Author and Creative Writing Professor, Heather Sellers, has a great writing lesson that's always stuck with us. This lesson is perfect for anyone who has wrestled with writer's block, has trouble getting started, or likes to write but hasn't been able to make writing a regular practice.
Sellers starts out with two examples. First is a frustrated parent going to the grocery store. They get to the grocery store, the parent says to their kids, "Alright, you two sit down right here," pointing to the curb. "I gotta grab two things, and when I get out, you better be right here."
The kids have all types of freedom for how they could spend their time while Mom or Dad is away. They could sit right there or... they could wrestle. They could run around the parking lot. They could sneak into the store, grab some candy bars by the checkout lane.
But they don't know how much time they have. Their Mom or Dad might be two minutes, might be twenty. And, without that knowledge, it's hard to know if you actually have freedom to do whatever you want.
In contrast, imagine a local swimming pool. Same parent, same kids. Except this time the parent is in a good mood. Parent calls out to the kids, "Alright, five minutes left. Then we're heading home."
What do the kids do in this situation? They go bananas! They play at a rapid pace. Wrestling matches. Cannonballs. One last epic game of Marco Polo.
What's the difference? When you have a set container, whether that's a time limit or a specific project you're focused on, it creates a surprising amount of freedom. The set of boundaries removes the anxiety and uncertainty; freeing you up to have fun. To simply play in the pool.
Here are five more examples to help communicate the container vs. no container concept. And if you're like, "Dude, I get it," feel free to skip down to the, "Applying this to Writing" section.
Fishbowl vs. Dry Land - Tim Keller uses the example of a fish. Put a fish on dry land vs. in a fish bowl. Dry land they have more space, they're out of the container, more ground to cover. But it's not what they're built for. The fish bowl is much smaller, but it has boundaries and an environment the fish is designed to thrive in. Ends up being more fun in the fish bowl swimming than flopping around on dry land.
Swimming Laps - One more water example. Imagine being dropped off in the middle of the ocean and told to swim a mile. How would you know when you hit a mile? Compare that to a swimming pool with lanes. With the swimming pool container, you can easily measure how many laps and you can focus on making each lap faster vs. wondering, "Wait, was that a shark?"
Job Interview - "Wear whatever you're comfortable in" vs. "Wear a suit and tie." Whatever you're comfortable in has more freedom, but now you're second-guessing. Do I wear sweatpants? Jeans? What if I wear a suit and tie and they think I'm too boring? With the set rule of the suit and tie, it gives you more freedom to focus on the interview itself.
Procrastination - Why are we more productive when the deadline is right there staring us down? It's a forced container. We know that in 10 hours we have to turn the work in. This forces us to focus vs. when given a week or a month.
COVID-19 / Shelter at Home Orders - One thing that makes 2020 so stressful is we don't know how long everything will last. Is this a few weeks? Months? Years? When's the vaccine? Will it be effective? Will it be safe? Uncertainty creates stress. But if we knew how long was left, it'd be easier to say, "Alright, five more weeks, then life goes back to normal."
Applying this to Writing
Writing is supposed to be fun. Creative. It's an escape from the world. And so the idea of rules and containers feels like an intrusion of the 9 to 5 mentality on our sacred space. Why ruin the fun?
What tends to happen, though, without any structure is we'll say, "Okay, I'm only gonna write on Saturdays and Sundays since I have more time," or, "I like a bunch of different types of writing - fiction, essays, poetry - and I have so many ideas written down. I'll just write whatever I feel inspired by that day."
On paper, that feels way more fun than building a container. But as the great philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." Having all of those options is like being the kid in front of the grocery store, or the swimmer out in the ocean, or the fish out of the fishbowl. Where do I start? How will I know I'm finished? No restrictions becomes surprisingly restrictive.
If, instead, you set a defined timer: "Alright, for 30 minutes before work, my phone's in airplane mode, no email, all I'm going to do is work on my book," this focus creates more freedom. You can just play in your story. Take risks. Get lost in that world until the 30 minute timer goes off and you say, "Wait, it's been 30 minutes already?"
Setting a timer is a great way to lose track of time.
One More Tip
Consider getting a laptop just for writing. Chromebooks can run for under $150. Or find a $100 used PC that you don't even connect to WiFi. Just Word. This way there are no email or social media distractions. You pickup that laptop and you're immediately in writer mode.
Advice for Authors from Authors
We highly recommend Heather Sellers' teaching on creative writing. Here are a couple books of hers below that have helped us out a lot over the years.
(Click on the covers to take you to the Amazon page)