I’m a big believer that those of us in education have contributed at least partially to the malady of writer’s block that befalls our students from time to time. As they have moved through the educational system, we’ve taught them that the writing process is very linear, very neat and tidy.
Students are often taught that they need to come up with a topic (or use one provided), figure out what they have to say about it through pre-writing, write a draft, turn it in to the instructor, get feedback, “fix it” per the instructors editing marks/comments, and turn in the final draft a few days later. Many students don’t really understand the difference between editing and revision. They are shocked to discover that it’s okay, heck sometimes it’s even desirable to sit down to write with no idea what you are going to write, that it’s valid for your whole goal to be to discover what that is through the process of actually writing. It’s okay for your final draft to be drastically different in content, organization, etc. from the rough draft.
The draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Nor is the job of “drafting” done once you have a rough draft. There may be gaps. You may have to go back to the invention stage and gather more ideas, more possibilities. Your instructor may ask that you get rid of two pages of content that don’t really belong before the final draft. You may need to completely change your slant or even your topic. This does not necessarily speak to your ability as a writer or as a student. It doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly “forgotten” how to write because you are now being asked to do these things if you never have been before. It also doesn’t mean you won’t make it through a particular class or assignment if you find yourself struggling.
Students study habits also often contribute to them contracting a nasty case of writer’s block. Many students severely underestimate the time needed to compose an essay or research paper for a college class. This is especially true in classes where they have extended writing assignments but writing isn’t being taught. They are used to writing teachers breaking a longer assignment down into shorter ones (ex. You have a separate deadline for your topic choice, your outline, and then a rough and final draft.) and don’t have a good idea of how to estimate do this themselves or estimate how much time to allot when they try. Other students are great at procrastinating and wait until the last minute to start an assignment, especially if writing isn’t something they are too fond of. In either case, students are often left trying to edit and revise a draft while still creating it. This is usually highly stressful and very unproductive. Why? Because you are asking one part of your brain to be creative and another one to sensor it. At. The. Same. Time. It’s not pretty.
(I warned you it wasn’t pretty…)
Have you ever been in a situation where you are trying to do something that you’re not sure how to do, but you think you do, and someone is standing over your shoulder just waiting for you to fail, and you know they are watching for that first mistake so they can say something, and you feel the pressure building, and suddenly you forgot how to do whatever the thing was?
That is this–you trying to create a draft and edit it on the fly, only with the writing scenario you’re playing both parts. Your brain stresses out. It shuts down. No writing happens. Sometimes, we’ve been playing out this scenario in our writing for so long, that all we have to do is sit down in front of a computer or a blank piece of paper or look at the assignment guide and our brain goes dark. The creative part isn’t even going to try to create anything because it knows as soon as it starts, the editing side is going to be dismissive of whatever it comes up with. All of this adds to or helps create a mental petrie dish where writer’s block can thrive. Resolve not to do this to yourself anymore. If you need help figuring out a reasonable schedule to complete an assignment, talk to your instructor or a writing tutor. After you figure out how much time you need, make sure you have it. I know that’s one of those “easier said than done” things for most students, but if you keep repeating the same habits, you’re going to get the same results. The only way out is to do something different.
Anne Lamott is a writer from California who writes a little about writing, a little about life, and a whole lot about how the two are mashed up with one another. Lamott addresses quite a few topics in her book, Bird by Bird. One chapter that I would particularily recommend to students who suffer from writer’s block would be “Shitty First Drafts.” In it, she discusses the myth of the great first draft and why, in fact, those that aren’t so great are valuable-even perhaps desirable. Listening to what Lamott has to say can help relieve some of the pressure students feel about their writing so they can move forward from whatever shows up on the page to the point of a more coherent draft.
Finally, here are some practical tips from Dan Barden, a professor at Butler University, to help you avoid triggering an attack of writer’s block and for curing it if you have.
Dan’s Writing Tricks
1. Writing for a little while each day is much easier than writing a lot once a week.
2. Exercise. The body is connected to the head. The head is where imagination lives. When the body is sluggish, so is the head.
3. Prayer and meditation. If you have a spiritual practice, use it. Walker Percy’s prayer for writing was, “I am starting from nothing. Help me.”
4. If something’s not working, try turning it on its head. Change some significant detail and notice if it works better that way. Be light on your feet. Don’t take yourself and your work so damn seriously.
5. When in doubt, remember: if you knew what you wanted to say, you wouldn’t have to write about it—you could just say it.
6. When you don’t know what else to do, recopy what you’ve written. There’s genius in your hand holding a pen. There’s genius in your fingertips on the keyboard.
7. Read as much as you can. Reading is like food to writing. Writing is also a version of reading. Great writers are always great readers.
8. Write about things you know, but if you don’t know about something, don’t let that stop you. You can learn about it while you’re writing about it. That’s what libraries and museums and smart friends are for.
9. Cultivate kooky interests. If your imagination wants to know more about naval aviation or fastpitch softball or Dean Martin’s youth in Ohio, by all means, let your imagination have what it wants.
10. Make friends with other writers. It takes a lot of courage to work every day, know what’s valuable in your work, and kill your babies.* You’ll need help.
*Barden is, of course, speaking metaphorically about editing and what it feels like to cut out parts of your writing that you may love dearly, but that still need to go.
Writing is messy. Writing is ugly. Done well, though, it is extremely rewarding-both when your realize someone “gets it” (whatever “it” is that you are trying to articulate) and from your own sense of accomplishment.
Good luck with your writing, and remember, the best way to get over your writer’s block is to be proactive in trying to prevent it and figuring out a way to manage it once it strikes. Use these tips to help you, and if you need it, drop by the Writing Center to talk with one of the tutors. A good deal of writing problems, as with many problems in life, are solved by talking about them. Tutors can help mentor you through the writing process or through parts of it that you are finding particularly difficult.