"WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?" invites experienced biographers and narrative nonfiction writers to hold forth, whether in an article or just a couple of sentences, on the most useful solution they've found for coping with one major challenge of the writing life. What works for you? Share it with the rest of us by posting a comment below.
Charles J. Shields: "Chop Wood, Carry Water."
A student seeking enlightenment asks the master, "How shall I go about it?"
The master answers, "Chop wood, carry water."
"And then when I achieve enlightenment—what then?"
"Chop wood, carry water."
I take this advice to mean that there's nothing but the work. I find I can't write everyday—some days I'm too tired, or the words won't come—but I can perform some other work in connection with a long project.
Perhaps it's a good day to return phone calls, or interview someone and type up the notes. Maybe I should devote the day to outlining, or getting my desktop files in order. On the other hand, there are days when it's time to do errands: return books to the library, pick up printer ink at an office supply store, or drive to the nearest university library and run some database searches for articles.
For me, making progress on any aspect of a project is a good day. All work in connection with it has to be done eventually. I just need to get on with it—chop wood, carry water!
—Thanks to Charles J. Shields, author of I Am Scout: A Biography of Harper Lee and And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: a Life, to be published in November.