Do you ever feel stuck? Do you work diligently researching a topic for an assignment, but then, when it is time to analyze, synthesize, and compose something organized and effective, you freeze up? Sometimes, thinking too much about our audience or point of view hinders us at the beginning of the writing process. Approaching a task indirectly helps us overcome that frustrating paralysis.
The assigned essay is an awkward task. In his book, Writing with Power, Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Peter Elbow acknowledges that “when you write for a teacher you are usually swimming against the stream of natural communication. The natural direction of communication is to explain what you understand to someone who doesn’t understand it. But in writing an essay for a teacher your task is usually to explain what you are still engaged in trying to understand to someone who understands it better” (Elbow 219). With every sentence of our argument, are we also somehow leaking out our fears that maybe we got it wrong or maybe our thinking isn’t good enough?
Part of the problem is that we are not writing to our instructor or professor, but rather we are writing for them, and for their evaluation of our writing and thinking. In the assigned essay, the audience we are writing to is nebulous, faceless, and known only as the general reader. Plus, we’re usually ditching our first-person point of view.
What if we wrote a letter to someone instead? We could state our views as our own, use personal pronouns, raise questions, take on a more personal tone, toss ideas with less fear, and visualize a specific audience.
You might ask, why waste precious work time on a letter that you might not send, on writing that isn’t directly part of the task? My answer: You were stuck. This can help you get unstuck. This could break the block.
Here’s a helpful story I recently heard about Tom Wolfe and his 1963 Esquire article that launched him to new levels of fame.
Before Wolfe queried Esquire with his story idea about the custom car culture burgeoning in southern California, he had already been working as a journalist, mostly for newspapers. He had been experimenting with a more literary approach to journalism (a style that became known as the New Journalism). When Esquire took him up on his idea, Wolfe was a capable, productive, and respected writer.
But, after flying out to California, immersing himself in this culture for weeks, taking notes, watching cars zoom by, and conducting interviews, Wolfe became stuck. He was blocked and overwhelmed, unable to get the story going. He didn’t know how he wanted to approach the article, or if he was even able to understand everything he had learned and observed. And his deadline was looming.
So, he wrote to his editor at Esquire, Byron Dobell, and confessed he couldn’t go ahead with the story. Dobell told Wolfe the story had to run, even if someone else wrote it; the coloured photo spreads had already been printed. Dobell asked Wolfe to submit his notes and then they’d look for “a competent writer” to handle it. Not a great self-esteem moment for Wolfe, I’m sure.
Wolfe sat at his typewriter and wrote a letter to Byron Dobell describing what he saw, heard, learned, thought, and felt. He wasn’t pressured and he didn’t have anything to lose. Because he had effectively backed out of the story already, he wasn’t writing for the Esquire audience, nor for the culture he had been studying. He was just writing a letter to Dobell to try to ease, however slightly, a difficult situation.
However, as he was typing, more and more details poured out of him. In the end, Wolfe wrote that letter for eight or nine hours and produced almost fifty pages of type. Dobell cut the “Dear Byron” part and ran the rest with the title “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” (Dewey). No other writer was required. And Wolfe had pulled himself out of writer’s block by approaching the task indirectly.
When facing a block, Elbow advises (in Writing with Power) two different types of writing: “very practical writing” and “very impractical writing” (Elbow 227). By practical writing, Elbow means something that is crafted for action—to make a change in the world or at least in someone’s mind. A letter is an example.
Very impractical writing is writing everything—even the crummy words and weak ideas—and not caring if anything happens as a result of what is written down. Some people call this freewriting, others may call it stream-of-consciousness writing.
In his letter to Dobell, Wolfe seemed to be doing both. He was writing a letter to his editor (a practical way of handling the frustrating situation), but then the letter turned into impractical writing as he felt free enough to let everything flow out.
By writing a letter to someone specific, we’re indirectly approaching our target. We start in a comfortable form: a letter to someone else conveying our learning, thinking, and wondering. We’re free to talk about the challenges of the assignment and the connections we’re making to other materials and content. In the letter, we explain as if our friend or acquaintance truly wants to know and requires our help to understand. Once we’re unblocked and thinking clearly, then we transform that writing into the assignment’s specific requirements and final format.
Freewriting is another indirect option. To do this we grab some paper, set a timer, and unload our thinking and learning. We aim to generate lots and lots of ideas, words, connections, and images; and we keep writing to empty our minds but fill the pages with messy writing and thinking. At this stage, we should not fear bad writing or ideas. We don’t want audience members sitting on our shoulders, dangling their feet and tapping their fingers. We don’t want whispers in our ears or their premature judgements of our every thought, word, and imaginative flourish.
It’s only by producing as much rough stuff as possible that we can begin to see something take shape. Sometimes trying to write into a prescribed mould can restrict us, tempt us onto premature revisions, and smother any spark that might have been trying to get out. After freewriting, and once we’ve given all those pages some time and close reading, then we can consider the purpose, audience, and point of view that are required for the original assignment.
Writing a letter and freewriting are two surprising but helpful ways to break a writer’s block. Although they are indirect routes to your finish line, they’re way better than staying stuck at the start.