From Hillary Rettig’s book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block (Infinite Art, August 2011). (c)2011 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to copy and distribute so long as this paragraph is included, and a link is provided back to www.HillaryRettig.com
Perfectionists tend to see their projects as long strings of words – and there’s a natural tendency, when you have that viewpoint, to want to start at the beginning of a piece and write straight through till, “The End.”
It’s much more productive to view your work as a landscape that you’re viewing from above, and whose topographic features include: hard parts, easy parts, exposition parts, dialog parts, visual description parts, parts involving Character A, parts involving Theme B, etc. Viewed like this, your project resembles an illustrated map, or maybe one of those miniature landscapes you see in museums, and it’s now accessible to you in its totality. You are now, in other words, no longer looking at it from the meager and terrifying prospect of a point at the end of an endless string of words.
And now you can use a visualization tool I call the “writercopter,” a mental helicopter that can transport you to any place in your piece. The moment you feel you feel you’ve taken a particular piece of writing as far as you can, hop onto your copter and take it to another section that looks enticing. Work there until you run dry, and then reboard and hop to another part.
What if no part looks appealing? Try writing about the piece (see below). And in the unlikely event that that doesn’t help, set the entire piece aside and let it marinate while you work on something else.
Writing might sometimes be difficult, but it should never be unpleasant; and if it is unpleasant – if you’re feeling frustrated, bored or stuck – that’s not an indication of any deficiency on your part, but simply the signal to move to another part of the project, or another project. While it’s okay to practice “writing past the wall,” i.e., sticking with a difficult section a bit longer than comfortable, don’t perfectionistically dig in your heels and become an antagonist to yourself and your process.
The writercopter technique is similar to that used by the famously prolific Isaac Asimov, author or editor of more than 500 books:
“What if you get a writer’s block?” (That’s a favorite question.) I say, “I don’t ever get one precisely because I switch from one task to another at will. If I’m tired of one project, I just switch to something else which, at the moment, interests me more.” (from his memoir, In Joy Still Felt.)
Note Asimov’s absolute sense of freedom and dominion (author-ity!) over his work – expressed not in grandiose terms, but the simple ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And, of course, the total lack of blame, shame, compulsion and other perfectionist traits.
Nonlinear writing obviously goes hand-in-hand with free writing; and using the techniques together should powerfully speed your writing. What’s more, the process is accelerative, since the more easy parts of your project that you finish, the easier the hard parts will get. (By writing “around” the hard parts, you’re illuminating them and solving problems related to them.)
You can combine nonlinear writing with Anne Lamott’s famous “one-inch picture frame” technique from Bird by Bird to get through even the toughest piece of writing. To combat overwhelm, Lamott reminds herself that:
All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame…All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties when the trains were still running.
I myself have gotten through very tough sections of writing (meaning, sections where I felt a lot of resistance to the writing – because the sections themselves are neither easy nor hard, but just writing) by switching back and forth between the difficult work and an easier one, doing “one-inch picture frame”-sized pieces of the tough section, and longer stretches of the easy one. The long stretches actually become a reward, in this context, which is itself a lovely development: writing not as chore, but reward.
Take these techniques to their limit, as I assume Asimov did, and you develop a very light touch around your work. You’re hopping everywhere in the writercopter, not in a distracted way, but in a focused, effective way – and the writing is almost never a struggle, and the words just pile up.
The alternative is: you struggle with grim determination to write the piece linearly. And so you write a page or two and…wham! You’re at a hard part and you stop dead. And because you don’t know what else to do, you just keep throwing yourself against that wall – until procrastination steps in to “save” you from your predicament.