Friday, May 27, 2005

Blogger's Block and Calorie Counting

Suffering pangs of guilt over not having posted in a week and a half, I decided to avail myself of the old writer's trick by writing about why I hadn't been writing. Pondering the theme, I came up with the phrase "blogger's block," which I hadn't seen anyone else use, and felt rather proud of having invented it. Maybe, I thought, this could be the cornerstone of my "shtick," which according to David Greenberg is the secret key to success in the blogosphere. And who would know better how to succeed in blogging than a history professor ruminating on his blogging failure in the Times (Week in Review section, May 15, 2005)?

Just to be on the safe side I decided to Google the phrase "writer's block" to see whether it had been used before. To my chagrin there were 41,000 hits. So much for my originality, let alone my hope of developing a Greenbergesque shtick. Half of the Google citations appeared to be bloggers blogging about why they hadn't been blogging, the other half bloggers offering tips and tricks for overcoming blogger's block.

If these are like the tips and tricks for overcoming writer's block that have been described so many times before, they are probably fun to read about and basically useless for anyone other than their creator--suggestions like "Set the temperature in your office five degrees too cold" and "Start each day by writing letters to your creditors--this gets your writing muscles limbered up and reminds you why you need to finish that project."

Convincing oneself to write is like sticking to a diet: It requires cunning and self-deception, since fundamentally it is so much easier and more enjoyable in the short term to eat chocolate chip cookies and not to write. Over lunch the other day a client explained to me the psychological regimen he uses to enforce his diet. Andy weighs himself constantly (at least twice a day, often more) using a digital scale that shows tenths of a pound; he eats soup whenever he wants bread and drinks coffee with half and half whenever he wants a sweet fix. After going out for a big dinner and gaining two pounds, he concentrates extra hard on cutting back and usually loses the weight within three or four days.

This is working for him (he's about halfway to his target weight), but when I described Andy's system to Mary-Jo (knowing her interest in nutrition), she quickly poked holes in it. "It's a terrible idea to weigh yourself all the time. And when you gain or lose a pound or two because of a big dinner out, you're really just talking about fluids." In other words, Andy's plan makes no sense--at least for Mary-Jo. Her recommendation would be to keep track in writing of everything you eat and the number of calories it contains. "After all," she observes, "you can't beat the laws of thermodynamics. The only way to lose weight is to make sure you consume fewer calories than you burn in your daily activities."

Needless to say, this is Mary-Jo's technique, and it definitely works for her. (She looks great.) But would it work for everyone? I doubt it, not because of any scientific or biological fallacy in the program but because it takes a particular kind of personality to write down in a little notebook everything you ingest and its calorie count and then to feel motivated by the resulting sums. People's minds are just too variable and weird. Hence the hundreds of diet books that are published every year, a phenomenon that may seem like a waste of resources but which I find it hard to deplore since it supports many hard-working writers much like myself.

Getting back to blogger's block, the cheap and obvious irony would be to observe that the 41,000 Google references suggest that an awful lot of writing is being done by people who claim they are unable to write. Perhaps I should eschew the cheap and obvious, but then I would be that much further away from actually getting something written, wouldn't I? An acute bit of advice from the famous art teacher Charles W. Hawthorne (in his little book Hawthorne on Painting) was, "look around and select a subject that you can see painted, that will paint itself. Do the obvious before you do the superhuman thing." I've found that applies to writing, too. My personal way of overcoming writer's (or blogger's) block is to write something easy, something that practically writes itself. Once the ice is broken and the words are starting to flow, the problem is usually solved.

Which means I hope that I will be posting on a much more regular basis over the coming weeks than I have over the last two.
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