Before Tom Wolfe wrote his masterworks, he was an ordinary writer who got plagued with writer’s block now and then. On an Esquire magazine assignment on California’s custom cars, he was convinced—and later admitted to his editor—that he wouldn’t be able to get the story done by himself. Byron Dobell, his editor, who desperately needed something, asked him to just write up his notes in a letter to him. Wolfe just did that. He started the letter with “Dear Byron”, and when he finished it, it ran forty-nine pages. Next morning, he submitted it to his editor, who was expecting much editorial work before publishing it. Instead, he just erased the salutation and ran the piece.
The anecdote serves a useful lesson, not as much that you can dash off with a salutation and very nearly complete fifty pages of coherent text but, getting something on the paper is often the only thing needed to avoid hitting the wall.
Finishing comes first; polishing later
Block. Whether it’s an essay, or a side-project, it haunts us in every creative venture. When the initial excitement for the project dries up, the “giant blank canvas” begins to look intimidating; the task begins to feel impossible to finish. Following it is either “I’ll do it later” excuses, or gentle acceptance that it won’t see the light of the day.
The lack of progress isn’t unwarranted when the task is formidable. But, as Tom Wolfe discovered, or as John McPhee did, or as I did recently, the giant blank canvas is only scary because there’s nothing on it. Something illuminating happens when you start putting things on it, even if they’re gibberish, incoherent things.
Getting blocked is more a symptom of actualising the idea in an immaculate form, while, in reality, it only hinders motivation. Having something, however imperfect or terrible, makes the process of deliberation, refinement is a lot easier; the task—far less daunting.
The principle applies to every other kind of creative pursuit. Most of my side-projects never survived beyond a few hours of attention. The problem, as I see, was my lack of effort in putting what I wanted on screen. Instead, I often invest in my time in busywork around the project. In the ones where I did chose to focus on core functionality, I discovered that I was able to make decent progress.
Jamie Zawinski, the famed programmer who worked on Mozilla during its early days, mentioned a similar approach in an interview with Peter Seibel. He said:
I find that getting something on the screen as soon as possible really helps focus the problem for me. It helps me decide what to work on next. Because if you’re just looking at that big to-do list it’s like, eh, I don’t which one I should do—does it matter which I do? But if there’s something you can actually look at, even if it’s just the debug output of your mailbox parse, it’s like, Ok, There! That’s something; what’s the next direction this needs to go in? Ok, instead of just displaying a tree structure, now maybe I should be emitting HTML or something along those lines. Or, parsing the headers in a more detailed way. You just look the next thing to build on from there.
Few paragraphs after I started writing this article, I felt out of wits about what I wanted to say. Instead of abandoning, which I usually did, I wrote further anyway regardless if the words felt crap. Next day, reading what I wrote, I found new ways to say something, better things to add, which couldn’t have happened had I quit in the middle.
Want to complete your essay, side-project, or a story? Start by drawing something on the canvas.