Daughter had a serious case of Writer’s Panic last evening. Writer’s Panic is three steps beyond simple Writer’s Block. If you don’t have to write, Writer’s Block can make you much more interested in cleaning the cat box and sweeping the stairs than facing the computer screen. Sure, you can mumble about not being able to write and how grouchy that makes you feel, but the only thing riding on Writer’s Block is your sense of personal accomplishment. It’s up to you whether you want to get that novel written in your lifetime.
Writer’s Panic arises from a combination of Writer’s Block and an external deadline. The pressure of the deadline ramps up the physical manifestations of Writer’s Block from comfortable avoidance tactics to rapid heart rate, a harried expression, periodic table-pounding, threats of tossing the computer out a window, and a strained voice (the latter often employed to tell your mother that nothing is going to work). Writer’s Panic is contagious and can even be passed to non-writers. (Blame mirror neurons for that.)
If you witness a person in full-blown Writer’s Panic, the best thing to do is remain calm. (I know how hard that is, but do it anyway. The situation will not be resolved if you break down in Writer’s Helper Panic.) You must then attempt to soothe the writer’s fears, because, obviously, if someone is in a panic, they are afraid. Ask the writer leading questions like, “When is your essay due?”, “What is your thesis statement?”, “What are you stuck on?”, “Is there a written description of the assignment you can show me?”, “Can I see what you’ve written so far?”, “Do you have an outline?” Ask anything you think will get the writer working productively again.
If the writer is particularly distraught, have him or her get up and go for a brief walk, do jumping jacks, have a drink of water or a bite to eat, use the bathroom – anything to distract from the sheer terror of writing. Upon returning to write, he will likely still be on edge, but won’t be quite so ready to remove your head.
If the panicked writer is having trouble generating any significant prose (typically caused by self-censoring as she is writing), offer to take dictation, typing while the writer talks through the assignment topic. This method allows for a lot of material to produced in a short time, which will give both you and the writer an idea of where the piece is going for organizational purposes.
(It’s important to note that this is the writer’s assignment, not yours, so when taking dictation, type whatever the writer says as he says it. Don’t embellish with your own thoughts. If the writer is speaking too fast for you to type, ask him to slow down, which will make the writer compose more complete statements.)
Once the writer sees how much is on the page, she will breathe easier because progress has been made. The writer can then take what has been dictated and edit it by moving paragraphs around, tweaking sentences, and deleting what doesn’t work. It’s much easier to edit writing that is solidly affixed to a page than to edit amorphous thoughts prior to formation. If necessary, print out the pages of dictation in order to give the writer a different sort of physical manifestation of the words, providing distance from the writing. Crossing unnecessary stuff off a piece of paper will be a delight for the formerly-panicked writer.
If the writer continues to be in panic mode after all this, you’re on your own. I’d suggest investing in tranquilizer darts. You can decide whether you or the writer are in greater need of them.
A couple of helpful links related to this post’s topic:
Why Writer’s Block is Your Secret Weapon by Melissa Karnaze on Copyblogger.
Generate Ideas Through “Object Writing” by Pat Pattison on Writer’s Digest.