How to cope with writer’s block: Begin with ‘Dear Mother’

New Yorker essayist John McPhee shares his advice for dealing with writing paralysis.

You sit in front of your computer staring at a blank screen.

You try one sentence, then delete it. You try again; still nothing. Panic rises, and you begin imagining that your colleagues have found you out.

“How did she get this job? She’s not a writer!”

There’s a name for this condition, this feeling of helplessness when words won’t come.

Writer’s block.

In the April issue of The New Yorker, the 82-year-old essayist and Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee shares the advice he’s given to former students and to his daughter, the novelist Jenny McPhee.

Say you’re writing about a grizzly bear and the words won’t come, writes McPhee.

Type this salutation across the top of the page: “Dear Mother…”

“And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair….You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

This is terrific advice, and it thrills me that it comes from one of our greatest living writers.

I have often taught the same technique in my Advanced Writing and Editing workshops with longtime colleague Jim Ylisela.

Replace “Dear Mother” with any friend or colleague, and the solution is the same: Stop thinking about your essay or story as an essay or story, and you’ll lift the burden of importance that you’ve placed on it.

McPhee also suggests a solution that Jim and I would teach in those classes: “Allow yourself to write pure crap.”

Stop obsessing about your lead and just get something—anything—out of your head and onto the screen. Good writing is always the result of good rewriting, but you can’t rewrite a blank screen.

Here’s how McPhee puts it:

“For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something —anything —as a first draft. With that you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye.”

In our instruction to write “pure crap,” Jim and I would recommend the addition of a simple cooking timer. Set the timer for one hour, and “heave out” the words before time runs out. Like a climber who never looks down, the writer should never look back at the lead or even the previous sentence.

There will be time for such a thing: when you edit, polish, revise, edit again, and revise again.

Praise be to McPhee for sharing this advice and for doing so, as always, so engagingly.

It comforts us all to know that all writers, even the legendary McPhee, struggle with the same demons, whether they’re lonely publication editors facing a looming deadline, or novelists and essay writers.

Writes McPhee: “The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes express mail from fairyland.”

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