Welcome back to Ought Experiment! This week’s question comes to us from someone dealing with a bad case of writer’s block. Maybe.
I’m sure you’re going to say this is one of those problems everyone has, but I really struggle with writer’s block. It can hit when I’m just starting a new paper, or it can hit me when I’m already several drafts into a paper. Sometimes I can stare at the same sentence for literally hours, making stupid little tweaks that I keep erasing seconds later. But a lot of the time I can’t even bring myself to open the file because I just know nothing good will happen. I guess sometimes the idea is very clear in my head, but I can’t make it happen that way on the page. I get stuck so much I’m starting to wonder if I’m actually not good at this. Which is funny, because I think the problem is getting worse with time, not better. This email was easy enough to write, and so are a lot of other things, but when it’s time to work on one of my papers, it’s like a switch gets flipped and suddenly the words stop flowing. Please help me break through this wall!
It Escapes Me
Dear It Escapes Me,
I’ll skip right past the obvious joke about sitting on this column for a couple weeks because I had writer’s block. (Or will I?) ((Of course I won’t.))
I’m happy to offer some tips that work for me. And I hope that others will chime in with their own suggestions below, just on the vanishingly small chance that what works for me isn’t universal. Hah. But before I do, I want to ask you something: are you entirely sure the problem is writer’s block? Because it sounds an awful lot to me like a case of approach-avoidance.
Writer’s block is the temporary or intermittent problem of not knowing what to say, or how to say it. You get approach-avoidance when you know there’s something you ought to do, or maybe even want to do, but the actual doing of it is daunting, or high stakes, or mired in so much stress and other emotional baggage that your mind latches on to any excuse to temporarily abandon the task. And the moment you finally relent brings a wave of relief, legitimized by the solemn promise that you’ll try again real soon, and that it’ll be totally different when you do.
Sometimes chipping away at the same sentence over and over isn’t evidence that you’re stuck—it’s actually your brain’s sneaky way of ramping up your frustration levels until the task becomes intolerable, so you’ll go do something instantly gratifying instead. Not being able to open the file in the first place is another big clue, as is the fact that the problem is getting worse with time, and as is the fact that switching to other writing (like emails) resumes the effortless flow of words.
Given my suspicion, here are some strategies that I’m pretty sure won’t work. I know they won’t work because I’ve tried them all a statistically significant number of times:
- Fill up that dauntingly blank page by writing a list of your faults, with special attention paid to all the reasons why you, and only you, will never make it as an academic. Take that, blank page!
- Wail and gnash your teeth. Paw helplessly at your office dry erase board and ask why it has forsaken you. Bonus points if you stumble out into the cold night air, and shout at the distant and unfeeling stars. How they mock you.
- Since everyone knows that you can’t rush the creative process, watch Netflix. Assure yourself that doing so isn’t approach-avoidance, because you’re totally letting the ideas percolate in the back of your head while you binge old Xena episodes.
- Rent a thousand monkeys from monkeyrentals.com. Furnish them with a thousand typewriters (if money is a problem, ask some of them to double up). Wait.
Judgment and brooding and monkeys don’t help. Here are 10 tips that might:
- Stick the paper in a desk drawer. Feel free to give the drawer a good slam as you close it—papers are notoriously vulnerable to passive-aggressive behavior. Come back to it later, with fresh eyes and reduced baggage. Spend the interim wisely. Or joyously.
- Forget the Word file. Go tell your idea to the mirror, or to an unsuspecting stranger that’s trying to ignore you in the checkout line. Then dash back to your computer and write down what you said. Don’t try to make it sound professional or precise, and definitely don’t edit it mid-sentence. Just transcribe. Once you’ve got that colloquial paragraph, head back to the mirror—or track down that now-alarmed stranger—and tell them more.
- If other forms of writing work for you, try other forms of writing. Close down Word (again) and address a new email to a friend. Write to them about the paper. Tell them what needs to happen in the next draft. Be specific. Remember, you’re not trying to write the paper itself. You’re just talking about it. Right before you click send, change the ‘To’ field to your own address and enjoy your new revision outline. Voilà! Bait-and-switch FTW!
- Change things up. Trade your office for your home, or your home for your office. Go to a coffee shop, or a park, or a zoo, or one of those fun zoos where they give the animals coffee. Listen to music, or different music, or stop listening to music. Write in company, or alone. If you start each day by plopping down in the same chair (aka The Throne of Past Failures), you’re just forming a psychological association with failed writing.
- Sensory deprivation! Physically distance yourself from all distractions. I like to sit in an empty bathtub with a pocket notepad, listen to the white noise of the bathroom fan, and sketch an outline of things I’d like the stubborn section of my paper to do until some of the details start to fill in. Notice I said ‘empty bathtub’ and ‘pocket notepad’. Don’t mix water and laptops. Spark of inspiration: good. Other sparks: bad.
- Give your paper to a colleague and tell them you’re not sure how to revise it. Marvel as they then tell you exactly how to revise it. Repay the favor later, so you’re not a selfish jerk. Perhaps start a draft-circulating group with friends or similar stage academics. If you don’t have a presentable draft, find a venue where you can give a short presentation on the idea, and then capitalize on the temporary creative surge that follows. Sometimes just giving yourself that artificial deadline can help.
- If you’re feeling stuck or anxious, don’t hurl yourself at your computer and defiantly insist that today not suck. Mood matters. Go for a walk first. Meditate. Find a dog and pet it. Laugh with a friend. Listen to some music. Grab an instrument and make some music. Watch that YouTube video where the sloth eats carrots on its back. (Try not to compare yourself to a sloth.) Find ways to take the edge off, and ease yourself into the task.
- You might find your attention drifting away from the sentence at hand, and toward how much work the paper as a whole still needs. Like, don’t do that. Forget about the paper as a whole. Give yourself the goal of writing exactly one sentence, or writing for one minute. You can do that. When you’ve done that, celebrate. No, really. You would be remiss not to stand with your knuckles on your hips, chin raised. Then give yourself another sentence/minute goal. Do enough of those in a row, and you’ve got momentum.
- Try to write first thing in the morning. Literally first thing in the morning. Leave your laptop or notebook next to your bed. Open it up to where you left off, and write one paragraph. Write it before you check your email, or read the news, or load up Twitter. (It’s okay to check Daily Nous first, but only briefly.) Write it before you get out of bed, before you shower, before you eat. This might sound like a demented, fanatical version of those “Shouldn’t you be writing?” memes, but the opening moments of the day can set the tone for what follows. Wait, and the day and your will can both get away from you.
- Mimic that instant gratification impulse by rewarding yourself throughout the day, not just eventually. Create incentives to do the next bit of writing. Share cool sentences with patient friends. Tell people your idea on Facebook, so that their excitement becomes infectious. Keep a running tally of the progress you’ve made. Above all, leave judgment at the door: editing can come later, and beating yourself up for the past can come never.
Those are just some suggestions. What strategies did I miss, readers? What works for you?
— Louie Generis