There is a particular problem which afflicts writers, and this affliction has a name, but I will not write its name. Many students have term papers this time of year, and so you might hear, more often than usual, mention of The Affliction Peculiar To Writers Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken, But Which Makes Writing Hard.
Writing or speaking words gives the words power. Things which begin as mere words can become bricks and mortar, war, humanitarian aid, living children. Because I refuse to give this phrase more power than it already possesses, it is my habit to avoid saying, aloud, what I will call “WB,” just as I avoid calling the devil by his proper, capitalized names in the Christian religion. It might just be superstition, but do you really want to attract the attention of evil incarnate? The first step I recommend is to banish the phrase from your vocabulary.
The second step to avoiding WB is pure denial. Be assured it is impossible for you to have this problem. If you were a world-famous, successful novelist, and then found yourself sitting, wordless, in front of your computer, until hours became days and days became years, then you might complain of The Dearth Of Expressiveness Whose Name Should Not Be Uttered Aloud.
As it is, complaining of WB at this point in your career is just plain pretentious, like people who skim a book about paganism and then tell everybody in their social circle they’re practicing Wicca, or 18-year-olds who get buzzed for the very first time and then announce, over and over, “Like, I was so wasted last night.”
Do not embarrass yourself socially by claiming to have this rarified affliction of the famous. All the same, admittedly, there are times when it is difficult to write and, at the end of the semester, the pressure is on. The other day, a classmate at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs building approached me by my locker and said, “Can I ask you something?” I thought she was going to rip into some controversial opinion I’d just articulated in class. I braced for the psychological impact of the critique. Instead, she said, “I know you do a lot of writing, and I wanted to ask if you ever have a problem with (you know what)?”
We ended up talking about the pan of delicious baked potatoes she had cooked instead of writing a term paper, and my habit of doing laundry and washing every dirty dish in the house before sitting down for a long bout of writing. Fortunately, in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, I took a creative writing course at the University’s Morris campus and was formally trained to avoid (I almost wrote the forbidden phrase).
In Morris, we would hang upside down off tables in the campus library and write essays on the floor. We would scribble out one poem with half a dozen pens, yelling “Switch!” every few minutes. We would write long essays on the dingy margins of newspapers instead of pure and lovely writing paper. We would draft essays with our shirts on backwards and inside out, with our shoes on the wrong feet. Then we would shout affirmations in unison. “I can write upside down, I can write dressed like a clown.”
We learned to just bang it out under any circumstances. Write when you’re sick, write under deadline pressure. Write short, write long, just bang it out.
There are certain psychological tricks that succeed, like telling yourself to “just put one foot in front of the other” when you must do something you’d rather avoid, whether it’s going to work or walking to a gallows with your head held high. (Now, that would be difficult. Writing term papers is a picnic.)
Kick yourself into gear by going through the motions. Organize your reference materials. Really,
how hard is it to make different piles? Then make an outline. Don’t jot down the outline by hand, but use your computer. Remember, making an outline doesn’t even count as writing, just like putting together a shopping list doesn’t count as shopping. Reading your materials helps you get in a studious frame of mind. Think about how good it feels to read such high and lofty thoughts compared to, for example, working for the devil at McDonald’s.
Pull up the page on which you will begin your term paper. This page is not truly blank since it has, for example, a cursor and words around it like “File, Edit, View, Insert.” If marked by nothing else, it is already marked by your intentions. It is anything but blank.
Add something, anything to the page which is already not blank. Any words will do. You can just write “test, test, test” to make sure the font size and typeface are correct. Now transfer your outline to this page. You’re not really writing; you’re just transferring an outline.
Already visible in your outline are a beginning, middle and end. Yes, the end is near. Your first sentence doesn’t have to be perfect, but only because you can and probably will change it later. If the first sentence is perfect, then how fortunate. Your term paper is only just beginning, and it’s already 100 percent perfect. You do not have to write an entire term paper in the space of a moment. You just have to keep writing one sentence after another. How lucky you are not to be forced to use a black manual typewriter manufactured in the 1940s, but I sure do miss it sometimes.
If something interrupts you, hoard thoughts of your paper in your mind as you deal with the disturbance. Things which would normally be noble impulses (calling your mother, paying your bills) are just delays and excuses when it’s term paper time. But why would you need an excuse to put off the pleasure of writing?
When I write for hours at a time, I wish I could never grow tired, never stop what I’m doing. What reason is there to avoid this ecstasy of expressiveness? It is the lowly Freudian Id which wants to goof off, but writing comes from the higher consciousness. Now is that wonderful time of the year, when your brilliance, your heart and soul can become tangible in a term paper.
Difficult? You can do it standing on your head.
John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]