The One-Inch Picture Frame
The single best piece of advice for getting unstuck when writing a dissertation – or anything else
Original image by pine watt on Unsplash
A while back I wanted to start doing some creative writing, and I picked up a classic guide to writing fiction called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. The whole book is a treasure trove of great advice kindly and humorously given with sentences that are a joy to read.
Since I've read the book, one valuable piece of advice has stayed with me, and I’ve used it not only in my writing but also in many other big projects that initially seem overwhelming. The gist of it is this: don't panic when thinking of the insurmountable job ahead. Focus on one small thing, and make it your job to complete only that one small thing.
Of course, Lamott describes it much better. She opens her chapter describing the anxiety that she often experiences when it's time to sit down and write. Once the anxiety subsides, however, Lamott is able to continue:
I go back to trying to breath, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.
It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. [...] Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.
E.L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.
Comforting words, no? Lamott concludes that paragraph like this:
"This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard." (Lamott 17-18)
Keeping this principle in mind can be so helpful when writing. Yes, you need a basic structure — if we think of the headlights metaphor it's likely Doctorow would have had the route mapped out and a destination in mind, even if he couldn't see it— but when you get down to the actual writing it becomes remarkably easy, once you too have come back from your panic attack. Just take it one paragraph at a time. Bird by bird.
For Further Reading:
Lamott, Anne (1997): Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor Books.