book blocks

The popular subreddit Oddly Satisfying features videos that tickle my brain just so, from feats of fine penmanship to spectacles of spotlessness. My favorite genre of these posts usually goes by "unclogging a drainage pipe." For example. (There are many more.)

What could satisfy more oddly than a festering plug of condensed sediment suddenly coming loose with the vigorous release of clear water? Ahhh. I could—and sometimes do—watch videos like this all day.

Blocks are everywhere. Reading queues, for example. I've been working my way through Inferno out of a sense of obligation. ("What? You still haven't read..." Having grown up in a non-literary household, I do a lot of catch-up "canon" reading, even though I haven't encountered someone who would actually confront me about my gaps since moving to the suburbs. No offense to suburban people.)

This is a classic book block. Whenever I sit down to read, I hesitate to pick up the Dante. Even after pushing through the resistance, I rarely make it more than a canto before putting the book down and moving on to other, more enjoyable pursuits. Meanwhile, the many more appealing books in my reading queue go untouched, trapped behind the medieval sediment. While I can and sometimes do pick up the next volume in line after having checked the Dante box, the toll of reading what I don't want to read tends to sap whatever motivation I felt to read in the first place.

In contrast, when I got around to Robert B. Parker—catch-up reading in its own way—I tore through all 51 Spenser novels in a month. The reading equivalent of this. The same dynamics are at play in my film queue, where some genres and filmmakers pull me through effortlessly, and some gunk up the works.

Do you have any gunk in your queues? If so, maybe give yourself a break and clear out the "shoulds." Last week, I moved Miles Davis's autobiography ahead of Dante, and my daily page count skyrocketed.

Our writing is blocked even more easily than our reading. When we approach the craft with an eye toward what we "should" be writing instead of what we want to write, we find ourselves avoiding the keyboard.

Look, if you must write the thing for your job, do it first. Blocks are tough. Pushing through them requires a reservoir of mental energy, one that no amount of caffeine can supply. Use the day's best hour.

If you don't actually have to write the thing, on the other hand, you can diagnose the resistance. For example, if you're avoiding your historical novel, maybe a part of you knows you haven't done the necessary research first. If you find yourself stopping every other sentence to google "popular men's shirt brand, 1800s," get your raw material in order.

In most cases, however, I've found that fighting this resistance isn't worth the effort. If there's something else you'd prefer to work on, go write that. Stop trying to be Dante and release your inner Robert B. Parker. We only get better at writing by writing, so anything that blocks the flow of words represents an existential threat to your craft. Clear it out.

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