When I started this post, I was not thinking abut writer’s block or tips for dealing with it. I was thinking about managing the many things that compete for attention. But as I wrote about it, I realized that I was, in fact, writing about the way competing ideas can lead to writing paralysis in which the authors sits debating which idea to write about—an experience that can easily be recognized by many writers who are struggling to write. (I have written on this subject before.)
Recently I was talking with a writer who was bemoaning the many different things she had to say and commenting on how that made writing difficult. This is a common issue: for a lot of writers—myself included—many different ideas compete for attention. But, since only one idea can be put on the page at a time (or, at least, given my technology and abilities, I can only put one word on the page at a time. I assume you face a similar limitation), a lot of writing becomes a question of making a choice between competing alternatives.
I started this post thinking that I was going to write about gardening and how my relationship to gardening could provide insight into the practice of writing (because writing is the topic of this blog, after all). But as I began, several different ideas popped into my head, which made me think about another writer who was recently lamenting all the ideas that she wanted to put on the page, and the difficulty in moving forward in the face of such competing ideas. As I, too, was faced with many competing ideas, I thought I’d write about that.
Competing ideas can lead to doubt. If you have several different ideas that you could focus on, it’s possible to spend a lot of time debating which idea to write about, and that debate can trigger anxiety, especially if you criticize each potential idea in turn. Rather than getting trapped in vacillation, it’s beneficial to choose a single focus and work on that, even though it means setting aside the other ideas for a time. (For a time, but not necessarily for ever. After all, the sooner you finish writing about one of your many ideas, the sooner you get to move on to writing about the others.)
Association of ideas
Every idea can spark another (or more than one). Each idea is a pebble thrown into the stream of consciousness, sending out ripples in all directions. For me, the phrase “association of ideas” brings to mind my master’s thesis (though it was written 25 years ago), which was literally concerned with John Locke’s philosophy and his ideas about the “association of ideas,” and its role in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Locke’s “association of ideas” was about how ideas can become connected for non-logical reasons, where I am more interested in ideas that do have some reasonable connection (gardening and writing, for example, are connected because they are both practices, and thus share some features). But even if we only make connections through reasonable paths, still, each idea can spark many new ones.
If we look at all the ideas that present themselves in response to a single idea, we see a vast web of connected ideas. That web can be viewed as an array of opportunities: every strand of the web might provide the focus for a piece of writing. But that same web of ideas can also trap us, just as a spider’s web catches a fly: we sit down to write, and then each associated idea that pops into mind ties a thread of distraction—a temptation that the essay move in a different direction. In a short time, with the associated ideas multiplying, we are pulled in dozens of directions at once, and can become immobilized.
When you’re pulled in different directions, you can get paralyzed: do I go this way or that? Am I going to write about this or about that? Getting paralyzed is bad. Getting paralyzed is unproductive, frustrating, and depressing. You don’t want to get paralyzed.
To avoid paralysis, you need to make a consequential decision in the face of uncertainty: which course of action will be best? There is a definite cost in making the wrong decision: if I invest my efforts into a project that fails in some way, then I have lost that valuable time. It is this dynamic that creates the paralysis: “I want to make the right decision, but I’m not sure which the right decision is!”
But focusing on the different possible directions to explore can actually obscure another decision: the choice between (1) choosing the best subject for writing and (2) writing on some less-than-best subject. Every minute you spend considering your choice of subject is a minute that you don’t spend writing. In terms of developing a good writing practice and a good relationship with writing, working on a less-than-optimal project is the better choice.
The difference in value and quality between a finished project based on idea X (the best idea) and a finished project about idea Y (the second best) is much smaller than the difference between a complete project and an incomplete one. If you finish a project centered on a weak idea, you still have a project to present. If you get paralyzed debating which will be the best project, then you don’t have anything at all.
Making a choice—however imperfect—gives you a better chance of success. And it’s more emotionally satisfying, too. The paralysis that comes from wondering what to write can be painful. There’s a famous quote that “writing is easy—just stare at a blank page until your forehead starts to bleed.” You know who stares at the blank page? It’s someone who is paralyzed by many choices. Writers don’t stare at a blank page because they have nothing to say; people always have something to say! I don’t like to use universal generalizations, but I feel absolutely safe in saying that everyone has something to say. You may tell yourself that your ideas are not interesting or important (it’s easy to imagine people thinking that your ideas are uninteresting and unimportant); you may temporarily go blank when sitting to write; but you have something to say—probably many things to say. Paralysis comes from rejecting potential options or by vacillating between those options. The writer who is pouring words onto the page doesn’t think writing is torture (at least not at the moment that they are pouring words onto the page).
To break the paralysis that comes with too many options, it helps to prioritize: which ideas do you care about the most? Trying to prioritize can help provide focus. Firstly, the task of prioritizing itself requires a certain amount of focus, and, if you do it, can also provide some momentum to move forward. Prioritization is facilitated by writing down a list of different ideas (trying to prioritize without making a list allows the prioritization scheme to shift around too much—it allows you to escape the choices that help break paralysis). When you start writing different ideas on the page in order to make a list of different potential topics, you are taking the first steps in putting various ideas onto the page. If a list of priorities is viewed as a to-do list, it can also help assuage any distress that comes from leaving a specific idea out of the text: if you have five important things to say, a list of priorities can help you remember that working on the first thing doesn’t exclude working on the second thing at a later time. A list of priorities as a to-do list is something of a promise to yourself to attend to the lower priority items as soon as you have finished with the high priority items: so you’re not neglecting things, you’re just focusing and planning.
A list of priorities can be a good writing exercise for someone struggling with writer’s block. Firstly, it gets you to identify in words the different ideas you want to discuss. Secondly, it allows you to cover a large amount of territory (each item in the list might be a subject for pages of writing). Thirdly, there is some emotional comfort in thinking that dealing with a single item on a to-do list is the most efficient way to deal with the list as a whole. Fourthly, a list of priorities is just a tool to help you get moving, so it doesn’t have to be perfect or neat—it’s not something to show other people.
Of course, there is some danger that writing a list of priorities itself becomes a significant task if you try to get it just right. Don’t go there! Make a quick list, pick the top item on it, and get to work. You can always change course later, but in the moment, it is crucial to pick one idea for a focus and work on that idea for a while.