I’ve noticed similarities between the way I cook and the way I write. When I cook, I clean as I go, kneeling to scoop cucumber peels and lettuce scraps off the floor or walking to the other end of the kitchen to toss eggshells and those annoying plastic tags from bread packages into the garbage. I wash dishes and wipe the counters
so that I have a clean surface to work on. (My husband is the opposite kind of cook – fast, efficient, and very messy.)
When I write, I can’t stand to leave slop on the page, even as a placeholder, so I edit myself as I go. I have trouble moving forward until I have a clean lede and nutgraf to anchor the rest of the story. I agonize over my lede and nutgraf, writing and rewriting it until I am satisfied.
ledes are hard to write. Occasionally, a scene or an anecdote screams at me that it is the beginning of the story. Most of the time, though, ledes do not appear on the screen without some level of torture and many trips to the kitchen for coffee, or toast with Nutella spread, or you know, any other imaginable excuse to get up. And this can stall the writing process much longer than I’m comfortable with.
Recently, I was tackling a difficult feature: a story about nuclear waste for New Scientist
. Every time I sat down to write, I hit a brick wall. The opening scene was to be set in Germany, and traveling there was not an option. The lede needed to be visceral, cinematic, narrative-ish, yet without the benefit of field reporting. What’s more, it dealt with dense, technical material. And the topic is history-laden, so it needed a historical backdrop sprinkled with lively and fresh material. In other words, it was freaking hard.
My deadline was a couple of days away. I was about a third of the way to my 2,400-word mark, but I was still panicking. Normally, once I’m into the meat of a story, I can find my rhythm and bang out hundreds of words at a time without much effort, shaping and shifting the text as I go. But in this case, every paragraph felt as laborious as childbirth. Around 11 a.m., I was sitting at the kitchen table, still in my robe, slumped over in despair. My coffee was cold – again. I was too tired and distracted to write (because three kids), too anxious to nap, and growing more panicked by the minute. The words simply wouldn’t flow from my fingertips to the screen. I’d sit down, attempt to write a sentence, then realize I was missing a key bit of information that required a follow-up email to a source, which Monya Baker (bio) warns against when you are in “the writing pit.” Or I’d get bogged down in technical descriptions on radioactive decay or on the permeability of rocks and start digging up websites for clarity. Then my computer would crash because I had too many open windows.
Finally, up against the clock and heart racing from The Fear, I did the only thing left to do: I put my head down like a draft horse and pulled forward – I began throwing sloppy fragments and sentences onto the screen, littered with TKs. Then, an amazing thing happened: I noticed that several hundred words had sprung forth onto the page, the beginnings of the “barf draft” that SciLancer Anne Sasso (bio) describes in her procrastination chapter in The Science Writers’ Handbook. It was messy, and I was dying to prune and fix, but I resisted the urge. I never did reach the “almost-magical” state that Anne describes, in which she can fill several sheets of paper before lifting her head.
Rather than finding a smooth, zen-like rhythm, I found something more like the jerky, dissonant two-step of an awkward junior high slow dance. But I allowed myself imperfection. And half-written sentences with several strings of TKs. It was uncomfortable. I took short breaks often, rewarding myself with coffee and chocolate and/or mini-knitting sessions every other (sloppy) paragraph or so. Then, after pulling through the mud and muck, I looked up, and I had a rough draft. Suddenly, the pall lifted, and the birds outside began singing again.
This experience reminded me that writing is just plain hard – even John McPhee and Joan Didion think so. Still, I wonder if there’s a way to turn down the torture level a notch or two, and how to enter that more pleasant, otherworldly state of writing of which McPhee speaks a little sooner.
What tricks do you use when you’re trapped in the mire of a first draft?
How do you push past your own writer’s block, especially on particularly technical or otherwise challenging pieces?
Image Credit: Hans on Pixabay