Perfectionists tend to see their projects as long strings of words—and there’s a natural tendency, when you have that viewpoint, to want to start at the beginning of a piece and write straight through till “The End.”
Viewing your work from the meager and terrifying prospect of a point at the end of an endless string of words isn’t helpful. It’s far more productive to view it as a landscape that you’re viewing from above, and whose topographic features include hard parts, easy parts, exposition parts, dialogue parts, parts involving Character A, parts involving Theme B, etc. Viewed like this, your project resembles an illustrated map, or maybe one of those miniature landscapes you see in museums, and it’s now accessible to you in its totality.
And now you can use a visualization tool I call the “writercopter,” a mental helicopter that can transport you to any place in your piece. The moment you feel you’ve taken a particular patch of writing as far as you can, hop onto your copter and take it to another section that looks enticing. Work there until you run dry, and then reboard and hop to another part.
What if no part looks appealing? Try writing about the piece, since your alienation from it is probably rooted in the fact that you either need to think it through more or are trying to force it in the wrong direction. In the unlikely event that doesn’t help, set the piece aside and let it marinate while you work on something else.
Writing might sometimes be difficult, but it should never be unpleasant; if it is unpleasant—if you’re feeling frustrated, bored or stuck—that’s not an indication of any deficiency on your part, but simply the signal to move to another part of the project, or another project. While it’s okay to practice “writing past the wall,” i.e., sticking with a difficult section a bit longer than comfortable, don’t perfectionistically dig in your heels and become an antagonist to yourself and your process.
The writercopter technique is similar to that used by the late, great, and famously prolific author Isaac Asimov, who wrote or edited more than 500 books:
“What if you get a writer’s block?” (That’s a favorite question.) I say, “I don’t ever get one precisely because I switch from one task to another at will. If I’m tired of one project, I just switch to something else which, at the moment, interests me more.” [From his memoir, In Joy Still Felt.]
Note Asimov’s absolute sense of freedom and dominion (authority!) over his work—expressed not in grandiose terms, but the simple ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And, of course, the total lack of blame, shame, compulsion, and perfectionism.
Nonlinear writing obviously goes hand in hand with free writing; using the techniques together should powerfully speed your writing. What’s more, the process is accelerative, since the more easy parts of your project you finish, the easier the hard parts will get. (By writing “around” the hard parts, you’re illuminating them and solving problems related to them.)
You can combine nonlinear writing with Anne Lamott’s famous “one-inch picture frame” technique from Bird by Bird to get through even the toughest piece of writing. To combat overwhelm, Lamott reminds herself that:
All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame … All I’m 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.
I myself have gotten through very tough patches of writing (meaning, sections where I felt a lot of resistance to the writing—because the patches themselves are neither easy nor hard, but just writing) by switching back and forth between the difficult patch and an easier one, doing “one-inch picture frame”-sized pieces of the tough section and longer stretches of the easy one. The easy patches actually become a reward, in this context, which is in itself a lovely development: writing not as chore, but reward.
Take these techniques to their limit, as I assume Asimov did, and you develop a very light touch around your work. You’re hopping everywhere in the writercopter, not in a distracted way but in a focused, effective way—and the writing is almost never a struggle, and the words just pile up
The alternative is you struggle with grim determination to write the piece linearly. And so you write a page or two and … wham! You’re at a hard part and you stop dead. And because you don’t know what else to do, you just keep throwing yourself against that wall—until procrastination steps in to “save” you from your predicament.