“Just keep the bear”: John McPhee’s advice on overcoming writer’s block

John McPhee is one of the best nonfiction writers out there, and in “The Writing Life: Draft No. 4” (The New Yorker, April 29, 2013, available in part here) he offers in the essay’s opening paragraph a clever piece of advice for overcoming writer’s block:

“Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. “Dear Joel . . .” This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. “Dear Joel . . .” This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. “Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. 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 the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

A big part of getting past writer’s block is finding ways to prompt yourself (or fool yourself) to simply keep moving, keep putting one word after another, even if it sucks. Because, as McPhee explains later in the essay, you need that draft as a nucleus from which to work. You put it aside and start thinking about ways to improve it. “Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it… Actually the essence of the process is revision. The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes express mail from fairyland.”

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3 thoughts on ““Just keep the bear”: John McPhee’s advice on overcoming writer’s block

  1. Anne Chia

    This actually makes a lot of sense, so basically just ramble on and chat about your subject and it all comes flooding in. Pretty smart. I just need that first complete draft…

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Yes it really takes the pressure off, I think. You’re just describing what you’re going to write, so you’re giving yourself permission to write it badly if that’s what it takes to get you unstuck, and that has a liberating effect. I’ve been trying to keep that in mind, and it’s helping.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: ~~WORD OF THE DAY~~ | YouthVoicesTT

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