Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The hundredth post

The dreaded blank page
Apart from my recent break, I have been producing a blog entry every week-day for some months now. This is the hundredth post and I spent a lot of time thinking about a suitable lead image: a cake with candles seemed too self-congratulatory and a long line of fence posts seemed too "clever". Then it struck me, what do I see every morning? A blank page, of course -- the dreaded blank page, the scourge of every writer.

In the popular media, a blank page often serves as a symbol for writer's blog. We all have seen more than one movie where a novelist sits glumly in front of a typewriter with a blank page waiting. Perhaps there are few crumpled failed attempts lying about the floor, or filling the waste paper bin. Does any author still use a typewriter? We feel sorry for the poor author in the movie, but rarely think about other sorts of writers -- journalists and bloggers who have to produce something every work-day whether by their own design or through imposed deadlines.

Over the years, I have picked up a few tips from other authors who have shared their methods with their readers, so I thought that I should share them with you. I would give credit to the authors of each of these tips if I could remember who they were, and some details might well be my own adaptations.

It is mainly a matter of training your brain to do the same sort of thing as a response to certain stimuli. I use the word brain here and not mind because we are looking for an automatic, machine-like response to the stimuli, not something to be figured out each time anew. We are building neural pathways here!

The key is a self-imposed routine. Try to schedule your writing for about the same time each day and before you start writing do some set of relatively mindless tasks. It can be as simple as having breakfast, going out for a coffee, taking the dog for a walk or doing certain chores. What you do does not matter providing that you do exactly the same thing each day just before you sit down to write. We have evolved automatic responses to handle such routines so we do not have to plan each action. When we chew our food, for example, we do not consciously plan each muscle movement first -- if you try to do that you might bite your tongue! We eat and think of other things. Such automatic responses continue until we tell them to stop and this is the key -- the writing becomes "attached' to the previous actions and also becomes automatic to a degree: the brain says "Write!" and the mind tells us what to write -- keep these two separate. If you perform the same ritual every day, the writing will come automatically. You do not need to to think about your writing when you perform this ritual, and it is best if you do not -- if things just come to you, no problem: inspiration can even become automatic, it is only the content that is variable. Most times, you will not face writer's block, and this makes writing most likely to be automatic and writer's block a deviation that will diminish over time with the self-imposed routine or ritual. Chronic writer's block is where the writer's block and its accompanying stress, itself, becomes an automatic response. You need to train yourself, in a Pavlovian fashion, to replace this automatic response with another one that is actually useful.

This technique works as if by magic. After a while, when you sit down to write, you will start at once and things will just flow. The more you do it, the better it works. There have been some times when I did not know even what I was going to write about before I sat down to write. The brain says "write" and you write.

But this is not all. Even using this technique, there are other traps waiting for you if you are not careful. If you get too wrapped up in what you are writing, and everything is going well there is a tendency to overdo it and write for too long. This can lead to exhaustion and eventually even burn-out. When I had my company, I always insisted that my employees always took their full coffee and lunch breaks -- even if they were swamped with work or had to catch up after taking time off for any reason. If they did not take these breaks, they would slow down and start making too many mistakes. Production always diminished as a result and the numbers of sick-days increased. Creative work is especially susceptible to these problems, dull routine work, less so of course -- it becomes automatic.  A friend once told me of a job in seismology that was so repetitive and dull that only two types of people could handle it for any time -- those with very low IQ's and those with very high IQ's. The former found it engaging enough and the latter turned it into an automatic process and thought of other things of interest to entertain themselves. An old friend who not only owned an art gallery, but encouraged new artists once told me of a common mistake made by new artists who cannot yet make a living from their art --they are prone to take a job in commercial art. As the latter follows certain routines, it is too easy for the task to be too automatic and this infects the artist's personal style. She said, "If you do have to get a job, then drive  a cab or something, because if you work in commercial art each day, your own work will suffer as a result and your paintings will start to look more commercial than painterly".

So set up a word limit for each day which is easy for you to accomplish and leaves you with some energy after you stop. If you find yourself "on a roll" and want to keep writing past this limit, then force yourself to stop. To keep the continuity on a multi-day project, stop writing in the middle of a long sentence. The same thoughts will come back the next day and you will be off again. Discipline yourself to rest as well as to work!

Tomorrow? Don't worry, I'll think of something after I take the dog for his morning walk!

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