Many thousands of words have been written offering advice on how to cure writer’s block. Oh, the irony. Yet, this writer’s malady doesn’t exist. Writer’s laziness? Guilty. Writer’s Fear? By the tons. Fear is the main reason we fail to write, whether we’re penning a new novel or constructing a simple report at the office.
Some of the best insight I’ve read on this comes from the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, who recalled a freshman writing class he taught at Montana State University in Bozeman. I’ll paraphrase liberally here: He gave an assignment to his class to write 500 words on a topic of their choice. You might expect the typical freshman essay to be about a hobby or an interesting experience. But one student chose the United States as her topic. Pirsig knew it would be difficult to limit a report on the entire country to 500 words, but he let her have at it.
After several days, the freshman hadn’t written anything. She didn’t know where to start, she said. Pirsig suggested she narrow her focus, such as writing only about Montana, or perhaps even further by writing about Bozeman. She still couldn’t write the first word. He suggested she narrow her subject again, say, to writing about Bozeman’s Main Street. The student was still stuck. All right, Pirsig said. Why don’t you write about just one building on Main Street? The library, for instance? Then he had an idea, suggesting the student select one brick on the library to write about.
Sounds like a pretty boring paper, but the writer’s words flowed, and she wrote well over 500 words. Pirsig said it was only when she thought I can write about this one brick because nobody else has that she felt liberated to put pen to paper.
Many of us have similar struggles. We wonder what we can say that hasn’t been said before. We forget that no other person can write from our unique perspective. No one else has our voice. What we write may be junk on the first few drafts. But we can turn it into something worth reading, even if it’s just a blog post, because no one else has precisely our set of experiences.