Legal Jargon: Is writer’s block your personal horror story? let Stephen King ease your mind
Thursday, March 21, 2019
Writer’s block. It’s the worst. I started writing this article twice and gave up. Why and when it happens is different for everyone. I get scared to write documents that are high stakes, like motions for summary judgment. The weight is too much, so I never start. I know some people who feel like they can’t start writing until research is complete, yet the research is never complete. Whatever the reason, this phenomenon affects all kinds of writers: poets, brief writers, authors, and scholars.
Likewise, advice to overcome writer’s block comes from many corners of the writing map.
Whenever I’m feeling a bit stuck in my writing, I return to Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” Some of the book is a bit dated, and it’s tailored to those writing long-form fiction, which isn’t entirely relevant (but maybe closer to home than most lawyers would like to admit). I figure I have something to learn from one of the highest grossing authors of all time.
King has opinions about the root causes for writer’s block, one of which struck me as profound because it addressed some of my insecurities. King says to put your desk in the corner of a room, and remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” Insert “career” for art. The idea is the same. Yes, writing a great MSJ for a client is important, but my life has not existed in order to create this motion and only this motion. Take a breath, take a walk. You want to do well, but keep things in perspective.
King also has practical tips for getting past writer’s block. First, start with what you like. Law school teachers will lecture that we must start on such and such a part of a brief. That’s nice and all, but what if starting on a certain section means not starting at all? I always start with the argument because I put the most ink on a page in the shortest amount of time.
Next, he talks about the value of writing even when you’re struggling. “[S]topping a piece of work because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.” Your first draft should always be written without judgment on the quality. This is the advice I’ve adopted. If just forcing yourself to write something — anything — means your first two paragraphs are stream-of-consciousness, so what?
If you are skeptical of taking the advice of a guy whose book about a psychotic nurse came from a dream, I get it. So what suggestions do other lawyers have? After my unscientific canvass of some friends, methods are as varied as personalities. Some outline and slowly expand the outline. Some write an entire draft without looking at research. Some speak the argument section into a translation program and use that as the starting point. I have another friend who sets a 15-minute timer. She must write for those 15 minutes, but can give up at the alarm if it’s not working.
If you’re the type who would prefer some science to back up strategies, I’ve been told “10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period.,” by Karen E. Peterson, Ph. D. is excellent. Also check out “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg and “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. I’d love to know: what helps you overcome writer’s block?
Abbie Nordhagen Cziok is an associate with Browning, Kaleczyc, Berry & Hoven in the Helena office. She likes rock climbing, skiing, and one space after a period.