Writer’s Block

I was recently asked to talk about my strategies for successful writing. I write a reasonable amount, both for academic purposes as well as for fun, but I have never felt like characterizing my writing as “successful”. I write best when I feel the urge, but I write often because I have to. Maybe the first type is successful to me, the other one is not.

In an academic setting successful writing probably means writing that leads to eventual publication. I am definitely not good at this. My co-authors will tell you that my writing stinks. Many of them tell me to refrain from writing the final version of the paper – I am too likely to take risks with the writing, whereas sanitized, safe writing seems to work better. I don’t do play-it-safe writing. Its often been said that one should write papers not to get them accepted, but to prevent them from getting rejected. I hate that idea.

Nevertheless, I have learned various ways to write even when I do not feel like it, simply because I have found that I need it for my sustenance. Its an essential part of life, and I think especially so for an academic. Here are some typical things that help me write and more important, glean real enjoyment from it.

  1. I write best soon after I read well. I read a lot, and buy a lot of books. In a good month I will often buy twenty or more books, and obviously they will not all be read. There are some people who do guilt when they start a book and then cannot finish it, and it blocks them up from reading more. I got over this a long time ago. Since I really need to read good writing so as to inspire me to write, I keep a constant supply of books nearby (mainly bedside) and this does help me immensely. This comprises mainly non-fiction, but I think good fiction does just as well. In short, reading well leads to writing well. Even if it feels like there is no time to read, one must make time. Its the only way to be a writer. I recall reading extensively a while back a series of books on how to write science fiction and the one theme that ran through all the books was that one had to read a lot of science fiction to be able to know what good writing in that area means.
  2. I do have some favorite books that I read more than once that deal with writing itself. First, let me tell you about two remarkable essays that my son guided me to. Both are titled “Why I write” – one by George Orwell mentions ego needs, the need to express oneself and the need to change one’s environment. I find I share these goals to varying degrees, but they are all there. Mainly I write for myself – therein lies the key – writing is in the end a selfish personal hobby, and why not? The second essay is by Joan Didion, who mentioned that she writes so that she may know herself, and this resonated with me too. We are here and not here at the same time, and when I write, I truly feel all here. Its wonderful. Didion pointed out that the intonation of the title of the essay is a series of monosyllabic “I”s (why I write) – a fair indication of how self-centered this pursuit it.
  3. Other books. Isaac Asimov has been a great inspiration. I have this book of his short stories titled “Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection” which contains three parts and the third is on writing. Did you know he almost never wrote a second draft, he was that good. Of course, I read this a while ago, and told myself, if Asimov can do this why can’t I? This has been for many years a constant source of frustration to my co-authors! Another book that has greatly inspired me is titled “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by (guess who?) – Stephen King. And you thought he only wrote grisly stories! This is a wonderful book. I have also greatly enjoyed “The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work : A Collection from the Washington Post Book World” by Marie Arana. Her interviews and personal reflections of well known people and writers show how differently people write and come to the craft. It seems that almost all writers there appear to have discovered their muse at a time of hardship, and in many ways for me this is true as well. Writing is a refuge, be it writing for work or pleasure.
  4. What? Writing is just an expression of creative spirit. I do not think of writing as very different from doing mathematics, or writing program code. Just as there is some difference but more similarity in reading prose or a book on mathematics. Writing is in many ways the lazy person’s way of being creative, which explains a lot about me I suppose.
  5. How? – Implements. Pen. Desktop. Laptop. I use all of them. But I write best when I handwrite out things first, either in short form or complete paragraphs, depending on my mood. If I write at a desk I usually use a fountain pen. If in bed, a pencil. Then I transcribe to computer. My best writing has always been handwritten first. I tend to handwrite much less for research writing, which explains why that tends to be my worst efforts. Ideas flow faster and more coherently when handwriting. Thought flows nicely from the tip of a pen. I spend an exorbitant amount of money on good writing instruments but it pays off in the immense enjoyment from writing with them.
  6. When? Usually in the early mornings. My best days are when I rise early like 4 or 5am and then just write, not watching the clock and definitely not doing anything else, especially not email. I avoid all distractions by not going in to work. I keep emotionally relaxed by taking a meditation break. And I definitely avoid obviously gratifying interruptions like administrative work, which make one feel useful even while being quite useless.
