature in every tourist’s photograph album. And yet no one around me has looked up from their phones to give this view a passing glance. If pressed, most people would probably respond that they don’t have the time to enjoy the view. But they are on the bus, captive, which won’t go any faster or slower than it will. Maybe what they mean is not that they don’t have the time, but that it isn’t a priority, it is more important to check that email, send that text or watch that funny cat video. Or maybe its just a habit, to do those things on the bus instead of seeing the view. 

How we spend our time then is a matter of priorities and habits. If you want to write a book (or play or short story), you have to prioritize it, perhaps over other things, at least while you are writing the book. And you have to create good habits that support your writing. 

This post is an excerpt from a book I am working on about writing your first book. I will be posting more installments intermittently on this blog. I would love comments or questions!
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