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Pub Date: Jun 28, 2013 | Columnist: Rochelle Shapiro

Dear Mother, I have writer's block

July 2013

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"You have to get something on the page before you can pass judgment on it."
—Shapiro

Reading the April 29th, 2013 New Yorker, I came across an article by the famous John McPhee , one of the pioneers of creative non-fiction and four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that seemed to come to me just when I needed it. I wanted to write a story that terrified me, because I didn’t think I could write it well. And then there was McPhee’s Draft No. 4, a Mae West to keep me from drowning in doubt. I was so flustered that I told myself I was going to give up writing.

McPhee asks, How can anyone know if something is good before it even exists?” You have to get something on the page before you can pass judgment on it.

On the other hand, if you tell yourself, “I just love to write,” than how will you be able to see where your writing isn’t working?

McPhee got the idea of writing “Dear Mother,” then writing to either complain about your writer’s block, or write to your mother about the story you want to tell. Once you’ve got something, snip “Dear Mother,” and you’ve probably have a good case for a first draft.

McPhee wrote a letter to his daughter, Jenny, who felt lost in her piece of writing. “Dear Jenny,” he said, “the way to do a piece of writing is to do it three or four times over, never once.”

"The difference, Mc Phee points out, between a live performer and a writer is that a writer can revise.”
—Shapiro

How comforting. The difference, Mc Phee points out, between a live performer and a writer is that a writer can revise.” Yes, so why panic? Just get down what you can and go back to it, and back to it, and back to it. Perhaps you will read your first draft that evening or perhaps you will leave days or months between your rereads and rewrites. Whatever works for you! Try both.

"“Writers,” he says, “do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.” What an important thing to remember!"
—Shapiro

When his daughter complained to him that her writing imitates so much of what she’s currently reading, he tells her that it’s natural at her age, even desirable. Only when she’s been writing as long as he has would that be a problem. “Writers,” he says, “do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.” What an important thing to remember!

McPhee suggests that you draw a box around any of your words that don’t feel right as well words that seem to have possibility. Then, take yourself to the dictionary and look up the words. McPhee feels that doing that will lead you to new possibilities and better ones than the thesaurus.

Inspired by McPhee, I write, Dear Mother, please help me get the first draft of the story I want to write. All I have to do is write down the facts that have come to me. Just the facts, Ma. Then maybe, just maybe tomorrow, I’ll begin to see the depth of the story, the theme, why I’m attracted to it. Ma, are you listening?

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

 

 

 

 


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.