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Making Mudpies

January 12, 2011

Yesterday, I had a breakthrough on how to connect disparate parts of the dissertation chapter I’m writing right now, but I only finished about a page of actual writing.  I’ve been having trouble getting my words to reflect my ideas, and I’ve found myself writing and re-writing the same few sentences.

This morning, I scanned my bookshelf, hoping for some inspiration.  I grabbed Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, Ed.D. and opened to a chapter on building good writing habits.  Almost immediately, I came across a paragraph I’d marked with big asterisks the first time I read the book:

When you sit down to begin a piece of writing, your first aim ought to be to make a mess–to say anything that comes to your mind, on the subject or off it, not to worry at all about whether your stuff is connected logically, to play with your subject the way you used to build mud pies, to do no fine detail work, to spell poorly if that’s your natural inclination, and to generally forget about standards altogether (even about split infinitives). I suspect many writing blocks come about because people aren’t used to playing in mud when they write; they they think writing is a clean, neat endeavor.  I don’t.

The kind of writing process that I have in mind has two parts to it; a first, “cooking,” the making-a-mess part; a second, compulsive, clean-up-the-mess part.  If you do only the first part you will indeed end up with a messy, irresponsible product you won’t want to acknowledge as your own.  If you do both parts, though, I believe you’ll be able to produce stronger, more imaginative writing that you’ll feel proud to own. [1]

This is exactly what I needed to read today.  I realized that my problem right now is that I am afraid to make a mess.  I’ve forgotten how many outlines and drafts go into creating a strong, creative piece of writing, and I’ve been trying to produce an entire chapter without making a mess.  It’s like trying to bake a chocolate cake while wearing an expensive, all-white, dry-clean-only ensemble; it’s almost impossible to even start because of the paralyzing fear that you’re going to get dirty.  Even if you somehow shore up the courage to begin baking the cake, each step will take significantly longer because you’ll be maniacally trying not to drip butter down the front of your pants or accidentally stick your elbow in the icing.  If, somehow, miraculously, you finish, the cake will probably be neat and tidy, but it will be lacking in that oomph–that excitement–that creativity that comes from rolling your sleeves up and making a mess.

Though Bolker’s book focuses on the particulars of writing a doctoral thesis, I think her advice is relevant for anyone who writes regularly.  It is mighty tempting to try to write a clean, tidy, perfect draft the first time, and it is also often nearly impossible and mentally paralyzing to try to do so.  So, fellow writers, put on your metaphorical aprons, and don’t be afraid to start with mud pies before you move on to pristine chocolate cakes.
Do you have any advice for overcoming writers’ block?  Any stories to share about what does and doesn’t work for you?  Any mud pie recipes?

1.  Joan Bolker, Ed.D.  Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day:  A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. (New York:  Henry Holt & Company, 1998) 33-34.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    January 12, 2011 11:30 am

    i love this post! i’ve definitely found that letting myself make a mess of my writing for the first draft – even using bullets/lists just to get my ideas on the page – is so helpful. good luck making messes today. 😉

    • January 13, 2011 9:28 pm

      Thanks! I love bullet points and lists to just get my ideas down, too. Sometimes when I get really stuck, I even have things like “add in analysis here” or even “blah blah blah” as placeholders, too.

  2. January 13, 2011 10:51 am

    Thanks for the congrats!! Love your site too 🙂 And I can only imagine everything that goes into creative writing. I bet it takes a lot of outlining thoughts, then getting more and trying to work them in, and then more to where you get stuck on how to make it work.

    • January 13, 2011 9:29 pm

      Thanks, Tina! I hope you are enjoying being home and spending time with your new little guy!

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