Writing & the Paradox of Choice

The blinking cursor on the screen can be the most intimidating thing in the world.

Your novel, poem, or short story (or even this blog post) can be a vibrant idea in your mind until you sit down and try to put it into words. Or maybe you are in the middle of a longer project and have lost your momentum, unsure of what to write next. It can suddenly feel as though you're standing at the edge of a precipice. Or, perhaps less dramatically, that your idea might not be so great after all.

Whether you are at the beginning or in the middle, that feeling can be debilitating. Instead of writing, you can end up staring at the page until you give up and do something else.

I've read of TONS of articles, essays, and chapters on tackling this problem called "writer's block." For instance, the fantasy and science fiction blog, Fantasy-Faction, has a great series on story structure, in particular this article that discusses possible solutions to being stuck in the middle. I have a Pinterest board dedicated to writing, and it's filled with pins with titles like "How to Create a Plot Chart" or "How to Get Out of Writer's Block." I've learned useful things from most of these and others, but I kept running into the same problem: what was going to happen next?

I want to share the best advice I've ever received. It's absurdly simple, but it completely changed the way that I think about writing.

Be willing to write the bad chapter.

I heard this advice earlier this year from one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson. He came to Houston to promote Calamity, the third installment in his Steelheart series. Whenever he does a book signing, he always gives a short talk on a subject related to writing.

I went to the signing as much to hear his talk as to have my book signed. Sanderson teaches writing in addition to being a professional writer, and I listen to anything he has to say and usually come away having learned something. (It's also likely that I will refer to him in a lot of future blog posts, so I apologize in advance. He is re-releasing recordings of the writing class that he teaches at Brigham Young University, so I will rave about those at a later date.) I didn't expect, however, that his talk would address the exact problem that I was facing in my own writing.

At this event, he started out by talking about the paradox of choice: being presented with many different choices actually makes it harder to make the "right choice," and it's likely that we'll end up regretting the choice that we make. He applied this concept to writing, saying that writers continually face the paradox of choice due to having infinite choiceliterally anything can happen that you want to happen. Sanderson claimed that this is at least one source of writer's block: there are so many things that could happen that you shut down and have no idea how to move forward.

He went on to say that if you are afraid of making the wrong choice, you can only figure out how to make a better choice if you are willing to take the plunge and write the bad version first.

I had never heard writer's block described this way before, and I was astonished at the sense of freedom that it gave me. You mean that the core of my problem is that I'm just afraid of making a bad choice? You mean that my problem is not that I'm terrible at novel planning and have to make myself be better at it before I move forward?

That's the beauty of viewing writer's block in this way: I have the freedom to write a bad chapter knowing that it will help me see my novel more clearly. The secret to moving forward is letting go of perfection and deciding that it's okay if it's not the "right choice" in the first draft. I don't have to be intimidated by that blinking cursor anymore because I've accepted the fact that the direction of my plot may not be the best direction, and that I may not be able to see the best direction just yet, but I can keep writing knowing that I can always make it better.

You just have to do it. Write the next scene, stanza, chapter, or whatever it is. The question is whether or not you are willing to be bad at it before you can be good at it.

Go forth boldly, Stoners!


Image credit: "Writer's Block" by thorinside is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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