Belding: Writer’s block — who needs it?

Michael Belding

Up to a certain point, it is easy to write columns week after week. Up to a certain point, finding important news is easy, and ideas and their articulations flow out of a writer’s brain like a volcanic eruption.

And then we have to start digging it out of the ground, moving heaven and Earth to think of new ideas and new ways to say them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Writing columns is great fun, as is doing the research and construction that more intricate ideas require. It is, however, easy to get discouraged.

More and more, my columns go through several drafts. Each time, I have to go dream up more things to say about the idea. Sometimes, that process begets a begrudging feeling. It’s as if the writing isn’t fun anymore. Often, I pull myself out of the funk. It isn’t easy to stop banging my head against the wall, trying to figure out how to put a five-sentence idea (which is self-evident enough, in my own mind, for five sentences) into somewhere between 700 and 800 words, but in writing as in most other activities we are our own worst enemies and need to get ourselves out of our own way before we can continue along our chosen path.

The main way that happens for me is to start thinking about how my idea relates to other ideas. What have other people, throughout the ages, said about what I’m trying to say now? What has happened in the world — in history as well as current events — that relates to my point? In other words, what is the context of my idea?

A woman once suggested that ice cream would make a good column. Perplexed, I asked: “What about it?” — “What not about it?” she asked. It is very possible that something worth learning from awaits our discovery within all the information related to ice cream or lies somewhere among the houses that line the subject’s side streets.

The ice cream example is trivial, but considering how our ideas and interactions are interrelated to those of other people, past, present, future, here, there and everywhere, is important.

While I firmly believe the world is solid all the way through and there are eternal truths that ought to guide it and its people in their thoughts, words and deeds, I also believe the world is one entity made up of innumerable parts whose connectedness varies. None of those parts, however, exists in isolation, free to act on the others while at the same time completely insulated from being acted upon by the others.

Good ideas are like great parent rivers such as the Mississippi, which is fed by other bodies of water that range in size from the Missouri and Ohio rivers to the Des Moines River to the streams such as Nicollet Creek that empty into Lake Itasca. The same way the “father of 

waters” would not be what it is were it not for the tributary rivers flowing into it, ideas would not be good if they did not absorb many smaller ones and encompass whole systems of thought.

Some of the most important contributors to political discourse — like it or not, politics is important stuff, where we decide important policy that affects us all — namely, fact checkers, almost always add caveats to their assessments of politicians’ statements. Fact checkers take great care to assess both the face value of a statement — such as whether President Barack Obama meant what Republicans think he meant when he said: “You didn’t build that” — is true, and whether it is true in the larger context of our existence.

What one reporter told me about  how reporting on a political speech is similar to that practice: The advice I received was to put the speech into a broader context and answer what defines the narrative?” In other words, where does this speech fit in the “grand scheme of things”?

Think, perhaps, of a sudoku puzzle instead of a river system. The game has rules any player has to uphold to win. Placing any number in a box alters the options for all the other boxes. Any change also alters those options. In the same way, all of our actions change the world in which we live.

And there you have it: a 750-word column about writing columns, because I have learned at least one thing from writing 90 of them.