The “Dear Mother” Approach to Getting Past Writer’s Block
If you want to be seen as a thought leader in the software community, people often will suggest that you share your expertise with others by getting published. But no matter how knowledgeable you may be in your particular domain, writing about it is another matter entirely. If you just can’t get the words to flow, you’ve been struck by writer’s block.
Suggestions for overcoming writer’s block include exercising, changing your environment, spending time with friends, or brainstorming your ideas in bullet points. It might also help to try writing in a different location, listening to music you enjoy, or reading articles or books on topics unrelated to what you’re trying to write about.
But I especially like an idea from John McPhee in his book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. McPhee is the author of more than twenty books. As if that weren’t enough, some of his articles, at 40,000 words long, are as long as entire books (compared with my TechWell Insights articles, which clock in at fewer than five hundred). McPhee refers to writer’s block as “the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine,” which captures the experience perfectly.
One of McPhee’s suggestions when you’re still blocked after hours of struggling is to write “Dear Mother.” Then write a letter to your mother. Tell her about the block and describe the frustration you’re experiencing. Then tell her about the topic you’re trying to write about.
To illustrate this suggestion, McPhee says to imagine that you’re writing to your mother about a grizzly bear:
“You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day.”
He says to go on like that as long as you can. Then, he says, delete the “Dear Mother” and just keep the bear.
This idea is worth trying if you’re stuck. When you forget about the writing you’re trying to do and instead write to a trusted friend or family member about what you’re trying to write about, you’re not thinking of it as a draft, and the words may flow more readily.
McPhee admits that the hardest part for him is just getting something out:
“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.”
It’s reassuring to know that even highly experienced, extensively published writers sometimes get stuck. So the next time it happens to you, do what McPhee would do: blurt, heave, and babble!