the hard part

In his newsletter, Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals, shares writing advice from the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek:

It’s psychologically impossible for me to sit down [and write], so I have to trick myself.

Like jumping out of an airplane—presumably—commencing a writing session can trigger a panic reaction. If the brain realizes that you're actually about to write something, it seizes desperately for a distraction. To settle in and start, it's best to mislead it about your true intentions until whoosh you're hurtling through the manuscript toward your deadline.

Here's how Žižek pulls off this crucial self-deception:

I’m telling myself: No, I’m not yet writing; I’m just putting down ideas. Then, at a certain point, I tell myself: Everything is already there, now I just have to edit it.

Writing sounds blissfully simple when he puts it like this. Then again, simplification is what philosophers do. (If their philosophy still ends up being complicated, well, blame reality for being even more complicated, I suppose.)

For Žižek, splitting the process in two is enough to elude the paralyzing terror of imperfection that keeps us stuck at the blank page: "I put down notes, I edit it," he explains. "Writing disappears." Your mileage may vary.

There's a similar line of thought in How to Take Smart Notes, which explains the Zettelkasten Method of note-taking. The nutshell is, you record discrete ideas on index cards and, by linking them together in an ever-expanding network, your first draft accretes from the ground up. Intellectual sediment.

Invented by the absurdly prolific German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the promise of the Method is that you can develop your ideas simultaneously with having them. As you write your ideas down, you're essentially putting them in your own words, framing and organizing them through your own point of view. Done properly, you should be able to complete the actual draft almost effortlessly, by putting the cards in a sensible order and polishing them up: "Everything is already there, now I just have to edit it."

Per Moldawer's Law, of course, Luhmann himself still ended writing day and night:

I've tried taking "smart notes." Heck, I've tried everything, and nothing's worked all that well. Maybe it's like the college socialists always told me: "We don't know for sure it doesn't work because China and the Soviet Union were never doing real Communism in the first place." Writing utopia recedes endlessly into the distance. If only I were only taking notes—or drawing mind maps, or making outlines, or something to do with graphsproperly, the assembly of a first draft would be smooth and painless.

I wish I had One Simple Trick to offer. Yet, for me, writing remains laborious. Thinking, choosing, changing, regretting. I emerge from the old studiolo each day in a pitiful state: Wilted. Bedraggled. Bewildered. Writing is war.

Nothing appeals more than the notion of organizing the prep and the polishing such that I can skillfully elide the nasty writing bits in the middle. In reality, all the research in the world—no matter how efficiently zettelkastened or obsidianed—will be performed in addition to the work of writing itself, not instead of it.

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