Maud Newton, whose long-anticipated book Ancestor Trouble comes out next year, shared some excellent writing advice: “Don’t Write the Tedious Thing.”
“At times while working on my book over the years, I would become resentful of it.” She wrote that she would hit a certain point and think, “Ugh, now I have to write this boring part.”
Then I would realize: this is my book! There are no rules! I can write it however I want! Also, I would think, if I’m bored by something that I believe I need to write, the reader undoubtedly will be too, if not because the subject is inherently boring, then because I myself find it so unbearably tedious to imagine discussing it for five pages. Often as not, I would remember some aspect of the subject that deeply interested me, something a little outside the way it’s usually perceived or written about. Then I would meditate on that, and soon I would be scribbling notes from an increasingly excited place until I found a way forward. A form of beginner’s mind.
As Elmore Leonard told us, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
I try to do this. If there’s a part bogging me down, I try to leap over it, somehow, and see if the piece will work without it. (It usually does.)
* * *
Another friend of mine, Clive Thompson, says that with non-fiction writing, many times you think you have “writer’s block,” when what you really have is “reporter’s block.”
“If you’re stuck,” he says, “stop typing. Go hunt down some new useful facts. Then you’ll come back refreshed.”
You’re having trouble writing not because you can’t find the right words, but because you don’t know what you’re trying to say. You don’t have the right facts at hand.
So the solution is to gather more facts. You need to step away from the keyboard, stop trying to write, and do some more reporting: Make phone calls to some new sources, consult new experts, read a relevant book or article. Once you have the facts at hand, the words will come.
Or to put it another way, when you’re writing nonfiction, the words flow from the research. If the words aren’t flowing, usually the problem is the research isn’t there. To say something, you have to have something to say.
“Block” is a sign that you don’t have what you need and you should probably go somewhere else and do something else until you get what it is that you need.
Your “block” could just be boredom.
You’ve bored yourself.
You’ve become uninterested in writing.
The way to be interested in writing again is to find something interesting to write about.
Time to go out in the world and notice something.
“Is it possible to practice noticing?
I think so.
But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning
And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.”
—Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several short sentences about writing
The “suspension of yearning” is key.
Stop wanting to write long enough to find something worth writing about.
* * *
I love what Carole King said about handling writer’s block in Paul Zollo’s excellent Songwriters on Songwriting:
So, most of all, don’t worry. Go do something else. Come back later.
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” ?
—Ursula K. Le Guin
Most of all, skip the boring parts.