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Saturday, 14 June 2014 03:03

Choking and Writer's Block

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I’m reading an interesting book at the moment called BOUNCE by Matthew Syed about master athletes. I’m not a sports person by any stretch but I like reading books about people achieving their goals.

The chapter in BOUNCE I found most interesting from a writer’s point of view was the one on choking. Choking starts with an athlete’s intense desire to succeed. (Choking never happens when you’re playing a casual game in your back yard; it’s always at the most important event of the season, possibly of your entire career.)

The athlete is usually stunned when they choke. After all those hours of analysis and practice, how could things go so horribly wrong? Syed explains:

In striving to master an advanced motor skill (a tennis serve or golf swing, for example), athletes break the movement down into parts (what their wrist is doing, what their shoulders are doing, how they’re standing, etc), focus on each part individually, then slowly put them all together into one fluid movement.

During this process the skill is gradually transformed in the brain from ‘explicit’ to ‘implicit’ memory. In other words it goes from being something you have to think about to an action that is automatic.

The difference between these two types of memory becomes apparent when one person tries teach another how to drive a manual car. For anyone who’s learned the skill the movements are automatic. But in order to explain them to someone else you have to break things down again. Essentially you have to set aside your learned (implicit) memory of the skill and experience being a beginner again.

So what happens when an athlete chokes? It all comes down to that intense desire to succeed, the pressure the person puts on themselves. The more important a match or game is to the player, the greater their tendency to want to be in complete control. But in seeking to control their every movement, the athlete disengages from his implicit memory and returns to the clumsy realm of the beginner.

In reading this, it seemed to me that the equivalent for a writer is writer’s block. And it’s brought about by the exact same thing. When a project becomes too important, when the goal of publication grows too big in our minds, we tend to focus on the craft, the rules of writing, rather than the story we want to tell.

In our intense desire to write ‘well’ we set aside whatever mastery we may have already acquired and once again become self-conscious beginners. Our voices ‘choked’.

At least this has been my own experience. And the reason I try to write my first draft fast, and save the editing until it’s done. A difficult challenge for any control freak!

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