  7. When I don’t find work-writing working, I do fun writing instead. Its like keeping fit, daily exercise is best. When the usual rigorous workout is impossible, one should not miss out on a light one. Thats what fun writing is. Think of fun writing as cross-training.
  8. Good writing has been repeatedly defined as re-writing. I find it very hard to throw away even one word once its out there! I try but it does not help, each child is as favored as the other. But some prose just needs to be euthanized, and I am getting only a little better at this. So, it pays to develop a sentimental detachment at times from writing thats been done already.
  9. Writer’s block is often not really that. Its sometimes location staleness. You cannot write because you are in a location of poor energy. So the simplest thing to do is just move to another location, and this works very well for me. As a child, I used to carry around a little exercise book in which I would write my views of the world. I would walk from my parent’s home to an embassy library a mile from home and write there. I must have filled more than twenty such notebooks a year and my mother kept some of them even when I went to college. I remember how happy I felt when a female friend read one of them, and it was nice to have someone else relive those moments, and enjoy them too. But I digress – my point was that when you get stuck in one place, just move to another. I have some favorite coffee shops in Berkeley and Oakland where there is a quiet buzz that really works for me. I also drive down to the sea (I grew up on the ocean) and write there, or up at Grizzly peak in the hills atop Berkeley. Location is everything – you have to tap into the energy where it flows in sync with you.
  10. Be prepared. You never know when the muse comes calling. I carry a notebook in my bag always, and write things down when I get the urge. There is a favorite black exercise book form that works for me. I also carry sometimes a smaller blue plastic-covered ring binder book to jot down notes. But I rarely use a writing pad, unless its for class notes. Instead, at home, I have two to three clipboards with used computer paper, where I write on the unused side. One is on my desk, one at my beside, and the other at large. Being lazy, I keep things handy, for sometimes the ideas one jots down may not be worth retrieving pen and paper for unless they are just there.
  11. Electronics. I have developed another recent method of keeping ideas. When I think I might later write a blog about something, and just need to write down the title of the idea, I use a web-based stickies program called “Webnote” – its free, just google it, and you can use it right away too. The beauty of it is that you can access your electronic stickies no matter what computer you are using. Also I often attend talks and things, and when I am there it just releases ideas, many times having nothing to do with the talk itself. So I write them down and then scan them in when I come home. I am a PDF rat – I keep thousands of PDFs with all sorts of things, and have devised an elaborate file naming convention so I can quickly list anything similar. Using a Mac helps. But I store everything on servers in my office, so that they are accessible to me anywhere in the world. Finally, I use a phone with a nice keyboard so that I may email notes to myself for writing up later.
  12. Proof-reading. Do it – a lot. I am very bad at this. But whenever I have been patient enough it has been most enjoyable experience and made me proud of my work. Sitting and reading one’s own work and getting thrilled with it is such an incredible act of self-indulgence, everyone must try it!
  13. Read non-fiction. I am convinced that all good writers must be avid readers of non-fiction. When I have read biographies of fiction writers I have found that they inevitably read a lot of non-fiction. I think this is because great writers are innately curious people and often write to understand things better, and therefore will be drawn to non-fiction just as they would to fiction. Reading non-fiction to me is like leading multiple real lives, and it lets me borrow freely from one life into the other. It makes my writing fun and wild.
  14. Finally, the most important reason I write is to have fun. Write for fun, even with research writing. Too much research writing seems aimed at desultory, dry exposition, sanitized to death. Just recently I got a paper accepted in a good journal that had taken me five years to find a home for. It encountered rejections along the way, some of them characterized by an absence of humor too painful to describe. But the paper is about computers understanding human conversations, and my early versions of the paper contained an introduction that was pure fiction, about computers running the world’s financial system, and the only role of humans being to inject randomness now and then to make life interesting. To me this was the most beautiful science fiction beginning to any paper I had written, except that every referee report categorically demanded immediate expungment of my energetic preface. Not willing to give in (sentimental attachment reigning strong), I moved it from preface to epilogue, eliciting no change in response. The final version contains no trace of that prose whatsoever, but I had so much fun with it, that it made the paper one of my favorites despite the repeated rejections. Maybe I will one day write that introduction into a science fiction story and publish it as such, but the academic paper still sings to me with that prose even though no one else will hear it. But thats just the point, you have to have fun writing, for yourself, not for publication.


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