Friday, January 28, 2011

The Myth of Writers Block (and what to do when you're blocked)

Writing is one of the most important activities for successful consultants. Writing helps you capture and clarify your ideas. Writing helps you polish your presentations to clients. And published writing is probably the second most effective marketing tools in your kit. (First, of course, is recommendations from satisfied clients.)

Yet most consultants never publish an article. Of those who do publish an article, most write only one. Many consultants never publish a report. Of those who do publish a report, most write only one. And certainly, most consultants never publish a book. Of those who do publish a book, most publish only one. If you ask them why they don't write more, they will commonly say they are stuck, or "blocked." But these words are merely labels. They explain nothing. Most often consultants stop writing because they do not understand the essential randomness involved in the creative process.

The Structure of Creation versus the Structure of Presentation

Please don't get the impression that I read in the random way I write (my "Fieldstone Method." Reading, by its nature, is more or less linear, like a string of beads, and I tend to read most works through from beginning to end. But written works can be created by superimposing any of a variety of organizations on that linear string of words. For instance, novels, being stories, are more or less linear; but novelists may use flashbacks, stories-within-stories, or parallel stories to break the linearity.

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference manuals—though consisting of a bound sequence of pages—are generally organized for a random access by the addition of tables of contents and indices. Internets and intranets allow us to hyperlink written works in much more complex structures, though in order to use them, we frequently need aids such as index pages and search engines.

But none of these reading organizations have much of anything to do with the organization of the creative process by which the works came into existence. These reading structures are presentation methods, not creation methods. Creation doesn't work in any such regular way. It's more accurately modeled by the Fieldstone Method. Every day is different; every idea is different; every mood is different; so why should every project be the same?

Writer's Block and the Goldilocks Questions

"Of course every day is different," you may say. "Some days I'm entirely paralyzed by writer's block, and I don't accomplish anything at all."

If this is your problem, I can help, as I've helped many other consultants and professional and amateur writers. I didn't always understand how I was helping, until one student wrote the following:

As evidenced in some conversations with other students of yours and in my own writings, I think there are number of intangibles that you do offer—in much the same way that a coach or therapist does. These include motivation, raising self-esteem, building confidence in writing, considering self-other-context, discipline, thinking more clearly, or awareness, to name only a few.

Writer's block is not a disorder of you, the person attempting to write. It's a deficiency of your writing methods—the mythology you've swallowed about how works get written—what my sometime co-author, Tom Gilb, calls your "mythodology." Fieldstone writers, freed of this mythodology, simply do not experience "writer's block." Have you ever heard anyone speak of “mason's block”? (But, yes, I have heard people talking about "consultant's block"—and what I'm saying here actually applies to much of the work consultants do, or try to do when they get "stuck.")

Many writing methods and books assume that writer's block results from a shortage of ideas. Others assume the opposite—that writers become blocked when they have a surplus of ideas and can't figure out what to do with all of them. But it's not the number of ideas that blocks you, it's your reaction to the number of ideas.

Here's how it goes. You have the wrong number of ideas, and that bothers you, causes you discomfort, or even pain. To lessen the pain, you turn to some other activity—coffee, beer, sex, movies, books, sleep, or name your poison. This diversion relieves the pain in the short run, but eventually your mind turns back to that unfinished piece of writing (or other work). Now you feel worse because you've avoided the task. You might try writing again, but your mind keeps returning to what a bad, blocked writer you are. So, eventually, you turn to your relief—coffee, beer, sex, or whatever.

Do you recognize the addiction cycle? (This dynamic is described more fully in my soon-to-be released Volume 5, Managing Yourself and Others, of my e-Series, Quality Software.) The Fieldstone method allows you to break this cycle in exactly the same way you break any addiction, by using your intelligence and creativity. I sometimes begin to feel "blocked," but when I do, I simply ask myself what I call the Goldilocks Questions:

"What state am I in now? Do I have too many ideas? Do I have too few? Or, like Baby Bear's porridge, is it just right?"

If I have too many ideas, I begin some organizing activities, like sorting ideas into different piles. If I have too few ideas, I concentrate on gathering more. Usually, the first place I look is in my own mind, staying in the flow of the moment, one idea building on the next.

For instance, when I’m writing dialogue, I don’t stop to search externally for just the right conversational “stone.” That approach leads to overly clever dialogue, rather than the more natural-sounding stones that just pop out of my head from millions of past conversations I’ve heard or overheard. Only if my natural mental flow fails me do I start searching for an external "fieldstone" to trigger a new flow.

Then, when the number of ideas is "just right," I organize them, trimming and polishing a bit in the process, until I have a finished product—or until I have to ask the Goldilocks Questions again. Sure, I may be stuck for a few moments, but I'm never "blocked."

In my book, Weinberg on Writing, I sketch all three parts of the Fieldstone Method—first the gathering of ideas (stones), then the organizing, then the trimming and polishing. The book describes them in that order, not because I perform them in that order, but because it's a book, and books are linear organizations of ideas.

Unlike what your schools taught you about writing, the Fieldstone Method is not dependent on any particular order of doing things. Instead, Fieldstoning is about always doing something that's advancing your projects. As a Fieldstone writer, you will have a variety of keep-moving activities, a handy list of tasks of all sizes, plus the knowledge to match each task to your mood, your start/stop time, your resources, and your total available time. As a Fieldstone consultant, you will have a second handy list of keep-moving activities—a list with your writing list as one of its sublists.

Each Fieldstone writer also has to find her own “magic” tasks, not all of which may seem “logical” to other writers. Meditation works for me, but others find it disturbing. Aikido boosts me, but it tires others. Some writers say you have to have a cat, a cigarette, and a cup of coffee laced with brandy.
The cigarette and brandied coffee would kill me, which would be merciful because then I wouldn’t have to watch the Lovey and Caro tear apart the cat.

Observing Your Activities

In order to be a non-blockable writer (or consultant), you need to do a bit of observation of yourself. Here's what I suggest you try:

1. Choose a day or several hours that you plan to devote to writing.

2. In your journal (all professional consultants keep a journal) record the start-stop time of different activities.

3. Record your feelings at the beginning and end of each activity. Don't interrupt your flow, but just capture a word or two.

4. At the end of the day, look at what you wrote in your journal. Do you see an addiction cycle?

5. How did you respond any time you were temporarily stuck?

6. What other activities could you have done that would have served you better?

7. How will you remind yourself of those activities when you repeat this observation exercise in a month or so?

(This article is adapted from Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method )

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1 comment:

Dwayne said...

As a Fieldstone writer and Fieldstone human being, I recommend this. It works. I had to learn what activities I had to do, but that wasn't too difficult.

This works. And what is nice are the side effects: far more happiness and satisfaction. Boredom has disappeared.