It is not an easy time to be a graduate student, an academic , even a tenured professor. Is it safe to teach in person? Should all our meetings remain virtual? How can we make time to write when everything takes longer when it is hybrid? Life is tough right now even if you are tenured, and more so if you are not.
What is Writer’s Block?
And how to overcome it even as the pandemic drags on!
Barbara J. Risman
We have been living in an upside down world for nearly two years now! As white collar work went online, and then moved to hybrid, barriers between employment and home have blurred so far there is no often little distinction. It is hard enough to write when you go into an office and leave behind a messy kitchen. When you leave your home to go to work, it is easier to compartmentalize nagging household worries, from what to make for dinner, to will your child do well in their new learning environment. For many of us, home is still our primary work place, even if we are teaching our classes face to face. So many meetings remain on Zoom. And we can all agree that whatever advantages they hold, Zoom meetings are exhausting.
As the world begins (we hope!) to emerge from the cocoon of social isolation, the transition is not necessarily an easy one. All our plans now seem tenuous. None of us knows if a new variant will shut down the world again, for weeks or even longer. We need to acknowledge now that we all carry a very heavy mental load of uncertainty. It is hard enough to finish concrete tasks with deadlines carrying this weight on our shoulders, but it can rob us of the psychic energy it needs to write. This is a daunting problem. We clear the time, and space, to write, and we stare at our screens and stare at our screens, and stare at our screens. Writer’s block rears its ugly head as the mental load we carry deprives us of the confidence and enthusiasm to focus on our writing.
Why do so many of us, so often, face Writer’s Block? To answer that question we have to understand what is Writer’s Block? If we don’t want to write but external deadlines demand it, is that Writer’s Block? If we honestly don’t yet know what we want to say, and so cannot begin, is that Writer’s Block? Sometimes the inability to write is really a hint that we need to be doing something else. Perhaps we need to follow our instincts and read more, or experience more, or analyze more before we begin to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Of course, sometimes there are external constraints that force us to write, like exams or publisher deadlines. We are unlikely to do our best writing under such pressure. But sometimes you have to write before you are ready and so you jump in and do your best. Perhaps you discover what you think while writing it. You can learn some strategies to just get it out the door by joining one of my online communities at Risman’s Writing Retreats.
When facing what feels like Writer’s Block, you must look inward and honestly reflect if you yet have something to say. What I have learned in my own journey as a writer is that reading, analyzing and thinking ARE part of my writing process. And so give yourself credit for all the different components of writing. You cannot short cut the process. When I go to a writing retreat, I often bring reading materials because time set aside for writing should be used for whatever stage of the process you are struggling with. Before I write I read voraciously, I take notes on those readings, and organize those notes. All of this is part of the writing process. This part is easily organized into small chunks that can be done between helping your child with their homework and taking the dog for a walk.
Once you are ready to contribute what you know to the world but still cannot spit out those words, then you are indeed facing Writer’s Block. I know the feeling and it is paralyzing. When you know what you want to say, what your contribution is and why it matters, and still can’t begin, frustration mounts. What gives?
What I have learned in my nearly 40 years experience as a professor and now as a writing coach is that you are probably afraid to be judged. Once someone reads what you have written, you are exposed. They might learn what you fear might be the ‘truth’: that you aren’t really so smart, that you don’t really deserve to be wherever you are in life. You fear exposure as an imposter.
In my experience people who did not expect to be heard, or seen, as serious thinkers and writers are the ones most likely to face writer’s block. This has been my personal experience. I was raised to be a wife and mother. I remember my mother telling me to become a nurse or teacher so that I could support myself if my (as of yet purely hypothetical) husband ever left me. Perhaps your parents, like mine, were not college educated and couldn’t imagine you in a job where you thought and wrote for a living. Childhood socialization is sticky! In my experience, it is mostly women and first generation scholars who face writer’s block, who worry about being judged harshly and so fear exposing themselves.
What to do? I learned a remarkable trick from a classic book authored by sociologist Howard Becker, Writing for Social Scientists. If what causes the paralysis is fear of being judged, find a way to slay that fear. Write a “spew” draft. What is that? A draft that you quite literally vomit out. A draft you would rather jump off a cliff then let anyone else read. Just spew out whatever words flow from your fingertips. It might be drivel. It should be drivel. But it doesn’t matter because no one will ever see it. It is just a trick to jumpstart your writing.
Luckily, the spew draft is usually much more than you expected it to be. Often, rather than the drivel you had allowed yourself to vomit, it is, lo and behold, the beginning of a first draft! What to do next is to start the process of revision. Do NOT worry about polished prose, or the best word choice, that kind of revision comes much later in the process. Start by reading the drivel and using it to make an outline for a first draft. Now take a break and give yourself a reward, you are writing your manuscript. When you return, use that outline as a guide to cut and paste paragraphs (or simply ideas embedded in them) into an order that makes sense. And you are off and writing.
Most of writing is revising. If you have something to revise you are well on your way to success. Now you have to find the time and energy to keep moving forward, and this is very hard in a pandemic. Here’s one way that might help. Join an online writing community, so you have an appointment to write at the same time each week. If you’d like to join an online community, register for Risman’s Writing Retreats 12 week on-line writing community beginning January , 2022. We will kick our week off writing. Each Monday morning (9:00 AM Central time) I will share some writing strategies, we will write together, and hold each other accountable for our daily writing together, and from week to week. Register by Dec 15, 2021 and you get a $20 early bird discount.
