Marketing Block — Writer’s Block’s evil twin

marketing blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ve written about that dozens of times, including this post about Fran Lebowitz’s decades-long block. But when I came across that post the other day, I had a new appreciation for what Lebowitz has gone through. Writer’s block may not be real, but I’ve been locked in mortal combat with its evil twin for a couple of weeks now. Marketing Block. It’s a bitch.

Interviewed in 1993 for The Paris Review, Lebowitz talked about the pain of not writing:

“Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”

Replace “writing” with “marketing” and you have a snapshot of my life the past month. “Exhausting,” “psychically wearing”—Fran, I see those adjectives and I’ll raise you “painful.”

Of course, if writer’s block isn’t real…

Damn. Really?

I’ve been suffering for a month from something that doesn’t exist?

Marketing Block and the F-Word

In my blog post last spring, I wrote:

If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

At this point, I gotta tell you, “fear” isn’t the only F-word floating around in my head. Perhaps I’ve been too smug about people who fear writing so much they pathologize not doing it. They may be inventing the condition, but they’re not inventing the pain they experience from it. Neither am I.

Okay, time to pick myself up and deploy some well-placed F-words in the direction of my fear. Maybe if I tell Marketing Block I’ve decided it’s not real, it will get the hell out of town.

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Will I ever write well? — Frequent Questions

Q: Will I ever write well?
A: Yes—probably more often than you recognize.

All writers have moments when they hate their writing. That’s why you should never edit your work right away. Give it some space and come back to it.

When you do come back to it, you might be absolutely correct—it may be terrible. But look more closely. You may find a word that delights you, a combination of words that feels utterly fresh.

When you do find these things, cut yourself a break and admit you can write well. In fact, you just have. Copy those good words or phrases into a new document and see what you can build from there.

Don’t expect to write well in the first draft

Hemingway knew to write well you need to revise
Hemingway at work, photo by Lloyd Arnold, Public Domain

Ernest Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.”

Well, okay, that may be apocryphal. But it’s also true.

Nobody—not Hemingway, not me, not you—nobody should expect to write well in a first drafts. First drafts aren’t for polishing, they’re for collecting raw material. Ideas. Some of them will be good ideas and some will make you laugh so hard you’ll print them out and stick them on the bulletin board behind your computer so you can remind yourself of how ridiculously you can write and still survive. Not that that’s ever happened to me. (Well, not daily.)

That’s the thing about first drafts: terrible-ness is not fatal. No one cares how badly you write because no one but you ever sees it. (You’re not still submitting first drafts as final products, right?)

But how do you turn a first draft into a second draft, and a second draft into something you’re ready to send into the world with something resembling pride?

You revise.

It’s a skill you can learn. And if you want to write well, it’s a skill you must learn.

Ernest Hemingway knew that. Here’s an exchange from a 1958 interview in The Paris Review:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

If you want some help “getting the words right,” I can help.

But if you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

Your vision, clarified — when editing helps

editing helpsEditing helps only if it’s the right kind of editing. Some people will read a manuscript about, for instance, a farmer with an apple orchard and say, “Wouldn’t it be better to write about a farmer growing avocados?” Well, avocado farming may be fascinating, but that’s not what the piece is about. The best editors respect the writer’s vision.

As I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, the best editing enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”

An editor can help you weed out the great writing that must be in the piece from the (perhaps equally great) writing that weighs the piece down.

Does every detail drive the story forward? If not, move the passage into your Outtakes file.

Yes, no matter how brilliant your writing is, you will have passages that don’t belong in what you’re writing. Editing them out of this piece doesn’t mean losing them forever when you maintain an Outtakes file for each project. You’re not “killing your darlings,” just moving them to another room until you find the right place for them to live.

Editing helps identify overused tricks

Do you have any favorite stylistic devices? Things you just love to make words do. When you dip into your bag of writer’s tricks too often, you draw attention away from what you’re saying. Instead, the reader focuses on how you’re saying it. Not good.

Every writer has tricks like that—in fact, I just edited one out of the paragraph beginning “As I learned from…” Originally, the paragraph read:

The best editing, as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”

What’s wrong with that? Nothing much, except that I make the same stylistic choice in two back-to-back sentences. I interrupt the narrative flow with a clause set off by commas—”as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman” and “Len told us on the first day of class.”

