In the Rough

November 5, 2010

I’m in that place again.

Knee-deep, waist-deep, neck-deep in the writing process, working on the manuscript for a new book, smack dab in the hardest part — the part where it feels like there’s nothing there, and like nothing will ever be there, that it’s a big gaping void, an unfillable hole, blank white pieces of paper that will refuse to be productively written upon no matter what I do.

Stephen King says writing stories is less like building something out of wood, and more like unearthing an already-existing buried artifact, with pick, shovel and whisk broom.

I say, it’s hard to know when to use the pick, and when the whisk. The ideas can be buried deep and yield to daylight only with serious muscle — but then sometimes they are lying just fragile inches below the surface, and a careless shovel-thrust will break them irretrievably.

Pablo Casals once said playing the cello is like chopping down a tree with one hand, and threading a needle with the other.

Sometimes writing is like that, too.

Maybe I’m using the pick-axe on the tree. Or the needle and thread on the buried bones. In any case, whatever I’m doing, it has that frustratingly futile feel — phrases and words that one hopes will be birds taking to wing, but turn out to be mosquitoes buzzing in one’s ear. Swat.

Oh, there are some good ideas there. Bits and pieces of good narrative, dialog that could work. But it feels like a house without a frame, skin with no bones, passages that elaborate upon a point without really knowing what that point is. Wheels turning, but no traction, no clear direction: a car up on the lift, all rev and no go.

Of course, I know this isn’t true.

I know there is something in here, some clear destination, even if it is so far clear only to itself, and not yet to me. But I know this only from past experience, from the faith that what has worked before will work again. So I keep telling myself, “The words are coming, the words are coming, the right ideas are coming, really they are…”

I hear the little boy in my own voice piping up from my mind’s back seat: “Are we there yet, Dad? Whenner we gonna BE there? I hafta pee!”

With finite patience (yes, finite, not infinite), I call back quietly over my shoulder. “Soon. We’ll be there soon.”

And keep driving.


  1. Josephine Gross

    Sounds like a networker who is getting started and hearing nothing but no’s … yet from reading the countless success stories in Networking Times, she knows it’s working. But how long is this going to take? Few are willing to go through the process and surrender to the unknown. Few have the patience, the stamina, the hunger and desire to midwife unborn ideas … and therein lies the opportunity. That’s why we get paid the big bucks!

  2. Bob Burg

    Wow – If J.D. “Lev” Mann, the greatest writer in the world has to go through that, then I don’t feel so bad about having trouble coming up with a blog post. Of course, John writes while simultaneously playing the cello and chopping down a tree. I’d imagine that makes it even harder.

    By the way, Dr. Josephine, I love your phrase, “…to midwife unborn ideas…” THAT is good!

    • jdmann

      BTW, since most will not know why Bob referred to me as J.D. “Lev” Mann, a sneak peek into our secret language: since Joe, the fictional hero of our book The Go-Giver, spends the whole story hunting for what he calls “clout and leverage,” I now refer to Bob as “Sir Clout” and he calls me “Mister Leverage.” (Lev for short.) It’s kind of a Bartles & Jaymes, “Positively, Mister Pitney – Absolutely, Mister Bowes,” kind of thing.

  3. Pat Carbotti

    Wow! Josephine’s comment mirrored my thoughts exactly. It was interesting to see it from her perspective with references to the NWTimes the same and others different!!! How wonderful to be able, for you John, to write so beautifully about not being able to find, to discover, uncover, exactly that which will take your success further into the future, knowing it is there waiting or arriving from wherever it is at the moment.
    How wonderful to write about yourself likely knowing that what you say is so relevant and meaningful to others. And when we read such thoughts, we can somehow rest into ourselves a bit more comfortably, taking our own steps, meeting our own future success with enthusiasm.

  4. Linda Ryan

    Wow~ I never read anything so eloquent and descriptive about not be able to write, as you wrote Mr. Mann! Mr. Mann~what a great name!

  5. Natalie


    You’re so awesome, and your transparency is delicious!!!!

    Seems Paulo Coelho is going through this too:

    I think it can be applied to relationships too – when things go wrong, numb, stale, empty, no juicy, pathological, wrong and flow – do you use the pick axe to crack through the barriers, or the whisk to shift the mood, or the shovel to clear the s**t and get into Lucious Love again?

  6. Fiona Ashe

    Hi John,

    What a wonderful post. It describes exactly what every writer goes through.

    I particularly love Pablo Casals’ quote about the cello.

    I find that co-writing is a great way to overcome these challenges. I hope that we get to collaborate again very soon.

    Warmest wishes, Fiona.



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