Writer’s block? Try tying yourself to a chair

McPhee, Hugo, Schiller

John McPhee, Victor Hugo and Friedrich Schiller conquered writer’s block in unique ways. What’s keeping you from achieving your goals? (Photo of McPhee from Princeton University’s Office of Communications.)

John McPhee tried tying himself to a chair so that he would stay focused on his writing. Victor Hugo had his servant take away his clothes each morning and remained in his room (supposedly naked) until he finished writing for the day. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer, the smell of which spurred him to write.

The lengths to which writers will go to coax words onto paper is a very interesting phenomenon. You don’t expect creative types to have a problem being creative, but they do. In a fascinating piece last year for The New Yorker, McPhee relates that when he was working on an article for the magazine on the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, he had a huge case of writer’s block: “Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker.”

I remember reading a section of “The Pine Barrens” in The John McPhee Reader in college. Man, this guy can write, I thought. The breadth of McPhee’s interests and the details of the subjects he’s tackled are legendary. Nearly 50 years and 29 books later, McPhee continues to write and teach classes at Princeton. Yet, here he was describing in The New Yorker how he feels inadequate to the task of writing. “It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well,” he says of his writing success. “Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.”

This past winter and into the early spring, I had my own bout of restiveness with a lengthy writing project for a client. Some days the words didn’t come, and I would fret because we were on a tight deadline. Other days, the words tumbled out, and it was manna from heaven.

When the muse was absent from my home office, I would go upstairs to a spare bedroom, the cocoon room I called it, and sit in a rocking chair or on the bed with my laptop. I would force myself to write something. Into the night I worked. I fell asleep exhausted, and then I got up the next morning and did it again. I put off other client work or fit it in as best I could. I was determined to conquer the beast.

And I did. I completed the assignment on time, and everyone liked it.

A few weeks ago, I saw a copy of the finished work for the first time. It was one of those moments when you say, “How in the world did I do that?”

Now in my third year as an independent practitioner, I’m beginning to see how. I like the word practitioner because it has two meanings: a person who is actively engaged in a profession and one who is practiced; together, they neatly describe the mindset required to make it as an indie or solo-preneur.

To practice is to have discipline. To practice is to learn. To practice is to grow.

As a practitioner, I face each day with a resolve and determination that seemed missing before. I’m very intentional now about many things. I exercise every day (including weekends), and I’ve become very particular about what I eat. I do have my little junk food attacks from time to time, but nothing like before. I’ve lost almost 10 pounds since those dark days in the cocoon room, where I kept myself going with pretzels and cookies.

I keep distractions to a minimum. I don’t turn on the TV. I try to get to bed at a decent hour. I’ve even been setting my alarm clock for 5:30. Now that’s crazy, given that I’ve never been a morning person!

What does it all mean?

It means I have goals that I want to reach. I have milestones for my business, and I want to get to them. There’s a purpose to what I’m doing that focuses and drives me.

No, I don’t think I’ll ever tie myself to a chair, and McPhee only did that a few times anyway. But McPhee’s work habits are prodigious. He is known for extensively interviewing and meticulously researching and organizing his notes before he begins writing. Read his New Yorker piece or the introduction to The John McPhee Reader by William L. Howarth. You’ll be amazed.

That’s being a practitioner, and that’s where I want to be.

All of us have our own version of writer’s block. What’s keeping you from achieving your goals? Take the steps to overcome the obstacles in your life. You don’t have to sit in a room naked or smell rotten apples, but you do have to make the effort. You’ll be glad you did.

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