Writer B: A case of writer’s block?

The years rolled on; Writer B typed his notes; researched the historical setting of his novel; and sometimes—not often—filled in little written patches of the whole picture. As I listened to this saga of detours, or so it seemed to me, I saw that these preparations were necessary to Writer B. But I couldn’t help noticing how little he was writing.

I felt that the projected length and scope of the story required intensive writing and revising, and that this work alone would take years. I struggled to understand and respect his unique work process, but finally I said, “Hadn’t you better just start writing? Sure, it’ll feel chaotic, and you might have to put your beginning through multiple drafts. But eventually you’ll see which way to take your plot, and then you’ll get some momentum and be able to keep on going, beginning to end.” I decided not to point out that the first draft of the whole book would also require multiple revisions.

I half-expected him to reply with his usual description of his work process: “filling in [the picture] here and there.” Instead, he said, “Yeah, but if I go at it that way, it’ll feel like homework, and I want it to be fun.”

After weeks of pondering this answer and other traits of Writer B, I finally saw a possible connection between his self-imposed delays and those wondrous flashes of inspiration that were nearly the sum of his writing life.

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Writer B’s lightning bolts of inspiration: hindrance or help?

As my conversations with Writer B progressed, I began to see how his lightning bolts of inspiration could hinder as well as help him. His few poems and stories were almost all little gems, and I was happy for him that he could apparently pluck excellent work out of the air.

Furthermore, when he wasn’t writing (“taking dictation” was his description), he was often being blitzed by ideas and insights. These were miniature lightning bolts, which he worked diligently to capture.

After he retired, he first began to organize his voluminous handwritten notes—all those ideas and insights—by typing them into his computer so that he could quickly search them. This huge task required years, however, he thought it should precede most of his writing on the first draft of his novel.

This seemed logical to me, since he’d often told me that the novel was to incorporate his lifetime’s worth of reading and thinking. Two or three years went by, and the only progress Writer B reported on his actual writing was, “I see things all in a whole, like a painting, so when I write, I fill in a little here, and a little more there.”

Occasionally he mentioned that he didn’t yet see how to start, nor how to escape mere “talking heads” that weren’t characters, but a thin cover for his message. This stage continued so long that I began to wonder if he was ever going to progress beyond it.

Then came the conversation, similar to my moment of revelation about Writer A’s central struggle, in which I began to understand what was probably holding Writer B back.

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Writer B and his flashes of brilliance

Writer B was a dedicated hobby-writer. Probably he didn’t attempt a career in writing because he could make a decent living as a librarian, surrounded by books, which he loved.

Like Writer A, Writer B was an encyclopedic reader and thinker. He was always connecting ideas, and after he retired, he began work on a novel he’d been incubating for most of his adult life.

Writer B and I had many conversations about his creative process. More than once, he admonished both of us, “If an idea strikes, write it down immediately, word-for-word, because it will never come back in the pristine form it first arrived in.”

He reported that his best poems and stories had come to him in just this way—a lightning strike; a moment of perfection in which the only difficulty was to capture it. I was impressed and somewhat envious until I began to see that these bolts of brilliance were a mixed blessing to Writer B.

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Help for writer A?

Like Writer A, I had many ideas, all interconnected. When I tried to write a book to express some of these ideas, I soon became mired down. For at least three years, I floundered, struggling to place my story and insights in a logical sequence any reader could follow.

It was a battle, because most of my attempts to order my ideas, or to eliminate some of them, required me to judge their relative importance. This felt impossible because they all seemed equally significant to me. Only one thing helped.

At this stage of my writing life, I was rediscovering the value of practice writing. I wrote for practice every day, often for as long as 20 minutes at a time. These practice sessions were a huge relief—as though I’d opened a valve through which all my miscellaneous ideas and insights could flow. Many had no connection with the current writing project; in general I had a chronic surplus of ideas anyway.

However, after several months of writing for practice only—not attached to any project—I began to notice a subtle change in the book I was struggling with. The ideas began to sort themselves out and fall into place.

Of course I recommended practice writing to Writer A, but he felt that he didn’t have time for it. He continued to write mega-essays that attempted to integrate a tiny percentage of all he’d learned and thought about. I’ve always felt that his writing was worth reading, despite the hindrance of his own high intelligence.

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Details of Writer A’s Struggle

Writer A, before he even began to compose the essay I was critiquing, had already battled to to edit out the vast majority of the material that was clamoring to be expressed. The outcome of that epic struggle was a piece of writing that was still crammed with ideas.

