NOTE: This post is mostly for writers, though I suspect that anyone could benefit from the experience I’m recommending. But if you’ve come for family photos and don’t feel like reading for a few minutes, no hard feelings. We’ll be back again tomorrow.
I made a transformative discovery yesterday — a devastatingly simple computer program that shoots straight to the heart of that timeless, intractable state of mind and spirit known as writer’s block.
Perhaps you are familiar with the following situation: It’s just you and the keyboard, sitting there together. You have a joint mission, but you find yourself at odds. The clock is ticking. It’s utterly uncomfortable. You’d rather be anywhere else in the world. You want (or need) to write, but you can’t. Something inside you is making it impossible. Is it fear? Indecision? Desire for a sandwich? Lack of inspiration? Surplus of doubt?
We each have our own long list of explanations, but I suspect that the underlying problem is almost always the same: too much thinking involved. In my experience, the best writing comes from a deeper layer of our being, from a place beneath the conscious mind, where the glorious, unpolished goop emerges from an ample spring, a place of pure inspiration, of unimpeded utterance. But the spring is locked inside. The trick is getting it out.
When we sit down to write, we are at the mercy of the fusty gatekeeper who will not let the riffraff through until it has taken a shower, until it has proven itself worthy. And while it’s true that unwashed words might not belong in a published manuscript, they can never be seen and considered and given a careful makeover unless they get a chance to see the light of day.
It’s when we let the gatekeeper himself do the writing that we end up with bland, predictable toast with no butter. Our dry, bored throats rebel and refuse to even try and write the next time.
To succeed in the act of writing (as far as I’m concerned) is finding a way to force the judgmental part of our brains to step aside or fall asleep or hold its nose while the unlovable bits of preconscious expression ooze onto the page. There they can be seen and considered and lovingly shaped into something that’s fit for the king.
But how do we trick gatekeeper into falling asleep or sending himself to the corner for a while? It’s nearly impossible. He is so vigilant.
This simple, ingenious interface presents the following challenge: write for a predetermined amount of time without stopping for more than five seconds. If you stop for five seconds, your work will be lost. It simply disappears. Which is (to this writer, at least) an even more terrifying proposition than writing a few awful phrases (or making a few typos) along the way.
The imposed urgency sends writer’s block packing, shutting down the gatekeeper by overwhelming him with other priorities. When you don’t have time to look at the sentence you’ve just written and ask yourself whether it’s good or bad or even nonsensical, when you don’t have a moment to think and agonize over where it might be leading you, you just move in that direction. When you don’t think about which adjective is best, you just instinctively pick one from the well of options. When you don’t stop to judge or admire, you just plow forward, led by intuition, which is a far greater genius than your thinking gatekeeper could ever hope to be.
The result is a messy pile of words (and typos), which may or may not contain the good stuff you’ve been looking for. But the point is, so often, there are diamonds in that rough.
Here’s what the app looks like.
First you pick an interval. And then you press START.
The text editor is a simple, no-frills window in which you type in calming grey. In the upper right hand corner is a countdown timer. Though you have no time to look at it.
While you type, a counter in the lower left keeps track of character and word count, and calculates your words per minute.
If (or possibly, when) you fail, you are informed as such and given the opportunity to Tweet your failure to a universe of (surely understanding) fellow blocked writers.
Perhaps you noticed above the toggle for “hardcore mode.” Adding another layer of intrigue, this mode blurs out your writing as you go, making it impossible to check for errors or even scan quickly in an attempt to build reasonable bridges between what you have just written and what might come next.
An interesting observation: when I wrote in normal mode, my words per minute count was 71. When I wrote in “hardcore mode,” it jumped to 104. The lesson? When it comes to writing, our eyes are not our friends. They are the portal to judgment. Writing blind is writing free.
The Most Dangerous Writing App is acutely aware of what it is up to.
I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed this experience. I soundly recommend this app to any fellow writers who routinely find themselves stuck. Or to any who just want to add a new twist to the act of idea generation.
Using this app is like forcing yourself to go skydiving. The experience might seem frightening or risky, but the results are thrilling and surprising and utterly effective.
If you accept the challenge and complete the exercise, at the end of your five minutes (or ten, 15, etc.), you will have a bunch of words. You will have been unblocked. Your task then is to sort through the pile and look for the treasure. I promise it will be there, in some form. Being a writer is like panning for gold. Which is why only persistence pays off.
Thanks Manuel Ebert, for this simple, powerful, beautiful idea.
Important note, I found this app through Next Draft, a fantastic newsletter that aggregates, curates, and puts a wry, cutting, insightful slant on each day’s most important and interesting happenings. Your life will be much better when you subscribe.