Not too long ago, my family visited Lumberman’s Monument. It’s on the Au Sable River west of Oscoda, and if you haven’t been, I recommend it (although I think Iargo Springs, a few miles down the road, is even better). The views are excellent, the monument itself oddly compelling and vivid for being a bunch of lumberjacks cast in bronze, and the historical displays are informative. Next to the monument there’s a small re-creation of a logjam, something the lumbermen in the monument were very familiar with. Essentially, it’s just a pile of logs that have gotten out of order, tangled up with each other, and caused general upheaval, blocking the rest of the logs from going down the river to their final destinations.
Sometimes a logjam could be cleared up with hooks and ropes. Sometimes it required dynamite.
I hit logjams when I’m writing. Sometimes I need a transition that I just can’t figure out, or I can’t quite make the devastatingly elegant thematic connection that I’m shooting for. Sometimes the idea I was trying to explain just keels over and dies, and I sit and stare at its corpse and think “well, this paper is in trouble.” It’s frustrating and demoralizing and time-consuming. It doesn’t happen with every project, but when it does, I am well and truly stuck.
Bring on the dynamite.
When the words are stubborn and the flow of writing is stopped, I’ve discovered that, unlike the lumbermen floating logs down the river, I can just go around the logjam. What?? It was revolutionary and liberating for me to realize that I didn’t have to write the paper in order from start to finish—if I had a decent idea of how I was going to organize it, or the topics I needed to cover, I could write the sections that were coming easiest at the time, and go back to the logjam later. It still needed to be attended to—but not right this second.
In practice, this means my rough drafts are often speckled with notes to myself in bold type to put a transition here, or expand on this idea and connect it to X. If I have doubts a particular sentence is doing what I want, I put that whole sentence in bold, too. Sometimes entire paragraphs end up in bold until I can take a step back and look at how they fit with the paper as a whole. Rather than get stuck and stare at the same word for 45 minutes, I make a note, and then I move on down the river.
I guess this isn’t exactly the same as dynamiting a logjam, since I don’t have one super-effective technique to fix a stuck spot. Going around the logjam and re-evaluating it later is more like teasing the jam apart with hooks, ropes, and patience, while still allowing words to flow around and beyond the jam. But the point is: if you’re stuck, you don’t have to fix it before you can continue writing. Eventually? Yes. In a first draft? Maybe not.
Maybe this isn’t news to you. I’ve had dynamite in my writing toolbox for years, you say. That’s awesome! Keep writing the good write! But if you, like me, have ever been stuck on a paper, and stuck in a mindset that says you can’t move on until the problem is fixed, next time try making a note and sneaking around the logjam. Why not? See what happens. Maybe you’ll find a paper on the other side of your logjam, after all.