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What is writer's block, and how can we get beyond it? Beth and Brittany discuss causes and strategies.
BETH: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Beth Nastachowski,
BRITTANY: and I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson. Today we’ll be talking about a topic that many people struggle with: writer’s block. We’ll talk about what it is, and how to combat it.
BETH: This was a topic that came up in a course that I’ve been teaching for the past few weeks. In the early weeks of the course we always talk about the writing process, and one of the topics that came up was writer’s block. And students were really engaged in discussing writer's block 'cause it seemed like a lot of them had encountered writer's block at some point in their writing career thus far. And it seemed like a topic that we could delve into a little bit more, 'cause it really did seem like something that a lot of students struggled with, and it was really useful to talk about the different reasons that they seem to have writer's block, but also the different strategies people had for combating writer's block.
BRITTANY: Yeah that’s so cool. I'm really glad that you're addressing that in your course. I think it's important that course instructors do talk about it because it's a very real thing for students who are, you know, having to write basically constantly, all the time, and I know it’s a real thing for writers who aren’t enrolled in a program, too--people who are writing for other reasons as well. One of the things that I think is kind of interesting is to explore really what--not necessarily just what we mean by writer's block, which we can start with, but also what causes it. I don't know that that gets talked about as often as it could. And I think that that could be really helpful.
BETH: When we talk about writer's block, we mean anything from just having trouble starting to write, you know, even just, sort of feeling apprehension, but also really more long-term or bigger issues with writer's block where students might not even be, you know, knowing where to start or might take days to even get started. So, more significant issues with writer's block. There's really a range of how significant writer's block can be.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I think it's important to note that writer's block can feel like a sort of paralysis in some instances where you just don't know how to start, like you said, Beth, but it also can feel just like a lack of ideas. So it may be that you're starting to write or you're trying to get something on the page and you're, you know, typing and typing or writing and writing, and you just kind of don't know what you're saying. So I feel like there's sort of two pieces to it. And we will address both of those types of writer's block in this episode.
BETH: Yeah, and I also wanted to add that writer's block can look differently depending on the day that you're writing, and what you're writing, too. So, you know, writer's block will look and probably feel a little bit different each time you encounter it, and that's okay, too. So, one thing that I like to stress when thinking about writer's block is that it's important to be reflective on what you're feeling and how you're experiencing writer's block, because this is kind of what we're getting at, Brittany, is that writer's block can be really psychological. It's not necessarily just a writing issue, it's a psychological kind of block, and that looks different every time. So you kind of have to be, as a writer, you have to have the ability to recognize, oh, what I'm experiencing is writer's block, and the ability to reflect on that, to think about ways that you can work on overcoming that writer's block.
BRITTANY: Yeah, you've hit on something really important here, which is that writer's block is an emotional--it's a response to an emotion or emotions, and those can look different depending on, you know, your own particular--the day you're having or your own particular kind of experience with writing in the past, or your own insecurities, or those kinds of things, and so I think that for some people it's sort of--you know, it comes from a place of fear or anxiety, like maybe feeling a lack of confidence as a writer, not being sure if you're going to be able to write something good, write something coherent or write something that can, you know, in the case of our students, get a good grade or a passing grade. But I think for other people, you know sometimes it can come out of a sense of boredom, right, that you're just kind of like not that stimulated by whatever topic you're supposed to be writing about and you don't know how to get excited about it. Or even a place of frustration—right?—where you maybe have tried and tried and tried to express an idea and you can't quite get it, and you're just like throwing up your hands and saying, you know, forget about it. And you've sort of lost your will to persist at trying to get it on the page.
BETH: And, yeah, I think that's so important, Brittany, ‘cause I think you hit on a lot of the main reasons why students might experience writer's block. But I'd also add, too, that I think feeling overwhelmed can also be a cause for writer's block. Maybe you're super busy, you just had a crazy day at work, and you've got kids at home, and you have to get this assignment done, but there's all these other things on your mind, and that can really cause writer's block for some people. Or maybe the assignment itself is overwhelming too, and you’re not quite sure where to go with it. Or it’s a new assignment or a new way of writing or something like that too. So I think that can also be a cause of writer’s block.