Probably he’d eliminated many sub-topics, and simplified the flow of ideas to the full extent of his already high ability. The result had to be cut, and cut again, until the prose flowed easily enough that people would want to read it.

The interest-level in the writing was not the problem; he raised many fascinating questions. Rather, the process of composition was where Writer A was nearly defeated, with curiosity, voluminous reading and thinking, and many insights—the key characteristics of his own brilliance—being the main stumbling block.

I’d struggled with a similar problem, on a smaller scale: What did I do about it, and could my solution help Writer A and other gifted writers?

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Writer A: The Professional Who Struggled

Writer A was a professional editor. He could assemble sentences and paragraphs, cut redundant or wordy passages, and knew what a well-constructed essay, article or story should be. Therefore, how could someone so knowledgeable and experienced have problems with his craft?

I didn’t realize Writer A had major struggles with his own writing until he asked me to critique several of his long essays. Because he was my mentor and friend, I already knew he read dozens of books every month, on science, art, literature, current events, and many other subjects. He was always full of thoughts and ideas, many of which he reported to me. When I began to critique his writing—perhaps 8 years after we met—I sensed a struggle behind his excellent prose and somewhat well-ordered ideas.

“It feels like you’re trying to stuff in everything you’ve ever read or thought about,” I told him. “It’s just too full of ideas, and therefore somewhat heavy going.”

“Yes,” he replied. “But the problem is, what you’re reading represents only about 2 percent of what’s in my head.”

That was when I realized what he was up against.

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Two Brilliant Writers and the Problems Caused by Their High Ability

Part 1

The popular stereotype of a ″gift″ or ″talent″ is that the lucky person of this unusual ability doesn’t have to struggle. Above all, he or she surely doesn’t have to struggle against problems caused by the gift itself. The gift makes everything easier, right? Not necessarily.

Two highly gifted writers, Writer A and Writer B, were tripped up by the very abilities that put them far ahead of the norm. The obstacles caused by their talent were formidable, slowing them down and complicating their efforts. In one case, this slowdown threatened to be complete.

This series will profile these two writers: Writer A’s thinking and reading ranged so far that his writing could not contain it. Writer B’s greatest asset—transcendent flashes of ability that produced inspired poetry and prose—made it difficult for him to realize that his writing could progress in any other way.

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Why Brilliant Children Often Appear Slow, Part Six

Yet another slowing-down force in the life of a gifted child is over-stimulation. Where a student of normal IQ walks into a classroom and is reasonably comfortable, gifted children are hit with multiple waves of sensation. The light may hurt their eyes. The noise level can be hard for them to shut out. But the more likely distractions are from the thoughts and emotions of those around them.

Gifted children, known to be highly sensitive and receptive to stimuli of all kinds, feel strong emotions floating or even hammering at them from all sides when they are in a group. Only long experience can show them the difference between their feelings and another’s, and grade school is too early to expect them to cope. So they struggle to pay attention in class, yet are swamped in the contradictory and confusing sensations that surround them. No wonder they lose track of what the teacher is saying and then lag behind in mastering the material.

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Why Brilliant Children Often Appear Slow, Part Five

Part of my problem in math class, in addition to divergent thinking, was my need to work things out for myself. I had to explore, to my full satisfaction, all those ramifications and implications about language. I didn’t want any help.

Observing this same trait in my own two profoundly gifted children, and battling it when they were in grade school, I finally concluded that it was hardwired in. I had to learn to work with it.

I did this in their cello lessons by a “hands-off” approach, as much as I could tolerate, given that I was their teacher. Working things out for themselves, and not according to the usual sequential music-lesson curriculum I’d used throughout my career, slowed their progress noticeably. However, they were happy and learning faster than they would have if I’d been fighting them.

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Why Brilliant Children Often Appear Slow, Part Four

Complex thinking is just one example of a force that can take the attention of gifted children away from their schoolwork. Divergent thinking can exert an equally powerful pull. A divergent thinker, unlikely to listen to the teacher, may fall behind—for the usual reason.

Those thoughts are more compelling than anything else. For example, in grade school math, I was thinking about numbers, but not in any way that helped me pay attention in class.

When we studied division, I heard “one divided by five,” and began speculating on what those words implied. Cut one sheet of paper into five pieces: one divided by five equals five pieces of paper. Cut one sheet of paper five times: one divided by five is six pieces of paper. And so forth. Picturing all the possibilities, I enjoyed my personal inquiry but grew up thinking I was slow in math because I missed so many of the teacher’s useful instructions on how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions.

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