forced abstraction.

As I round out the last big project I’ll have on my compositional plate for a while, I reflect that I’ve been experiencing serious bouts of writer’s block. Or at least that’s what I assumed I was experiencing, until I ran across a post by Scott Berkun that makes the rather prescient point that “it’s not the fear of writing that blocks people, it’s fear of not writing well.” In other words, my problem is more accurately described as satisfaction block. He recommends strategies for dealing with this and other common impediments, many of which involve either distracting yourself temporarily or deliberately forcing output of the something, anything sort while remembering that quality usually comes in the editing. This is excellent advice, but due to my cosmically extreme struggles with rewriting, I find that a forge-ahead approach can actually exacerbate satisfaction block when quality time is nigh (i.e., exactly now).

Self-diagnosis time.

When I write, I spit out long something, anything-style chunks of moderately related ideas and then try to string them together into a logical narrative later. I end up cutting, pasting, and reconstituting until I have completely tied myself in knots and either trampled or forgotten my own point. My nagging satisfaction block culprits are therefore discursiveness and excessive length – the only talent for brevity and/or clarity I possess is in titling. Beyond that, I tend to run on to the nth degree, which my perennially patient and heroic editor often reminds me is the readability kiss of death. Watching an idea unfold itself into words is one of the more unquestionably pleasant aspects of being an author. That said (and I speak from hard-earned experience), some thoughts simply begin so wadded that no amount of smoothing makes them presentable.

Firmly believing in the adage that every good idea lends itself to graceful abstraction, I constantly try to trick myself into getting to the point – I should be able to boil down brief and coherent summaries of anything I write, no matter how meandering it might have begun. Berkun’s best advice is of the self-flagellatory sort: when all else fails, switch to something more difficult. As penance for my deviations and to catalyze my ass into gear for a particularly demanding stint of productivity, I’ll now force myself to explain each post or publication I remember struggling with mightily over the past few years in one comprehensible sentence. Here goes:

Analog solitude is easier to glorify if one views digital connectivity as inherently hyper (and by the way, my shoulder hurts).

Dismissing a trend without keeping it at least nominally on your radar can lead to obsolesced opining.

Deep insight and broad strategic perspective (instead of easy, unquestioned assumptions) should guide local technology decisions.

Chin up, head down: words to work (well with others) by.

Productive teaching is one part foundational knowledge, one part fearless self-scrutiny, one part reflective design-mindedness, and one part enthusiastic hucksterism.

Bonus combos:

How I explain who I am informs what you think I can do: therein lies my librarian identity (rinse, and repeat).

Underrest can only sustain overwork for so long, so after twenty-nine years I think a few things have finally started to sink in.

That was very, very difficult. Wish me luck.

11 thoughts on “forced abstraction.

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  1. In this current environment of 140-character blasts I generally feel refreshed after reading one of your long posts. That said, I think the act of purposefully shortening content down to its vital essence is a wonderful exercise. You’ve done a great job here.

    I was particularly interested in this post for another reason: I have been struggling with writing lately. It was interesting for me to get some insight into your process (mine is similar), and – even better – I am feeling vaguely motivated to get some “practice writing time” in today. Thanks!

    1. jen, thanks. i think this might be a good trick for in-progress projects or even problematic passages/chapters, too.

  2. I’ve been sitting in my local cafe for two hours, alternating between reviewing old essays and staring down a blank page. Deadlines loom. April 20th, for instance, which is when my first chapter is due. Text hurts; fonts look fuzzy, strange. Is this writer’s block or satisfaction block? Honestly I cannot tell, but I think I should at least try the “something, anything” trick before I explode with writer’s rage.

    Good post, Char. Sadly too personally applicable at the moment. At what point do I switch from coffee to wine?