BRITTANY: Yeah absolutely, that sense of—maybe not having the time or space that you feel you need to develop ideas, or to—I think a lot of what we talk about when we talk about combating writer’s block generally as writing instructors is “give yourself lots of time, or plenty of time to brainstorm,” and to “just start writing and see what comes out” and the reality is for many people, especially for Walden students who are working, who may have families, and then are trying to pursue this degree on top of it all—that’s just a luxury that they don’t have. And so I think we can develop some strategies that can sort of help carve out some mental space even if there’s not the time that we may talk about as being necessary for getting over writer’s block or combating writer’s block.
BRITTANY: So let’s start there. Let’s start with the type of writer’s block that comes from that sense of being just overwhelmed that Beth was talking about, and talk about some strategies that we can use to overcome that sense of panic or not having enough brain space to focus on your writing. So one of the things that—I admit I am not great at this, but one of the things that does help me when I can get myself to do it is just giving myself two minutes to sort of sit and breathe. And I know that sounds really kind of crunchy. But it really works, it really, really works, and it only takes a couple of minutes. I think a lot of times when I’m feeling that sense of panic or I’m feeling a little bit anxious about all the things that I have to do, I feel like in order to overcome that I need a couple of hours to, you know, go for a run or take a bath, or something, you know! But it really doesn’t take that much. Those things are all important, but in the moment, if you can carve out just a minute or two to sit and breathe and refocus your energy and get your heart rate down a little bit, that can really help. I know for me, I am really sensitive to noise, and I can get really anxious if there’s too much noise and sound around me, which is really hard if you have little kids or maybe hard if you don’t have a quiet place where you can work. So—earplugs: just the cheap, squishy ones you get at the grocery store. They’re miracle workers! Or you might put in your headphones and listen to a relaxing piece of music that gets you in the zone. So none of that really seems like it’s actually related to writing, and technically it’s not, but it’s about getting your brain in a place where you can move on to the task at hand. So just turning off the stimulation, and making sure that you can go into your writing task with a little bit more calm and a little bit more focus. That really works for me.
BETH: Yeah, Brittany, I think it’s a great point to think about what externally is happening that might be affecting your ability to focus on the writing. I would suggest another strategy of freewriting, and this is something that we talk about a fair amount at the Writing Center. But it’s also something that whenever I talk with students about it, it seems a little bit new, so I wanted to make sure to mention freewriting as well. The basic premise of freewriting is just that you are free to write whatever you want! And freewriting is a way of generating ideas, but it can also help you get over the apprehension of writing. One thing that I like to emphasize is that your first draft is not your last draft. It’s not supposed to be a perfect draft, and I think sometimes feeling like whatever we put down on the page or whatever we write has to be brilliant and perfect just as it is can be really limiting. And freewriting helps us to kind of open up our minds and get away from those restraints a little bit, and just get words on the page. And I like to emphasize again that freewriting doesn’t necessarily produce writing that will be a part of the finished product. It’s more about getting yourself writing. And that feels a little counter-intuitive, and I know, with time limits and the need to get things done quickly, that can feel like a luxury. But even just a couple minutes of freewriting can really be helpful psychologically, even if it doesn’t actually help or produce something that will happen within your paper itself.
BRITTANY: Yes, I love freewriting. I think it’s really, really effective. And it’s kind of funny sometimes too because the idea is that you really just start writing anything, whatever words come into your mind, right? They don’t have to be related to your topic at all at first. It’s just, your fingers are supposed to be continually moving across the keyboard, or your pencil is supposed to be continually moving across the paper. And I think that’s actually kind of a nice transition into our next reason for writer’s block, our next kind of psychological underpinning of writer’s block, which is boredom. I think the humor that can come out of freewriting can be a way through that sense of boredom as well, that you can think about this as an exercise that can entertain you in some way, or where you can—there can be some play there. I don’t think that that’s something that gets talked about very often when we think about pursuing a degree in higher education. It feels very serious. Academia feels a lot of times like it’s about following the rules, or making sure that you’re checking a lot of boxes. But I think one of the things that I like about freewriting, and that I think can be really fun, even if whatever you’re writing about is not something that you’re super excited about, is that you can play a little bit. You can dig into what’s going on in your subconscious and see what comes out, and feel a little bit silly. And even that, kind of lightening the mood and lightening the sense of gravity around what you’re doing can free you up sort of psychologically to then be able to dig into the actual topic that you’re supposed to be writing about.
BETH: As you were talking, Brittany, I was even thinking about the flip side of that, where, not necessarily writer’s block coming from boredom, but from feeling like, there’s not enough to talk about, or writers aren’t sure what to talk about. ‘Cause that kind of seems related, but also kind of different, right?
BETH: It’s maybe a little bit more serious. But I wanted to talk a little bit about that too, where you’re not quite sure what to talk about. So you don’t mind writing, it’s just you’re not sure what to write about. And freewriting can help with that. But I also want to suggest that another way to think about this is making sure that you have some guidelines to follow, so you do know what you’re talking about. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be your actual draft. So I also suggest if students have a hard time knowing what to write about, if that’s what’s blocking their writing, is to make sure that they have an outline and a thesis statement which they can look to and refer to. That can be so helpful. Sometimes, what stops me from writing is I’m just like, I’m not sure what I want to say right now. And sometimes you can find out what you want to say through writing, and that can be really useful. On the other hand, though, sometimes you need to actually have an outline and a guide to help you with that. To kind of—it’s kind of like a road map for you that you can follow as you’re writing, which can be really helpful to you. I’m the type of person who likes clear guidelines, and so that’s always helpful for me when I’m writing, is to have an outline and a thesis statement as a clear guideline.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I love that too, and that’s definitely part of my process as a writer as well, is sort of getting the skeleton of my argument on the page before I worry about writing sentences and paragraphs. You’re right, that’s a really useful strategy, because it takes the pressure off a little bit when you don’t have to worry so much about how the words sound or how they flow together, but you’re just only thinking about flow of ideas. So you don’t have to flesh anything out, it doesn’t have to look pretty, it doesn’t have to be in paragraph form. It’s just thinking, okay, what’s my first point, what’s my next point, what’s my point after that. And then, once that’s down, you can kind of go back and forth, and like you said, I think a road map is a really great metaphor for the way that that outline works, because if you ever feel like you are getting a little bit off course, or you are fleshing out your sentences and paragraphs, and you kind of feel like “well, where am I going with this?” You can go back and say “Oh yeah, that’s right, this is the point I am trying to make” or “Oh my gosh, I thought I was going to make this point, but I’m making this other point over here—whoops—let’s figure out what’s going on there.” So yes, I totally agree that having an outline can be a really effective way to combat writer’s block.
So, can we talk a little bit about the frustration type of writer’s block? Where you’ve done all these things that we’re suggesting and you’ve tried and tried and tried. Maybe you have set aside extra time and space to work on something, and you’re just fed up with it—like you cannot get it to the place that you want it to be. Do you have any strategies for how to combat that kind of emotional response, Beth?
BETH: Yeah, I think the frustration part is one of the harder kinds of writer’s block, because if you’re frustrated with the assignment or with your topic, or with just writing in general, a lot of these strategies, freewriting, outlining, that kind of stuff, might not be useful. They might just kind of exasperate the problem. So in those cases, I think going back to your idea of taking some space and just calming yourself and having some silence can be really helpful. One of my students in one of my courses talked about just taking a nap--that was an idea that she had which I loved. So taking some time, and again time is at a premium I know for many writers and many students, but taking some time I think can really help you calm down and to sort of give yourself from space from that frustration. But the other thing I would say too that can be really helpful is not necessarily focusing on the writing but maybe getting a friend or a coworker or family member and talking to them about your topic or the course assignment that you are trying to look at. It’s going to help you maybe work through that frustration and come to a place where you are feeling a bit more positive about that writing assignment. So I think that can be really useful.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I love the idea of taking yourself out of your own head and discussing your topic with somebody else. And that’s something that we don’t talk a lot about, but I think we should talk more about, is the relationship between speaking about a topic and then being able to write about it. I know for me—and I process verbally, not everybody does that I realize, so I’m sure other people have other experiences—but for those of you who are like me and get ideas by talking about them, this is something that’s really helpful. So if I have some topic that I’m supposed to be responding to in writing, I’ll often find a friend or my husband or somebody else—my mom is a writer and sometimes I talk to her—about the topic and we just have a conversation. The pressure is off because you’re just talking, you’re not putting anything on the page yet, but it does help to develop some ideas and sort of understand some of the different points or sub-points under that topic. And then I feel like when I go into the actual writing on that topic, I have some ideas formed. I might not know exactly what I want to say, but I kind of understand a little bit more about the topic itself and the trajectory of my argument. So, that is something that I think can be really helpful for students and can combat that frustration a little bit just by getting somebody else in there and helping you feel a little bit less isolated.
One other thing that I wanted to add that I’ve been thinking about as we’ve been talking about this, and this is specific to the context of being in a degree program where you have assignments and some are low-stakes and some are high-stakes, but thinking carefully about the stakes of each assignment, and remembering that you don’t have to invest the same emotional energy in a discussion post as you would in your final paper or even a dissertation, for instance. So not letting yourself get too worked up or too nervous or frustrated, or spend too much time on those smaller assignments. It’s not that they’re not important. It’s just that we as humans only have so much energy to invest in any one thing. And as we’ve already mentioned, of course, a lot of Walden students are investing their energy elsewhere, outside of their degree program as well. And so you really want to be strategic about where you invest that energy, and you want to conserve it for the things that hold the most weight for you, both in terms of the kinds of ideas that you will be able to develop that will impact you as a scholar and as a professional—those ideas you can carry into your work life and beyond your time at Walden—but also, thinking about the stakes in terms of how much an assignment is worth in your overall grade, and things like that. You don’t want to sort of burn yourself out on your discussion post and then have nothing left to give when it comes time to work on a higher-stakes assignment. So I think that’s something too to think about if you’re experiencing writer’s block is to just give yourself permission to sort of write something if it’s a lower-stakes assignment, and just not concern yourself too much about it, and recognize that you might be conserving energy and time too to spend on something that’s more valuable to you and holds more weight in your course or in your degree program as well.
BETH: I love that, Brittany.
BETH: So I mentioned this briefly at the start of the podcast, but as you can see, a lot of thinking about writer’s block and the different strategies that you can take require a lot of reflection, and so I think that’s also a point that I’d like you to take away from this podcast, is that writer’s block looks different and how you’ll deal with writer’s block is different from person to person, from assignment to assignment, from writer’s block to writer’s block. And…so I really encourage you to reflect on your own experiences and what has worked well for you, what hasn’t worked well, and think about these different ways that we’ve talked about, the different things that can cause writer’s block and the different strategies for overcoming it, and really just keeping them in mind so that next time you have writer’s block you can really reflect on it, try to think more about what might be causing it, and then what strategies might match for that particular situation.
Beyond being more reflective, we also wanted to emphasize that there are more resources on the Writing Center’s web site for writer’s block, and specifically a great idea if you’re looking for more information and more resources and strategies for writer’s block is to go to the Writing Center web site, at the top right hand corner, there’s that search box and to search “writer’s block” or “prewriting”—those are both great search terms to use to find more information. That will search through our web site as well as our blog posts about writer’s block and prewriting.
BRITTANY: We do have a ton of great resources, and I’m so glad that you plugged those. We really want you students to use them. Another resource that we have in our Center that we’ve actually added more hours to recently is our chat service, our live chat service. So you can access that by clicking on the Chat Now tab which is on any page that you visit on our web site. If you click there during the hours that chat is available, you will be connected with a Writing Center staff person and you will be able to chat live with them. You will be able to type back and forth with a Writing Center representative, who will be able to answer basic questions for you, but also would be willing to sort of think through a topic with you, help you with brainstorming or pre-writing, those kinds of things as well. And so we really want to plug that service as well as sort of a real-time opportunity for you to reach out to somebody else and think through either your emotional response to writing and somebody who can kind of coach you through it and give you some confidence, but also somebody who would be willing to hear an idea that you might have and give you some feedback on it briefly as well. So do take advantage of that.
BETH: Well thank you so much, everyone, for listening. And we look forward to talking with you in the podcast next month!
BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.
Visit the Writing Center's website to learn more about the WriteCast podcast, including how to subscribe.