Twenty Years and Twenty Minutes

by Tina Blue
February 4, 2001

    ~This article was original written for my Themestream column "Essay, I Say."  The reference to the comment on my author index has to do with the fact that on Themestream readers could leave comments in the "talk-back" box appended to each article.  Kevin 's comment was made in response to the over 200 articles listed on my index page, many of which had been written and posted within just a two-month period.)


          Yesterday morning I went to my article index to add an article I had just posted in my "Kidbits" column. I found at the index a comment by Kevin Baker: "I just have one question: When do you

          Kevin's question serves as a nice lead-in for a topic I've been planning to write about this week--writer's block. Obviously I don't have a problem with writer's block, but I do have a lot of experience with helping other writers overcome that dread malady.

          First, let me answer Kevin's question. While it's true that I don't get anywhere near as much sleep as I need (on the subject of inadequate sleep, see my article "America's Sleep Deficit"), that's because like most Americans I work too much (see my article
Slow Down--you're Moving Too Fast!"). I also read too much, often staying up to read no matter how exhausted I feel.

     But writing doesn't use up much of my time. Actually, writing takes me almost no time at all. 

     In a way.

          People are often astonished at how fast I can write. I often write complete essays during conferences with students, to show how an idea can be pulled together as an essay, or to demonstrate how one handles the specialized task of writing about literature. Those essays, which run about 700 words, only take about ten or twelve minutes to write.

          An article like "America's Sleep Deficit" will usually take from twenty minutes to an hour, depending on how many interruptions I have to contend with as I write.

          When I had my home daycare, I would often write sample essays for my English classes while waiting for the children to finish eating lunch or during a lull created by their involvement in an elaborate activity. I kept a pencil and notebook on the kitchen counter and scribbled away while I watched them play.

          That's where the interruptions usually came from. If a child needed my help or attention, I would put the pencil down and respond to that need. But kids need supervision, not constant interference, so although they knew I was available if they needed me, much of the time I was "on call" and just overseeing their activities rather than actively occupied myself.

          So from the outside it looks as though I can write a 1000- to 2000-word essay in approximately twenty minutes, even while supervising six kids in a daycare.

          It's almost like performing a parlor trick. In fact, on occasion I have amused groups of friends by writing essays at the drop of a hat on topics of their choice--though I do stipulate that I have to actually know enough to have something to say on the topic.

          But it's all smoke and mirrors. Come on, you don't really think it only takes me twenty minutes to write an essay, do you? The truth is, it takes me about twenty years and twenty minutes. What people see when I write an essay before their very eyes is the final--and by far the easiest--stage of what is actually a rather long, even a lifelong, process.

          When my friend Patricia Rojas was working on a journalism degree at KU in the early 1990s, she took a required ethics in journalism course. She used to call me over the weekend with whatever ethical issue the class had been debating that week. She was fascinated by the fact that I would respond immediately to whatever ethical dilemma she posed, and that my solution was always what the class had arrived at only after a full week's worth of debate, carefully guided and shaped by the professor.

          At first she couldn't understand why it took me no time at all to analyze and weigh the implications of the different aspects of the issue.

          But after awhile she realized that it did take me time. Lots of time. Years, usually.

          None of the questions she raised were on subjects that I had not spent years thinking, reading, and sometimes even writing about. Often I had even argued at length with others who had devoted serious attention to the issue. By the time Patricia broached a particular subject, I already knew what I thought about it--and why.

          Similarly, by the time I am ready to sit down and write about a subject, all the hard work of study and analysis has already been done. I don't have to use the writing process itself to figure out what I really think. Nor do I have to use the writing process to find something to write about, because I don't write in a vacuum--I write because something has touched me or provoked me in an area that I care about and know about.

          I am sure that most of you have had the same experience on at least some occasions. When something gets to you in an area where you have expended a lot of thought, you can probably sit down and write a full-length essay about it with no effort at all. In fact, you probably can't type or write fast enough to keep up with the flow of ideas!

          Furthermore, if you have devoted a lot of thought to a subject, the pattern of its internal relationships will have revealed itself over time. If an outline is needed--and often none is--it will usually be just a matter of jotting down two or three main points that you don't want to forget to cover in the heat of composition.

          But the thinking through of various topics is not the only "hard work" that's already been done by the time I write an essay. Just like a dancer, a musician, or an athlete, I have spent a fair amount of time studying and polishing the foundational tools of my craft.

          Complete mastery of those basic elements requires years of study and practice. I commit typos--really embarrassing ones--all the time because I can't type and I can't proofread effectively on the computer screen. But issues of grammar and usage (including spelling) don't get in my way, and neither do matters of sentence structure, paragraph structure, or style. Manipulating those elements of writing is second nature to me, just as certain physical skills are automatic to the dancer or the athlete.

          I also believe that years spent outlining my own work as well as the work of others has given me an intuitive sense of the logical relationships among ideas, so I don't spend much time worrying about how to organize my material either. The mechanics of writing are so automatic for me that they don't even act as speed bumps. I just zip right over them.

          But of course I wasn't born with those skills. I developed them through years of study and practice, just as I developed my ideas about various topics over many years of observing, reading, thinking, and discussing such issues. As I have said, by the time I sit down to write, the hard work has already been done. I'm ready for the pay-off.

          What does all this have to do with overcoming writer's block? Well, if writer's block is caused by performance anxiety, it may be that you need to become more secure in your mastery of the mechanics of writing. In my article "Is There an Easy Way to Correct My Own Grammar and Usage Problems?" I explain a simple, step-by-step process for correcting your own errors in grammar and usage.

          Since most writers have only a few characteristic errors that they need to worry about, following that program will eventually fix it so you hardly even have to think about grammar and usage when you write.

          Another cause of writer's block is time pressure. Many people who want to write feel that they must have large blocks of uninterrupted time to get anything accomplished. But if you really know your subject, and if you are really involved in it, it won't be that easy for the mundane world to distract you from writing about it.

          And even when you are pulled away by other obligations, it won't be that hard to pick up where you left off, since you've been in that "place" for so long that it is like a second home. Besides, if you are writing at the speed of light, most distractions won't even have time to come up before you have finished your article.

          But an awful lot of writer's block is not caused by performance anxiety or by time limitations. It is caused by lack of thought. A lot of people have the desire to write and to be read, but they don't have anything in particular that they want--or need--to write about. They are focused on the messenger (themselves), not on the message--if indeed there even is a message, other than I want to write.  I want you to admire my writing.  I want you to know I exist

          Where should you get those ideas that are so compelling that they write themselves? We are not spiders, spinning our webs out of our own innards. We must go to life, to experience, to interaction with others, to observation, to books. Read a lot, observe and interact with other people, and really think about what you thus absorb. Give yourself over to a lifetime project of knowing about and thinking about a whole lot of interesting stuff.

          And master the basic skills of writing, so they won't hang you up when you are on a writing roll. You want to be free to focus on
you are writing, not how you are writing.

          Writing is the last stage of working with an idea, not the first. If you've done your "homework," the writing part is easy.

          Heck, it's even fun. 
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