Guest Post: How to make Writing an Emergency

by Joanna

Cila Warncke writes:

William Faulkner said that when he sat down to write As I Lay Dying, he decided he was going to create a masterpiece. And he did. His great book is a terrible example, though. Bloody-minded perfectionism is fine, if you’re William Faulkner. For the rest of us, approaching our work with a “masterpiece” mind set is more likely to lead to blank screens than Nobel Prizes. So why do we do it? And how do we stop?

Why is something I’ve puzzled over while wrestling with my book (link: ), which is a year-old work in progress. I have mountains of background material, interviews, notes, ideas, diagrams, chapter headings, charts, word lists, but frustratingly little in the way of chapters. There is no mystery to this: I have the Fear. My bogeyman is comprised of antiquated insecurities, elephantine expectations, perfectionism and an ego like overripe fig. Every time I even think about my book the Fear looms. Instead of writing I think about writing, obsessing over unwritten paragraphs as if they were unborn children. I feel like poor Van Norden in Tropic of Cancer whose book, Miller reports (smiling): “must be absolutely original [and] absolutely perfect. That is why, among other things, it is impossible for him to get started on it.”

How we avoid loving our projects to death is trickier. Recognising self-defeating proclivities is one thing but how do we shake off the Fear? The best thing to do is to stop thinking and write. Make writing an emergency. Say your boiler breaks down. You don’t have the time, money, or patience to deal with it, do you? But because the alternative is a freezing house and cold showers you make the time and, before you know it, the problem is fixed and you move on.

How you make writing an “emergency” depends on the work, and your life. Here are a few suggestions:

1)      Enlist your most no-nonsense pal to set you a deadline – preferably one who isn’t a writer and therefore won’t have any sympathy with your ‘creative block’.

2)      Buy an hourglass. Flip it over at least once a day, and write till the sand runs through.

3)      Set a daily or weekly word count.

4)      Choose a treat and work towards it – a meal out for every new chapter, or a bottle of wine when you finish an article.

5)      Make your goal public.

Since perfectionism is my particular bugbear I pick “5” and commit to making my work-in-progress public. I posted an excerpt on my blog last week, which you can read here From now on, I promise to post at least one excerpt per week. Instead of obsessing about every sentence I will move forward and produce something actual people can read, poke at, critique, ignore, or enjoy. And I promise to Tweet each update, just to keep myself honest. You can help keep me on track by following my blog or following me on Twitter: @CilaWarncke.

What will you do to make your writing happen? Please post your comments and commitments!

Guest blogger Cila Warncke is a writer, journalist, editor and educator. Learn more at She is leading a creative writing course in Ibiza 1-4 Sept 2012 – see for details.