If you know me very well (or maybe even not that well), you’ve probably seen that I’ve been dealing with an extreme lack of productivity lately (months). This is the first time in my life this has ever happened. In a way, I’m experiencing a form of writer’s block. And I think it’s been precipitated (not caused) by two things that most graduate students experience as part of their initiation process.
The first is the brutality of the Ph.D. examination process. I don’t intend to complain. I think that process should be very, very tough, and it should really mean you’ve accomplished something by passing your exams. (Although I have plenty of thoughts on how all this hard work could produce much less anxiety and much more productive work towards professionalization. Some wasted energy here, and some real missed opportunities. But certainly nothing unfair or nefarious about them. No hard feelings). All that studying and processing building in intensity toward an exam, and then going through that structure three times over several months. That’s tough. Most people are pretty burned out at that point.
Which leads me to my second topic: the prospectus process. Also, nothing unfair or nefarious here. It’s actually right on the money, I think. But the trouble is that it lacks the structure (of scheduling and genre) that defines coursework and exam prep. So burnout combined with a graduate student’s (my) first real test of self-organization and discipline. I made the mistake, I think, of taking a few weeks off from the process to refuel my academic jets. Yikes. I don’t recommend that. I still (six months later) haven’t recovered. But I’m close.
And yet, still, the lack of productivity. Puzzling. I’ve tried a lot of things. The lore of breaking the block. Start each day by writing. Work without internet access. Write for only 30 minutes at a time. Break the project down into manageable tasks. Suffer through it. Etc. All great pieces of advice. And I’ve genuinely tried them all. Yet, here I am. Still feeling stuck about the dissertation (still working on the prospectus, actually). So, like the good put-my-faith-in-books academic that I am, I’ve started reading about writer’s block. Some geared more for creative writers (Staw’s Unstuck), some geared for twenty-first century fiction writers (Vandermeer’s Booklife), and some research on undergraduate writing blocks (Rose’s Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension, and When a Writer Can’t Write). But I don’t fancy myself a creative writer (in the common sense of the term), or a fiction writer, or an undergraduate trying to figure out what it is that’s expected of me. Nope. I’m trying to get past this block, and start cultivating habits that will make me an academic writer who regularly produces texts toward publication and circulation (journals, chapters, blogs). The blogging strategies, I’m still learning, but I don’t have much of a block there. But it’s the writing for more traditional academic situations that’s got me all tied up.
So, now I’m working through Boice’s _Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing_. This encounter is giving me hope. The first chapter offers up some accounts about why academics don’t write. Nothing very shocking, but in the context of a book working toward offering productive strategies, they’re much easier to read about.
But it’s the second chapter that’s got me really ready to give this a try. After some pretty specific description about the sorts of experiences some writers have that keep them from writing or continuing to write (Writing Anxiety, Lack of Time, Lack of Confidence, Inability to Start Writing, Inability to Finish Writing, Depression, Phobias, Writing Cramps), Boice asks that I (the reader) start my own process of improving my writing productivity by completing the following exercise:
Please think back to your most recent attempts to write. Simply talk the experience out loud. Then, enter it here–without editing or without concern about how polished it sounds. This record can provide an invaluable reminder later on when you’re writing productively, successfully, and comfortably, when you may have forgotten some of the problem experiences. / Describe your most recent attempts to write, especially those with problems:
So, for my next blog entry, I’ll be completing this exercise. It’s not going to be flattering, and probably isn’t the best idea to have available to readers as I enter the job market next year. Alas. I want to be honest. I don’t want my academic persona to be a put on. Though I take my academic work very seriously, I want to be at least as honest as I am serious. And that means, beginning with this text, I guess, that I struggle mightily sometimes producing work. If I can get this ship righted, this post will be nothing to be embarrassed about. If I can’t get it righted, I’m not going to be employable anyway.
So I’m going to do this exercise right now, and then post it two days from now (Sunday morning). In the mean time, I’d love it if you all might be willing to offer snippets or hints of your own experiences with blocking. Maybe some solutions that have worked for you. Not just ones that seem like a good idea, but those you’ve actually experienced.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably got your own story. Thanks for reading mine. Let me hear yours. Until Sunday, then…