Reflection on Blocks and Stalls

As I warned in my previous entry, I’m going to think through some of my recent struggles trying to write.

As disclaimer: I don’ think my troubles are particularly unique. If I did, I write this with the idea that you might be fascinated or morbidly curious. Nope. I doing this on the blog because I suspect that there are plenty of people out there who’ve encountered the same sorts of stalls. Maybe you’ve solved them. Maybe you’ll share your solutions. Maybe you haven’t solved them. Maybe now you’re more sure you’re not alone with the stalls. Okay, so here goes…

Let’s go back to yesterday. I have another version of my prospectus due to my advisor (Debra Journet. She’s amazing. Great.) on Monday morning. We’re going to have a cup o’ joe and talk it over. So I desperately need something by Sunday night. Thursday afternoon, I sit down to begin writing. My plan was to make a thorough read-through before I started back in on the revisions. But I never even got to the re-read. I sat down at the computer, and looked back at some of my planning, thinking, brainstorming documents to remind myself of the overall plan. Then I decided that I would tackle a different part of the prospectus each day (it’s really only supposed to be about five pages long, plus a bibliography). So that meant that I needed to look at my calendar. I opened MS Outlook, and was immediately reminded in several ways that I really don’t like Outlook at all. So I thought I would check out Google Calendar to see if that might work better, and I’d heard that GCalc syncs well with my iPhone. So I tinkered with my calendar for the next two hours. By the time I was finished, it was time to meet up with some of my friends. Like it or not, I was done writing for the day. Damn it.

Another, abbreviated version of something similar. Often, I sense that I’ve got too much spinning in my head when I sit down to write, and the cognitive noise is too much to productively handle. So my impulse is to try to simplify. I’ve been reading lately about simplifying practices in various aspects of my life, but mostly about exercise and room organization. So I’ve kept exercising, which is good, but I’ve let myself indulge in getting at a few projects about the house that I’d wanted to do for a long time. Fixing the stairs. Fixing a few of my bookshelves. Fixing the surface of my desk. I spend time planning on the repairs/remodels. Then I buy the tools. Then I enact the project. Then I clean up. Then I lament that I’ve not done any writing that day. Sad face. I’m-stupid face.

And yet, I love the writing process once I actually sit down to do it. Sometimes it’s fast (like with this entry) and sometimes it’s slow (like writing my prospectus). But I’ve reached that point now where I’ve tried so many things that I’m sort of at a loss. A kind of panic. Crap. And so… this entry.

Looking back at the list of blocks Boice covers in his chapter, I know that I’ve encountered, on a regular basis, a lack of confidence, an inability to get started, and anxiety. And they all overlap and reinforce each other in some ways.

I just wrote about the inability to get started. But once I’m writing, sometimes I’ll get a sentence or two into the text, and I’ll feel like my thoughts are all muddled, or just not quite clear enough for language, or I’m still processing something as visual information instead of linguistic (I do this with Marilyn Cooper, Bruce Horner, Raymond Williams, etc.). This makes me really anxious. Like I’m thinking about things in the “wrong” way, which I know is irrational, but phenomenologically very, very real. And then I get anxious about the anxiety, and the game is pretty much over for the day. Frustrated. Anxieties fuel. Fears confirmed. Harder to overcome the next day.

But there are those days, usually in the middle of productive times, when I feel like I’m writing simply and clearly about complex and important ideas. Ideas that I’ve struggled with for months, which have distilled now into clear language. Strong, distinct connections between ideas. An understanding of how to organize those connections in the linear prose of the most traditional academic forms. And it’s exhilarating. OMG. And I don’t want to stop. So I manically pursue the sentences as long as I can before I reach exhaustion or another responsibility.

So I need to remember that these times occur after I’ve burned through some of the unproductive, slogging prose (which I also need to remember can and will be deleted). I need to remember what a high it is to get to the good moments. I need to remember that not all academic writing is expected to be polished, clear, engaging, and smart. Sometimes, it just needs to be smart. Sometimes just clear.

But I think the most important thing is to develop a habit. Write everyday. About academic topics. And sustain it for at least a little while. An hour? Two. Hopefully. And to not worry about whether or not it’s good, as soon as I tack a period on to the last sentence. To remember that each sentence is a first version of the sentence. Each paragraph, only a starting place for revisions.

And then I need to quit. Before I’m exhausted. Before I create a feeling of needing to be away from writing. If I stop before I’m “done,” maybe that will give me momentum into the next day’s session. Yeah, it might mean that I lose an idea, and I’ll have to develop strategies for archiving those ideas for short-term pick-up.

And ol’ Robert Boice, hopefully, is gonna help me to figure it out. And as he does, or as he doesn’t, I’ll be here, reporting my story to myself, to you, or two my dog, Rilke. (Yeah, that Rilke. They both look like dogs. Have you seen a picture of him? That mustache is stolen directly from a Scottish Terrier!)

And so, the impulse toward humor portends the end of my energy for this post. If you’ve got any comments (please, no advice. Don’t confuse me yet), definitely post them below. I’ll comment to everything that’s here. Looking forward to more Boice and your responses.

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