You hear a lot about something called “writer’s block.”
Then there’s that thing we all used to get when most writing was done with a pencil, called “writer’s cramp.”
This, not to be confused with “writer’s camp,” when a gaggle of would-be-novelists disappear into the Maine woods to drink wine and avoid their manuscripts.
Then there’s what I call “writer’s angst.”
Back when I was going to an office to work rather than working from my “office” at home (a comfortable chair in our living room), I was standing at a bus stop reading a good book.
This, mind you, was not just any bus stop. It’s a block from the apartment we use while in Paris, on a sun-dappled and leafy, on a corner of the Quai de la Tournelle and the Pont de l’Archêché. Boats float down the Seine nearby. The gothic towers of Notre Dame shadow the river. Parisians stroll past while les bouquinistes set up shop.
It was a beautiful day, after almost a week of chill and rain. The breeze fluttered the leaves. And in that moment before a moment, I had just been thinking how much better this was than a 45 commute through traffic to a cubicle in an office park.
But suddenly, it hit me. Out of the blue, a week’s worth of research for a new promo suddenly gelled together. No, collided. Like a tangle of monkeys on bicycles.
Headlines and leads… points and counterpoints… resistance-melting proofs… a battering close… phrases, metaphors, images, and subheads…
It was good stuff and I knew it. Too good to lose. I had to stop reading, for fear that the words in the book might drown my idea. God willing, I thought, nobody would talk to me. Where the h**l was that bus? I fingered the metro ticket in my pocket.
I looked at my watch.
I had exactly 20 minutes from here to my keyboard. Would I make it in time? That big old elevator was so slow. It would take three minutes to climb the stairs. Did I have a pen anywhere? Something to write on? Maybe in my bag. Where the h*ll is that bus?
Ah wait, here’s a pen. Maybe I can get this down on the blank inside cover of the book. Here’s the bus. C’mon people, file in. Show him your ticket. Tourist… question… fumbling in English. Let’s get this thing moving!
Scenery, great. Fountains. Cool. What’s with all this traffic? Getting out, walking from the stop, punching in the door code, up the creaky wood stairs, at the desk, opening the laptop… I made it. Someone says hello, but I’m already typing. It’s in. On the page. Phew.
Years ago, I wanted to be a novelist. And I remembered what a fiction teacher in college once warned us. “You’re not really a writer,” he said, “until you can’t wait to get to your office… or get home, if you have to… to write.”
Now I’m a copywriter instead.
But really, when we’re talking process, is there that much of a difference?
Aside from the pay, I mean. (Holler “copywriter” in a New York restaurant, and someone will hand you a business card. Holler “novelist” and someone will come out of the kitchen and hand you another dinner roll.)
The bottom line is simple: Every kind of productive writer spends time in the chaos of ideas, the maelstrom of data and research that marks the start of a new project. This is the whole theory, by the way, behind James Webb Young’s already short book, “A Technique For Producing Ideas.”
For instance, think about what it’s like — or should be like — to start from scratch with a new client or product. You end up throwing yourself completely into the research, from the ground up, with the hopes of knowing the thing you’re writing about better than the insiders themselves.
At first it’s too much. A mess of notions, no clear thread linking them together. You’re sure it will never make sense. Then it does. In an instant. And it’s all you can do to type fast enough to get it down. You need this to happen. But you cannot will it to happen. The connecting ideas, it turns out, find you. Not the other way around.
You can no more order yourself to be creative than you can order a dog to sneak up on its tail.
What you can do, however, is steep yourself in reports, in articles, in books, in recorded interviews and conversations, in related websites and — for our purposes — past promos and brochures. What you pour in, you’ll get back out. Organized by your subconscious. Stuff it in, pack it in, sit on top of it and pound if you have to.
Then take a walk. Take a shower. Go stand at the bus stop and wait.
Just make sure you’ve got a pen handy when you do.