I love identifying a speaker in mid-quote. But you can’t pull that sort of trick in every sentence. It gets really boring, really quickly. So I kept the mid-quote identification and edited the previous sentence instead.

Do-It-Yourself editing

When you’re studying writing, your teacher becomes your first editor. Eventually, you learn enough to become your own first editor. Even Fran Lebowitz—who famously doesn’t let anyone else edit her—edits herself. Probably too much. As she told The Paris Review:

“I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways.”

Imagine how much time that wastes—editing yourself sentence by sentence. No wonder she hasn’t published anything for more than two decades.

I advise my writers to just write—get their ideas out, create a first draft and then let it sit—for an hour, a day, a week, depending on how long it took you to write in the first place. Editing helps, but not until you’re ready for it. So you’ve got to take a break; let it rest.

And don’t edit a thousand times; edit once. Then let that draft sit while you do something else. And when your head has cleared, re-read it and see what you think.

I’m cooking up a webinar program to help writers become their own first editors. (Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch. ) Smart writers know their work can always be improved. Great writers discover how to do that themselves. And then they’re ready to seek advice from a trusted editor to make their work extraordinary.

“All first drafts are sh*t” — why editing matters

Ernest Hemingway allegedly said, “All first drafts are sh*t.” Of course, if he did say it he said it without the asterisk. But it’s the most concise explanation I’ve found for why editing matters.

I’ve written before about my friend who proudly announced that he’s never edited anything he’s written. He’s also never sold anything he’s written, and I think the two things are related. But Fran Lebowitz has published—and in The Paris Review interview I’ve been writing about all week, she claims:

I’ve never once been edited. I’ve never let anyone edit me, even when I was a kid. When I started publishing, I was writing for this small magazine, deservedly small, called Changes, which was what was then called an underground magazine. I wouldn’t let that editor edit me; it didn’t matter because they paid me ten dollars and no one read it. Then a few real magazines began calling me and asked, Would you be interested in writing for us?

I’d say, Well, yes, but you can’t edit me.


Then I started writing for Interview, where I made a deal (no editing), which also didn’t matter since no one read that magazine either. More people would call me, from real maga­zines now, like Esquire and New York magazine . . . and I said no editing.


My first book was not edited. Henry Robbins was my editor and before that Laurie Colwin. Neither one of them edited me. Joe Fox, who is now my editor at Random House, never edited me. So I’ve never had the experience of being edited and never will.

Fran Lebowitz goes it alone

The Paris Review published that interview in 1993. One year later, Lebowitz released a children’s book and her publisher released an anthology of the two books of essays she’d written. That was 1994. Since then…crickets.

I can’t say whether Lebowitz’s nearly three-decade-long drought has anything to do with her aversion to editing. But you’d have to think that having someone to bat ideas around with would help. Someone to say, “This is brilliant. This…maybe you want to rethink.” Actually, Lebowitz does have that someone—Joe Fox, her editor at Random House. She just refuses to accept any of his comments:

Lebowitz: In the novel I’m writing now, there is something that Joe doesn’t like, quite a big thing. He said, I’m just telling you what I think. I said, Fine. I don’t agree with you.

Interviewer: Even before he had said it?

No, I let him say it. I may be tough, but I am polite. He disagrees with the way I have the narrator narrating the book. What he would have me do would be an easy thing to change. But it’s just out of the question; it’s not something I would seriously entertain.

Why editing matters

That “novel I’m writing now”—that would be Exterior Signs of Wealth, a book that remains unfinished 24 years after Lebowitz gave that interview, and some 34 years after she signed the contract to write it.

Would making that narrative change solve a structural problem and make the novel easier to write? We can’t know that. But I do know that often when I feel I’ve written myself into a corner, I’ll ask someone whose opinion I trust to read it and comment.

Clients, though sometimes maddeningly conservative, can also offer fresh perspectives that can improve my work. And since it’s their work in the end, not mine, I have to listen to them. Some might find that constricting but I like it. It forces me to be accountable, and to ship. That’s why editing matters.

Fran Lebowitz has a distinctive way of looking at the world and a unique writer’s voice. It’s  a shame she can’t (or won’t) let us hear it.

Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on editing workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.

Why do people get writer’s block? — Frequent Questions

Q: If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many people have it?
A: It’s real if they think it’s real.

