Work on One (Little) Thing at a Time

I have previously written about Henry Miller’s dictum to work on one thing at a time until finished, but it’s a subject and idea that is important to me, so I’m coming back to it, from a slightly different angle, even if I have discussed the same ideas before.

Personally, I have a lot of things to write: I have correspondence with various individuals, both personal and professional; I have blog posts; I have new books to follow the one I’m just finishing (available for pre-order already!). And, in addition to these projects on which I have already started investing effort, there are lots of ideas I have that might become something, but they’re just ideas for the moment, not yet risen to the level of “project.” 

There are times when ideas come to me clearly as coherent pieces that could be captured in an essay.  These times, however, are rarely when I sit down to write.  When I go running, in particular, I often have ideas for writing, and often compose writing in my head.  The idea and the expression seem clear in my head when I’m running.  But when I return and sit down to write, that clarity is lost.

Indeed, one of the more frustrating experiences of being a writer is that the ideas come at times when it’s inconvenient to write them down, and then when there is time to write, I get stuck.  This is not so uncommon. I have worked with many writers who have plenty to say but are still struggling to write. 

My best response to this is to pick one small thing to focus on, and to work on that one small thing.  That way, I get away from being overwhelmed by all the things that I could say and just focus on one single thing.  This focus helps avoid the distraction and confusion of trying to say everything that needs to be said.  It’s hard to say several things at once. It’s hard enough, really, to say one thing at once, if you want to say it well.

If I choose to focus on something small, and on something relatively easy, it makes it easier to overcome emotional barriers to writing—my fears that I will write poorly, that my writing will be ill-received, etc.  A focus on something small and easy (or at least easier) allows engagement with less at stake.

When I think about focusing on something small, I often think about an anecdote related in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he relates his experience as a writing teacher with one particular student who was having trouble writing.  The problem started with a student who wanted to write about the United States. Sensing this was too much, he suggests just writing about Bozeman, Montana, the specific town in which the university was situated. The student failed in this, writing nothing. To help, he reduced the scope of the project, suggesting the student write about one street in the town. Still, the student remained stuck and unable to write.  The anecdote recalls how, in frustration, the teacher suggests writing about one specific building on the street, and even goes so far as to suggest starting with one specific brick in the facade. This insight came at least partly from his recognizing that he himself had had problems related to having too much to say. (“A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say.” [pagination changes in different editions, so I won’t give page numbers. The passage from which I quote here and in the next paragraph is right near the beginning of part III — maybe 15 or so paragraphs in.])

Interestingly, he goes on to explain the problem as being a problem of trying to repeat other people, which seems like a different issue (“…the narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious that she had to do some original and direct seeing”). I don’t see how he made that logical leap. As I see it, getting stuck because you have too many things to say is distinct from getting stuck because you’re trying to repeat others rather than expressing yourself.  Yes, one dimension of getting stuck when trying to repeat others is the choice of what to repeat, which is a flavor of having too many things to say, but repeating others is often also a sign of fear to express oneself. It is absolutely crucial for writers to develop their own voice: where else will originality come from? (And when I speak of developing one’s own voice, I mean this more in an intellectual sense than a stylistic one: it’s about the ideas you choose to express, more than about any way of expressing them.) But the problem of finding one’s own voice is not the same as the problem of having too much to say, a claim which I make based on my own personal experience: I frequently get stuck because I have too many things to say for this brief essay, and only occasionally get stuck trying to find or express my own voice. So, regardless of finding one’s own voice, a good step for a stuck writer is to choose to take one little step that allows focus and immediate progress, perhaps by picking one idea to write about, even if there are others that are also important to you.

Oftentimes, the problem of having too much to say manifests as a competition between ideas, with each vying for attention as the most important.  A writer once described her experience as a traffic jam of ideas, a metaphor that most of us can understand, where the problem of motion is not caused by the vehicles (the ideas) or the road (the writer’s ability to put words on the paper) but by the vast number of cars (ideas) competing for that limited road space and thus interfering with each other. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about which idea is most important.  And spending that time thinking about what to write, often means not writing.  And not writing, and spending a lot of time thinking about what to write, can be stressful and can trigger anxiety about ability to write, which sets off down a difficult path.

If you have a lot to do, or a lot to say, picking one thing to do, however small, can be a good way to get started. Picking that one thing allows you to focus, put aside distractions, and get something done.  Personally, it’s better to do something than to feel stuck: if I do something small, even if relatively unimportant (e.g., a blog post), I can cross it off my to-do list, and I get that little satisfaction, which can often help me engage with some other, larger and more intimidating project (e.g., my next book).  So start small and focused, and see if that can help you get unblocked.