Earlier this year novelist Ann Patchett published on Byliner what it described as “a practical memoir about the agony, ecstasy, and occasional lunacy of the writing life.” What follows is an excerpt from “The Getaway Car,” the minibook she wrote for Byliner, where it sells for $2.99:
“It’s a Long Article. It’s a Short Book. No, It’s a Byliner E-Book.”
– John TaymanEven if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off. But don’t give “putting it off” a magic label. Writer’s block is something out of our control, like a blocked kidney—we are not responsible. We are, however, entirely responsible for procrastination, and in the best of all possible worlds, we should also be responsible for being honest with ourselves about what is really going on.
I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction. The second thing on the list may be calling Verizon to dispute a charge on my bill, or cleaning the oven. Below that, there is mail to answer, an article to write for a newspaper in Australia about the five most influential books in my life and why. What this means is that I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one—writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it, but if you’ve read this far you must be pretty interested in writing yourself, and if you are, well, you know what I’m talking about.)
The beautiful thing about living in Provincetown [Massachusetts] in the winter, and having no money and no place to spend it even if I did, was that there was rarely anything in the number two spot on my to-do list. There was really nothing to distract me from the work I was there to do, and so the work got done.
The lesson is this: The more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page.
If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try this: Pick an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with 20 minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit. Still. Quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing—or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.
I once gave this entire explanation to an earnest group of college freshmen who had all suffered cruelly from writer’s block. When I finished, one girl raised her hand. “Clearly, you’ve just never had it,” she said, and the other students nodded in relieved agreement. Maybe not.