In The Paris Review interview I wrote about yesterday, Fran Lebowitz talks about her 1o-year struggle with writer’s block. Ten years!

It gets worse: the interview happened in 1994 and she still hasn’t published the novel. That’s 34 years of writer’s block, longer than many writers have been alive.

I will not be the person to tell Fran Lebowitz that she’s been suffering for 34 years from a self-inflicted injury. The ordeal seems genuinely painful for her. Even more painful than writing, if we are to believe what she tells the interviewer.

Interviewer: What did you do during those five years before you started writing the book?

Lebowitz: I sulked. Sulking is a big effort. So is not writing. I only realized that when I did start writing. When I started getting real work done, I realized how much easier it is to write than not to write. Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.

Let writer’s block reroute your creativity

One of my theories about writer’s block is that it’s not a failure of one’s creative powers—it’s a failure to be open to new ideas. It’s a matter of insisting on writing THIS thing rather than THAT thing. But maybe THAT thing isn’t ready to be written yet. Or maybe it’s not the thing you should be writing.

Lebowitz set herself a goal to write a novel:

I had an idea for this book, but I wrote very little. When I was about twenty and had just started publishing, I thought: I’ll write two books of these funny essays and then I’ll write a novel. I never wanted to write a novel first.

writer's block
Image by John Cox

She published those very successful collections of “funny essays” and then signed a contract to produce a novel. Thirty-four years later, all we know is the book’s title—External Signs of Wealth. It remains unfinished. She wrote a children’s book and her publisher released a collection of her essays in 1994, but those are her last published works. I can’t even begin to imagine how that feels.

Maybe Lebowitz just isn’t a novelist. Maybe she’s a writer of “funny essays”—and a very successful one, at that. Why can’t that be enough?

What’s scarier than not writing? For some people: Writing

I guess so many people believe in writer’s block because it allows them to attach the word “writer” to something they’re doing. If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

Interviewer: In general, why is it so difficult to write?

Lebowitz: Because it’s intrinsically difficult work. The only job that is worse is coal mining. All writers have a normal healthy amount of fear, but I have an excessive amount of fear.

What is the fear about?

For some people it’s the fear of not being good enough, for others it’s the fear of being good enough. It’s tempting the gods to write. Think of the terrible attacks Philip Roth was subjected to early in his career, and even now. This is why people do horrible things to themselves when they are writing, punishing themselves so maybe someone else won’t.

Stop punishing yourself. Write. Even if you’re writing “I have no idea what to write.” Force yourself to sit down for 15 minutes a day. It will help. I promise.

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Ideas and the ineffable: Fran Lebowitz on writing

Fran Lebowitz in 2011. Photo by Christopher Macsurak, Creative Commons license

Twenty-four years ago, The Paris Review published an interview with writer Fran Lebowitz. It’s a veritable cornucopia of blog ideas.  I’ll start with this passage, a perfect example of what makes the creative process so ineffable—and also, sometimes, so infuriating to those of us who lack patience (I’ve changed the formatting to make it easier to read):

Lebowitz: …For one month I went everywhere—to map stores, bookstores, looked through catalogs. Then I went to every kind of weird library—to specialty libraries and businesses that had their own libraries.

Interviewer: What were you looking for?

I didn’t know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so catholic in my wanderings.

But why maps?


You thought that the key to unlock your problem was in a map?

There’s this Rand McNally store that has every kind of map and map book. I spent an entire workday there. I went out to lunch and came back. I thought maybe a key to a map might be of use to organize the chapters. Of course that didn’t work out. After a month I couldn’t find anything. But I decided that was all right, that I had absorbed all this information, and what I needed would just come to me, pop into my mind. And it did.

That last part bears repeating:

I decided that … I had absorbed all this information, and what I needed would just come to me, pop into my mind. And it did.

Fran Lebowitz and the ineffable

That’s the ineffable thing about writing. Maybe about all types of creating, but I can only attest to the writing part. Ineffable— describes it as more than indescribable; the second definition is “not to be spoken of because of its sacredness.” And that’s about right.

When you leave yourself open to ideas, ideas will find you. Maybe even the right idea.

So Lebowitz did her research, trekked from library to library, spend a month in a map store and “decided that was all right” (I would have decided it was “alright,” but I don’t edit The Paris Review). She trusted that the idea she needed would show up. And it did.

Well, sort of. To be continued…

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.