Not quite blocked.

I had that thing happen this morning where I woke up having thought of the paragraph I need to finish the essay that’s been torturing me for more than a month now. I guess this is what passes for inspiration during the longest writing rut of my so-called career. Regardless, I’ll take it!

You know what helped me during this time of trauma (for I have suffered as nobody has ever suffered before)? This essay by John McPhee, who writes about the importance of drafts. It’s a good piece overall, better than McPhee has written in some time, but the best part, for me at least, is this:

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft.

McPhee goes on to make the point that without a first draft there can be no improvement:

Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft of or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

This is why I always tell my students to get something, usually a bare narrative of the event they’re writing about, down on paper first. That way, they have something, the bones of a story upon which they can layer analysis and argument, to improve. If only I would learn to follow my own advice.

One thought on “Not quite blocked.

  1. jen

    I also really liked that part of the McPhee essay (because it’s nice when famous writers point out the obvious and important for all of us poor learners). And I hope to see your problem essay in print soon/sometime.


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