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Pushing Past Writing Blocks
February 17, 2014 - 8:39pm

Painting of male writer holding his head in frustration

Jenae Cohn is a guest author and PhD student in English, pursuing a Designated Emphasis in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies, at The University of California, Davis. You can follow her on Twitter at @jenae_cohn or check out her semi-regularly-updated blog at www.jenaecohn.net. She writes there about pedagogy, research, technology, and work-life balance.

My adviser nods along through my project’s pitch. He’s following, and I’m feeling pretty good about the progression of this idea.

“Well,” he says. “At this point, I think you can just start writing.”

Initially, when I realize I’m at the writing stage of a project, I feel a certain rush in knowing that I’ve actually got something - a real thing! - worth writing about. And hey, I like writing. I study writing, I teach writing, I read about writing, and I talk about writing (nearly) every day.

But then when it actually comes time to sit at the computer and write about my very real idea thing, I freeze up. I reassure myself that I’ve got this thing that’s worth writing down, and yet I can’t bring myself to pull up my word processor. I convince myself that maybe there is more to read, that there’s surely some article somewhere that I’ve missed and that would, more than all of these other articles I’ve already read, really get me into that writing.

This frequently leads to a bit more self-deception. I convince myself that it is absolutely much more urgent to construct a to-do list for my week or to re-do a lesson plan for my students or to figure out how I’m going to make time for yoga classes than it is to, well, write. In other words, anything but writing becomes the More Important Thing (i.e. the MIT).

Now, we use oven mitts to protect ourselves from scalding heat and baseball mitts from high-speed throws, but what do MITs protect us from? A score of uncomfortable, vulnerable feelings that are an absolutely necessary part of the writing process.

As graduate students, writing is the way that we prove our mettle to our advisers, peers, and even people beyond the academy. We’ve got to write to show that we’re strong thinkers and that large, looming reality is what drives many of us not to write, to throw on our MITs and shield ourselves from the very thing we absolutely need to do above much else.

If all of this writing anxiety sounds familiar to you, here are a few tips I’ve gathered and am working to implement to battle my own writing anxieties:

  1. Do a writing warm-up. Athletes need to stretch before they exercise; writers, too, need to warm their muscles before they can really dive into the challenging, intellectual work that is writing. So, do a five-minute freewrite (you may even find it useful to set a timer for yourself) and write something silly or goofy. Write about whatever pops into your head when you place your hands on your keyboard (or hold your pencil in your hand). It could be a long rant about the undergraduates who chit-chat in the library, a quick meditation on how much you love the smell of your coffee at your desk, or a reflection on why you really don’t want to write right now. Sometimes, simply the act of writing something - anything - can get you into the mindset that it’s time to write more.
  2. Write badly. In Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott advises writers to write “shitty first drafts.” These are the drafts where you simply play with your ideas, write out everything that instantly comes to mind about your topic. Turning off your inner critic that makes you doubt your ideas or what you have to say and allowing yourself to write about your idea in whatever way you so choose will yield some great content - guaranteed. It’s OK if you know you’re going to throw out a lot of your first draft or that you’ll have to move content around, but it’s impossible to write anything if you don’t get something down.
  3. Set small goals. Creating goals that you know you’ll be able to achieve will make you feel like you’re making progress, even if you’re just doing a little bit at a time. The more momentum you have each day, the more motivation you’ll feel to keep moving. This can be a goal as simple as “I’m going to write 750 words today.” That’s about two pages double-spaced. Those 750 words don’t have to be golden (see tip #2), but there have to be 750 words by the end of the day. Turning your writing into more of a game, can be a way to re-motivate yourself and make sure you get a certain amount of writing done each day.
  4. Call a friendly colleague. It can sometimes be really useful to talk through your ideas with someone who will, you know, want to listen and talk shop. Sure, Mom is great to chat with when catching up on life woes, but when you’re writing, it’s helpful to talk your ideas through with someone who could listen carefully. This should be someone you trust and with whom you feel comfortable sharing ideas. Plus, having a colleague who will listen to you and be a sounding board is a great way to make sure that you have a very clear understanding of what you want to say. Chances are, you have the ideas there, but it can be hard to assure yourself of that when you’ve got a big task ahead. Simply talking it out can reignite some of that lost energy.
  5. Form a writing group. You’re not alone in this. Find a group of one or two other people who would like to hold each other to writing goals. Find a place to meet once a week - a classroom on campus, a coffee shop, anywhere really - and all agree to sit and write together. Some of your meetings might involve talking about your projects while other meetings might just be excuses to set up times to motivate each other to sit and write. When there are none of the temptations that you might have working on your own (I see you, productive procrastination!), a writing task can be much easier to accomplish.
  6. Remind yourself of why your work is fun. Take a moment and try to answer for yourself, “What’s makes this project so super cool and interesting?” Remember how you felt when you first started to brainstorm ideas for your project. What got you jazzed in the first place? Chances are, you’ll have a few instant answers related to your project that will get you pumped up to write about it.

This advice is, of course, written for a broad audience and naturally not all of these tips will work for you. So, take a moment to think about, “When do I work best? When am I most productive? When do I have the most energy?” Identifying for yourself the times and spaces in which you feel the best when you write can put you in a positive mindset to write.

How do you get yourself in the mood to write? What do you do to take off your MITs? Let us know!

By Leonid Pasternak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

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