  3. I’ve been writing 150 word book reviews for out magazine for years, and I credit that exercise with helping me with concision. You have a sentence to hook the reader with something clever, two sentences to explain the plot, and a sentence to indicate judgement. To do do artfully, which occasionally happens by accident, that’s the trick. My lunchblog, too. I have a strict 200 word limit. I find binding myself helps. But writing’s recursive, so I’m never too terribly alarmed if I’m long at the start, because I do believe we have write our way to knowing anything, and I don’t mind if it takes me awhile to get to the start.

    That said, my problem is that I’m perenially short of the word count, if you can believe that!

    1. I absolutely love whatiateforlunchandwhy and have long envied your ability to convey much in few words (particularly in your manuscript comments on RTEL, btw… kindof wish I had left them dangling off the side), so it’s nice to know your self-imposed secrets. What was your best OUT review, btw? Can you share?

  4. You mention that rewriting is a struggle – I’m curious as to why?

    Most of my writing is rewriting, especially for the big, hard, challenging kinds of writing, like books or long essays. It’s in the rewriting I have piles of material to work with, a surplus really, which makes it easy, or at least easier, to throw away chunks I’d be too protective of the first time around.

    Since writing is my second career, I’ve spent much time studying writers and almost to the last its rewriting that’s the whole story to their quality of work. It’s the rare exception who is able to do much of value in their first pass.

    Sometimes when people ask me about writing, I tell them not to worry so much about the writing part, its rewriting, and the discipline of re-reading and revising, that makes a writer.

    1. i absolutely agree that the true discipline of writing is in reforming one’s first-pass brain dump into quality output – this is when flow actually becomes grinding work, which for a consummate perfectionist can be an extremely oppressive experience. try as i might, i am invariably disappointed to find that a passage that seemed to unfold particularly well in the offing reads rather terribly the second time around – the “what the hell was that?” effect. one huge challenge of the rewriting process for me therefore involves facing flaws, inviting and responding to criticism, and accepting the simple limits of my ability to articulate some things in the way i want to – all of which occur in the second or third or fourth pass. i thrive on the input of my editors, and i think to even strive to be a good (re)writer involves accepting that you are neither the only nor the most important judge of your own work, which is both an important lesson in humility and a constantly evolving challenge of it’s own.

  5. I guess my point to you is the expectation to have your first draft, on rereading, be any good, is something very few actual professional or famous writers have. It’s that expectation more than anything else that makes writing psychologically difficult. Not that this knowledge could make your own psychology instantly change, but I offer it because I know for me I took comfort in learning how normal it is to revise, to rethink, and to rework – that’s what writing is as far as most actual writers are concerned.

    I’ve also noticed it’s much easier to do the second draft if the first draft has sat alone, untouched for days or even weeks. There’s much less personal attachment to it then – it’s almost like editing someone elses work, which is probably the best possible way to feel about it if the goal is to make something good.

    1. i do expect too much from first drafts, and now that you mention it i have had the experience of productive detachment after giving a piece some space. balancing this seems to vary according to format/length, though – if i put something non-contractual or deadline-neutral down for too long it can lead to waning or lost momentum (i.e., if a blog post sits for more than two weeks i’ll likely never finish it). thanks again for your insights – i enjoyed/benefited from the original post.

  6. I’m in composition studies in night school these days, and we’ve been reading lots about drafting and revising. Turns out much of the difference between experienced and unexperienced writers is drafting–writing is a recursive process with lots of back and forth, both while getting the first draft out (how many times do you write a sentence and then backspace and write it again in what’s ostensibly a ‘first draft’) and in subsequent global revisions. New writers usually attend to issues of word choice and sentence structure while experienced writers are more willing to take big chunks and move them around. We’re concerned with meaning–that’s one of the great things that comes with practice. The best advice I’ve read this semester has been: never fall in love with your words. If you love language itself as much as what language expresses (I’m one of those people), this can be a challenge. I’m always working hard not to let my sentences seduce me so that I can come back around and take them apart and put them back together again. And pretty much everything I’ve ever had published makes me cringe when I see it in print. I could revise forever.

    Clearly, I love talking process. Could do it for hours. But should prolly get back to drafting! Thanks again for the provocative post!

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