A few of my clients have been frustrated with their writing progress. This statement is probably true no matter when I utter it. Even if you’ve successfully developed a process that works, sometimes you hit a slow patch. When this happens, your first instinct is to wonder what’s wrong and go looking for a way to fix it.
What if nothing is wrong?
I’m a pretty good driver. I have lived on a gravel road about 3 km from the main road. It’s hilly and winding, but on a good day, when the grader has been by recently and the road is dry, 60 km/h is a comfortable speed. I could brake safely if a deer comes out of the woods. I could quickly pull closer to the edge of the road if someone is coming in the opposite direction. It takes less than 5 minutes to get out to the main road.
In the spring, there is no way I could drive 60 km/h on that road. It’s wet from melting snow. There are lots of potholes. I’m more likely to be in the middle of the road to avoid those potholes, and swerving to get out of the way of oncoming traffic or wildlife is a bit more dangerous when the road is wet. 40 km/h is more like the “normal” speed in those conditions.
There have been a couple of winter days when it took me almost 15 minutes to drive that 3 km. That means I was going about 12 km/h and never got out of 2nd gear. The road was icy. It took all my concentration and patience just to stay on the road and moving forward. Any sudden move, even at 10 km/h would have landed me in the ditch. And there was no guaranteeing the car would go exactly where I steered it.
On those days, there was nothing wrong with my driving. It just took 15 minutes to go 3 km. The fact that on other days I could drive the same distance in less than 5 minutes was irrelevant. Driving faster on that day would have meant adding in the time to wait for a tow truck to get me out of the ditch, extending the time to probably an hour or more.
Sometimes writing is like driving on an icy road
You are a good writer. You know how to do this.
Some days you can write 2000 words in 45 minutes. Other days you struggle to get anything written at all.
It’s not you. It’s the
road writing conditions.
Are you extrapolating inappropriately?
Let’s stick with the driving metaphor for a moment. On the day when I could only drive 12 km/h I was going into the city, a journey of about 40 km. At 12 km/h that would take 3 hours and 20 minutes. And then I’d have to get home. We’d be so late for whatever we were going to do that it wouldn’t be worth going.
So why didn’t I turn around at the first neighbour’s driveway and go home?
I did not assume that my speed on my hilly, windy, icy road was going to be my typical speed for the whole journey. My road is 3 km long. It took me 15 minutes to get to the end of it rather than the more usual < 5 minutes. Once I was at the end though, I was on a main road. It had been plowed and salted. I could safely drive around the speed limit of 80 km/h. Then I got to the highway which was also clear, with a speed limit of 100 km/h.
That painfully slow section, which took all that concentration for what seemed like little benefit, had very little impact on my overall journey time. Staying out of the ditch might have seemed like a pretty small goal but it had a huge impact on my journey time.
The slow day is one day
It is part of your journey. You need to travel this slow road to get to the fast road. The important thing is that you are moving forward.
Try to relax and focus on what you are doing right now. Getting through this without landing in the ditch is an accomplishment. And it’s a lot easier to do if you are not distracted by anxiety about the next stage, whether you will ever get there, whether you are a bad
driver writer, and so on. Furthermore, we tend to go in the direction we are looking. Stop looking at the ditch. Look at the road.
How long can it take to write a paragraph? by Mary Beard in the TLS
An earlier version of this post was posted March 19, 2013. Edited December 3, 2015, related posts added July 10, 2017.