Solving Writer's Block By Pure Luck

Published: 2024-06-19
Tagged: essay learning writing

When I came across the notion of Babble & Prune, I instantly liked it. But I couldn't make it work for my big problem: writer's block--that is, until I came across an exercise called freewriting. Since then I've produced so much writing that it feels like cheating.

First, what is Babble & Prune?

It's a model of creativity that splits it into two wholly separate skills. The first, babble, is one's ability to churn out new thoughts--ideas, topics, takes, characters, rhymes, worlds, etc. It's raw creative power. Prune, on the other hand, is about filtering out all the crappy meh ideas. It's judgement, in other words.

I found this model useful in the same way the push/pull model is useful for exercise: it simplifies a dizzying amount of complexity into something I can use in a hot, crowded gym even when I'm tired or distracted. So in my case, the model provided a diagnosis of my writer's block: my babble was simply weak relative to my prune--getting words out of my mind was like squeezing an empty tube of toothpaste. I could dedicate a whole morning to an essay and come up with a measly three or four hundred words.

What was even more depressing was just how bad those words turned out. They were, after all, the product of hours filled with agony, frustration, even anger. If you're curious, just check out some of my blog posts from around 2017-2020. I must admit though that I never posted the worst ones. I was too ashamed.

But babble & prune didn't help me fix any of that. I just couldn't figure out a way to apply it to my writing process. At least I proved to myself it works by trying it at work: whenever I got stuck on a problem, I'd take a piece of paper and a pencil and write down as many solution ideas as I could in ten minutes. Then I'd set a five-minute timer and cross out all the crappy ones. Whatever was left almost always got me sorted out.

Well, back in May I came across a recommendation for Peter Elbow's "Writing with Power." I skimmed the beginning and came upon "freewriting."

It's a simple technique. Just set a timer for ten minutes and write whatever comes to mind. If nothing does, write nonsense like "bla bla bla" and sooner or later the words will begin to flow. You don't have to do anything with the end result. If you like it, consider fleshing it out into a polished piece. But if you don't, simply move on.

This is how Elbow explains it:

Freewriting makes writing easier by helping you with the root psychological or existential difficulty in writing: finding words in your head and putting them down on a blank piece of paper. (...) Frequent freewriting exercises help you learn simply to get on with it and not be held back by worries about whether these words are good words or the right words. (...) Freewriting exercises are push-ups in withholding judgment as you produce so that afterwards you can judge better. (...) Freewriting for ten minutes is a good way to warm up when you sit down to write something. You won't waste so much time getting started when you turn to your real writing task and you won't have to struggle so hard to find words.

That really doesn't persuade me at all. It sounds like 70's-style American pop-psychology. But it does remind me a lot of Babble (bolded part above!) and since it would cost me only ten minutes of my time per day, I decided to give it a go.

Now, after three weeks, I'm glad as fuck I did. I doubt I've ever put down so many words as I have in such a short period of time. But what's even more surprising is how much fun writing has become.

For one, I'm going through more ideas and finding really exciting ones. But I'm also seeing patterns in my writing that I never noticed before, which naturally makes me eager to play around with them--change my voice or point of view, or give narrative or verse a try. After all, it's just ten minutes, so if doesn't work out, there's no emotional cost to it, no feeling of failure.

I admit I'm confused though--I have no idea how it work. If I go off of babble & prune, it could be that giving my brain ten minutes of unconstrained attention strengthens the belief that producing raw ideas is OK and to do more of it. Or maybe watching myself write and seeing the growing pile of legal pad paper on my desk is proof that I can create something out of nothing--meaning, it builds confidence.

Alternatively, perhaps it's more mechanical in the sense that having more ideas makes it more likely for me to dream up something that makes me really excited, which in turn makes it easier to muster the energy to see it through to the end. The inverse feels intuitively true: having fewer ideas makes one fearfully latch onto even boring ones, and then it's way harder to find enough energy to get something out the door.

I hesitate to praise or recommend something I don't understand. But I can't deny it works--I mean, this is the third post I've published in less than a month and that's never happened before. So if you are like me in the past, squeezing out one painful word after another, or even nothing at all, give freewriting an honest go. It's a cheap experiment--at worst, it'll take 3-4 hours of your time this month. However, at best, it might change your whole relationship to writing.


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