In my retirement I teach one course a semester at one of the local community colleges. Because many of my students are learning English as they work toward their degrees, I ask them to write every week. I base this approach on the not very sophisticated idea that they’re likely to get better as writers with, and only with, a good deal of practice. Many of the students diligently grind out the papers and over the short time I’m with them, they make some small gains. The gains are small because learning to write, like learning to play French horn, takes time. At the beginning of the course, as a way to forestall the writer’s block to which beginners are especially vulnerable, I offer an instructional set piece. I draw a demon on the board and name him Ed, which is short for Editor. I go on to make the point that this demon resides within all of us and that his job is to veto any composition at all. Sit down before a computer screen or a blank piece of paper and before you’ve written a complete sentence, Ed is sneering at you, insisting that you’re a total moron and that it makes much more sense to go have a sandwich. And he doesn’t quit. He’s always there, always mocking, always sneering, belittling every word you write. He wins when your deadline arrives and you’ve got nothing. My advice to my students is the same as that offered by the visitor in my classroom: Kill the Editor. That’s the same as lowering standards. Get rid of that internal voice that demands perfection.
But it’s not easy. The Editor is like one of those terrible villains in horror stories. You plug him; he drops. You think he’s dead, but before you know it, he’s baaack. It’s a constant struggle, one that wastes time and energy.
It’s helpful, when you’re struggling with Ed, to remember that there is no penalty for crappy writing. None. Your fingers don’t fall off. You don’t lose money. Your family still puts up with you. It’s okay to write poorly. It really is okay. You don’t have to show your work to anyone and if you do and they don’t like it, most of the time they don’t say anything because they don’t want to damage your ego. So you don’t even get insulted.
Annie Lamott puts it this way (I paraphrase): Five hundred words and a shitty first draft. Which is another way of saying lower your standards. Lamott’s advice carries the notion that you can fix whatever mess you make, which is true. You can revise and revise and this is especially easy now when most of us write on computers where changes are easily made and do not require tedious hours of typing and retyping as they did in the old days.
My own version of writer’s block strikes most often when I’m maybe ten thousand words into a novel. By then, I’ve got characters and setting fairly well staked out and often the seeds of conflict. The block comes with plot. Something has to happen. I know that, but everything that comes to mind seems “really stupid.” That’s Ed talking. “Dave, this is really stupid. Go have a beer.” Ed can be persuasive. Ed’s idea is that I can the project entirely and start something new—which he can later sabotage. I try not to listen. Instead I muck around with this and that until I lose patience with both Ed and myself and finally one of my characters does something alarming or dangerous: a boy beans a companion in a sandlot baseball game; a husband becomes obsessed with another woman. When I say my “character does something” I mean that I don’t know what’s going to happen as a consequence or where the behavior might lead. I mean that I didn’t make him or her do whatever got done. It happened; they did it. I tagged along. I get myself into uncharted water. I simply push the story forward without a planned idea of where “forward “might take me. That is, I’ve lowered my standards.
Sometimes this works well, other times not so well. But in any case, I’m up and running and I’ve banished Ed to the nether world, at least for a while. Thus far keeping standards low has allowed me to produce eleven books. Whether they are any good is not for me to determine. Some of them can be found here: