Sometimes, getting started is the worst part of writing. I always tell writers I work with to first figure out what you are going to say and then worry about how you are going to write it. Sounds simple enough.
But, what if you have no idea of what you want to say?
Often, I guide writers through the invention process by resorting back to writing invention techniques we all learned in elementary English classes. I cringe at the thought of telling college students to try elementary aspects of a writing process—such as clustering, outlining, and free writing—but, by resorting back to our roots we are able to transform a complex problem into an elementary challenge.
However, what does a writer do when fundamental invention processes do not work?
A collaborative conversation about a writer’s invention woes is the valedictorian of the invention process. The magnificence of conversation is the opportunity to collaborate on what the writer wants to say. Then, the writer learns what to write. The writer becomes engaged with her ideas, learns what she wants to say, discusses how she wants to write it, and ultimately practices an advanced writing process, without realizing it! Simply talking about the challenges of not having anything to say begins shaping what we want to write. A writer, after talking with another writer, soon learns that she actually does have something to say—and writes a lot!
But, what happens when what the writer wants to say doesn’t fulfill what she is supposed to write?
Currently, I am in the process of applying to graduate schools. My task: write a personal essay. Sounds simple enough, but this has been my most challenging writing assignment to date—and I have written thoughtful yet entertaining research papers based on tediously boring dusty theory. Aside from the added pressure of writing an essay that could potentially change the future course of my academic career I am now burdened with the added pressure of knowing the admission review board has a rigidly defined set of expectations. I am required to meet writing expectations that make me yawn with boredom and frustration because of the box in which I must be confined.
For me, this type of writing experience is agony because I don’t want to write in a tone that reads like implicit ass kissing—but, isn’t that expected?! I despise implicitly bragging about my accomplishments—but, isn’t that expected?! And, I honestly have no freaking idea of what I am going to study while at their institution because my interests are as vast, complex, and varied as my inquiries—but, a defined theoretical focus is definitely expected. Nor do I have a solid idea of what I plan to contribute while I am there—but, that is definitely expected. This is the most important essay I will ever bullshit my way through and, as a self-proclaimed bull-shitter of excellence, for the first time I have no idea how to do it by giving them what they want.
Since I explicitly know what I have to say—and I know how my audience expects me to write it—what do I do now?
Resorting back to the advice I give to writers won’t help because the loss of content—the what isn’t a problem—it’s the rigid stylistic box I am being shoved into that is the main problem. Providing what my audience desires has been holding me up on committing words to the first draft of the page.
I resorted back to that secret aspect of the invention process: I spoke about my struggles with getting started. The result: I received elementary advice that is actually ingenious: write what I want to say, how I want to write it, and toss the audience expectations aside.
The idea of temporarily tossing aside the audience expectations was so bluntly obvious that I mentally smacked myself on the forehead for not thinking of it myself. Since I know what I want to say and how I want to write it then I will go ahead and say it without limiting myself to the rigid writing constraints I am fighting against. In so doing, I am able to relish the enjoyment of writing the essay on my own terms, in my own words, with my own voice. Freedom from rigid writing expectations is freeing. Allowing myself to satisfy my principals as a writer fulfilled my goals to write what I wanted to say the way I wanted to write it. Then, I can revise which will finally free me to write a new draft of what they want me to write the way they want me to say it.
Now, hopefully, everybody is happy.