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Overcoming Writer’s Block: A Favorite Hint From The Ex-Lax® Of Writing Teachers (That Would Be Me!)

April 6, 2011


I asked Ring Lardner the other day how he writes his short stories, and he said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces. • Harold Ross

A student once called me “the Ex-Lax® of writing teachers” and I know what you might be thinking. However, this title was not bestowed because my assignments encouraged students to produce nothing but crap. (I do not censor this word here because it got me into trouble several times as a high school teacher, as did the word piss. There are some people who consider these words swearing, but my Grandma Wilkins, an extremely religious woman who said “hmmmm” instead of hell, used these particular vulgarities all the time, so I am inured to their power to shock.) No. I got the laxative title because the alternative school students with whom I was working were producing writing—lots of it—much of it coming from angry adolescents whose reluctance to put pen to paper had caused them to fail previous classes.

I am trained as a secondary English teacher. This means that I know the conventions of writing and I am also overly familiar with the conventional ways to approach writing as a task in school. And that’s the problem. Writing can be fun, but writing that’s always bounded by rules and prescriptions of properness is seldom fun for anyone. Because I made my living with words, often writing under deadline, before going back to school to become a teacher, and because I have been a lifelong researcher of creativity, I know that much of what I was supposed to be teaching about the processes of writing was also crap. I am definitely in favor of eventual correctness and I am not suggesting opening the gates and letting all manner of misspellings and grammatical incorrectness run rampant over the world’s pristine white pages. I am suggesting that an initial focus on these things can stop writers before they begin. I am also suggesting—No, wait! I’m asserting!—that the process of writing is highly idiosyncratic and that processes designed to help student writers may actually hinder some of them.

Some creative people approach writing tasks in well-mannered ways. They are organized and they know where they are going before they begin. I admire them. Surely this is some species of magic. There are writing teachers in this group. Other writing teachers—or teachers who require writing in their courses—are not writers themselves beyond having written the requisite papers or theses or dissertations for the courses they took along the way to getting their degrees. They muddled through these tasks and are sure that if they recommend the magic of well-ordered writing to their students, it will work for these others in ways that it did—or didn’t—work for them.

These teachers can be dangerous. They require standardized pre-writing and brainstorming. They require students to provide carefully detailed outlines before beginning papers. They require well-organized rough drafts that must be approved before an actual paper is written. They require perfectly stated theses and perfect paragraphs from the start. There is a correctness at the heart of their approach and all things must be done properly and in the proper order. These teachers require. They require. And they require some more. And they constipate those of us who have our own processes, whose writing emerges from the chaos of ideas.

I have long admired the work of Peter Elbow who reflects in his 1973 book, Writing without Teachers, on his own experiences as someone who wanted to be a teacher but struggled with writing. Elbow’s theories of composition are autoethnographic, and emerged from his life. Mine have as well. My favorite writing laxative comes from his book, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (1981, 1998). It can be found in Section II: “More Ways of Getting Words on Paper,” where Elbow describes “first thoughts,” saying that this activity asks the writer to just dump* out what s/he is thinking about the topic, acknowledging that these initial ideas are “not good thoughts or true thoughts—just first thoughts” (p. 61). This initial dumping reduces the pressure of initial significance and organization that often causes writers to procrastinate. Once students have something, they can begin to find directions for potential exploration.

Elbow’s idea is related to Ken Macrorie’s (1970, 1976), “I-Search” processes detailed in Telling Writing. To begin an I-Search project, the researcher asks questions:

• What do I want to learn more about? Why am I interested in this?

• What do I already know about this subject?

• What do I need to learn about this subject?

“First thoughts” and “I-Search” beginnings are kinds of brainstorming, another piece of writing theory that has become formulaic and patterned, with well-meaning teachers requiring students to draw circles and lines and make Venn diagrams and engage in multiple kinds of teacher-directed pre-writing activities with colored pencils and Post-It® notes and other aids to creation. However, as the writer Jessamyn West said in an interview in September 1957 in the Saturday Review,There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft.” I heartily agree. I am a list maker, a card collector, a file creator, and a bitpiecer. This means that I write my way into projects bits and pieces at a time—a paragraph here, a phrase there, a page or two in the morning when I awake—filing it all away until the deadline looms and I have to piece together the wordy mosaic of thought and bring order to the chaos.

There is a time for editing and proofreading and making sure that writing is ready to be read. There is a time to consider audience. There is a time to adhere to accepted conventions, particularly in an academic context. That time is not at the beginning of a writing task when writers must mindfully make meaning through an activity as personal as expressing voice on paper. I’ll end with a lengthy quotation from Writing with Power. If you want to be Ex-Lax® for your students, consider his words:

“Perhaps my general point would be clearer if I called this section ‘More Ways of Producing a First Draft,’ but I want to emphasize the fact that first-stage writing need not take the form of a draft. That is, it need not be a single connected piece of writing. There is no good reason why you must try to produce something in your first cycle of writing that resembles the form of what you want to end up with, Of course, if you have a vision of how your piece ought to be structured, yes, by all means do your raw writing in the form of a draft. But if you only have the hint of a hunch or some initial thoughts or incidents or images and you can’t see how they should be shaped, it’s usually best to go ahead all the same and plunge into what I call raw writing. Instead of a draft you will be producing a pile of rough ingredients. The fact is that you usually get more and better visions for how to shape these ingredients by starting to write them out however they happen to come off the pencil than by waiting till you get the so-called ‘right’ structure. Any structure that you dream up before actually getting your hands dirty in the writing itself is apt to be like a plan you work out for travel in an unfamiliar country: it usually has to be changed once you get there and see how things really work” (p. 47).

What do you do to overcome writer’s block? How do you begin a new writing project?

The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax. • Alfred Kazin, Think, February 1963 [Or herself. Sigh.]

* I trust that you are applauding my restraint as I pass up the opportunity to indulge in some verbal pun-ishment here.

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4 comments

  1. Why is this necessarily brief? Not because I don’t have time to write more, to be long-winded with hopes that erudition might magically materialize; rather, it is brief because a longer response is unnecessary. Your point, and the articulation of it, are eloquent. Thank you, Z, as always, you rock!


  2. Thanks, Malcolm. You are a stellar example of someone whose writing was always a joy to read! I remember it well. W-OZ


  3. I looooove this piece! I guess I’ll not be getting to sleep anytime soon tonight! (I’ve got some writing to do.)
    Thanks, Coach!


    • Wow! I sometimes forget what I’ve written since I tend to write what I don’t deem too much, but what is really truly plenty, and I like this too since it is directly related to an assignment I handed out this week. I’m linking to it now! W-OZ



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