Professor Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is known for both her academic writing, including her latest book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us and for writing for a public audience including editorial in the Seattle Times, CNN.com and Raleigh News & Observer. She has taught writing classes to graduate students at UIC and to graduate students and faculty at universities throughout Europe. She hosts online writing communities, face-to-face and online writing workshops for departments at colleges at universities across the world and (after the pandemic) face-to-face writing retreats. She can be reached at RismansWritingRetreats@gmail.com.
Risman’s Writing Retreats
By Barbara J. Risman
What a year we are about to leave behind! May we also be leaving behind the pandemic as children are being vaccinated. By now, we are all exhausted!
Perhaps the time has come to give yourself a break. You survived 2021 and Covid-19 and that is a job well done. Maybe you should just enjoy the New Year without worrying about your writing? If you need a breather, take one. Everyone needs to breathe. No guilt needed.
Some of us, though, sincerely want to jump start our writing: to kick out that article, op-ed or finish that dissertation. Or perhaps your kids are finally back at school and you want to create a writing practice, with accountability, to you meet your long-term goals. Some of you may even remember the pleasure of making progress and want to recover that feeling. So how can we make writing fun? Or fun again? There are two strategies to do this: intrinsic and extrinsic.
I suggest we start with thinking about an intrinsic strategy. How can you create a sense of joy from the writing itself? Go back to the very beginning. Why are you writing? Yes, that’s a big question. And if the answer is, “because I have to” finish my course, thesis, dissertation, article, or book” well that’s a great start but not a reflective answer. You have just pushed the question back to a deeper level: why did you choose the topic about which you are now writing? Taking the time to remind yourself just why you are writing about this may seem like yet another procrastination tool. But give it a try. At some point you thought your topic was fascinating, or at least important. You wanted to think, research and write about it. Take the time to excavate that feeling. Why did you start the project? Why is it important beyond your obligation to finish it?
I tell all my graduate students and emphasize in my Risman’s Writing Retreats online community that you must be passionate about your topic when you begin because you will be married to it for years to come. Choose to write about what you care about deeply. If you don’t care about it, your writing will not convince anyone else to. So take the time, when you are having trouble writing, to remind yourself why you started this project. What makes it worth your precious time, or the precious time of your imagined reader? Perhaps you care about your topic because the world will explode unless you solve this problem. Maybe you have experienced micro-aggressions throughout your life, and you want to study the effects of a policy designed to decrease racism. Perhaps you have been reading scientific articles about a disease for nearly a decade and have identified something fundamentally wrong with the current analysis and you are going to provide the missing piece of the puzzle. I can’t imagine your reason for writing, but you must remember why to do it well.
If you want to reflect with others about why and how you write, you might be interested in joining Risman’s Writing Retreat Jump into 2022 online community on Monday mornings where you will get tips of the trade about writing, from reminding yourself why you want to do it, to the brass tacks of how to do structural revising of that article you have to get out the door.
Here are a few steps that might help you rekindle the intrinsic joy in your writing.
The advice above won’t be very helpful unless you indeed have an intrinsic motivation for your project. But what if you started the project long ago, and you don’t care about it very much anymore? And yet, you must finish it. Time to think of an extrinsic strategy. What immediate rewards can you give yourself that will help you finish this now odious task? I gave this advice several years ago to a colleague and she reported back a very creative solution. She had agreed to write a book review and to do that she had to finish a long, statistically complex monograph and then write a review she knew was going to be very critical. She dreaded it. It’s the kind of necessary task no one looks forward to. So, with a willing sexual partner, she made a game where every chapter she’d finish reading and writing about, she’d take an orgasm break. She finished the whole task in one day and enjoyed herself immensely doing so. She probably slept very well that night! This just may work for you if you are still working at home with a partner who would enjoy this productivity game. Or of course, you could try it solo as well. So even if you don not have a willing (or available) sexual partner you can still take orgasm breaks! Now, this strategy is not for everyone. For starters, not everyone has as voracious a sexual appetite as my colleague and so we all need to identify the rewards that work for us.
Here are some more realistic ideas for extrinsic rewards. Try breaking your task down into very small chunks and reward yourself after successfully finishing each small section. Perhaps a long walk in the snow-covered park? An ice cream cone? Or take a guilt free time playing peek a boo with your baby. Do 30 minutes of yoga. The point is to find something that will motivate you, and then take the time to reward yourself for plodding through your writing project. Extrinsic rewards can really work. I know, I use them for writing projects I’ve agreed to do and then loose enthusiasm for half-way through. My goal is to accept fewer of such projects!
Here are a few steps that might help you rekindle joy in your writing process with extrinsic rewards:
Whether you bring fun back into your writing with intrinsic or extrinsic rewards matters less then you find something to look forward to for the hours you spend writing. We only live once, and my philosophy as a writing coach is to help you bring joy to your writing. The best way to be a successful writer is to have a good time as you do what needs to be done.
If you are interested in an online writing community, join me at Risman’s Writing Retreats Jump into 2022 community. We will wait until your 2022 classes have started and you are settled into your winter routine. Beginning Monday morning January 24th we will kick off every week together for 12 weeks, from 9 to noon Central time. We will talk about writing, hold each other accountable and get some writing done. We will explore the joy of writing, and I will do a short presentation each week to help you develop some writing skills. How does envisioning your audience influence your prose style? Do you know the difference between structural and line editing? How do you best structure an article for an academic journal? How to get rid of all those extra words that take up space you do not have?
Registration is limited as we need a small enough community to allow for good conversations. Students pay half price. Invoices can be sent to your university.
Professor Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is known for both her academic writing, including her latest book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us and for writing for a public audience including editorial in the Seattle Times, CNN.com and Raleigh News & Observer. She has taught writing classes to graduate students at UIC and to graduate students and faculty at universities throughout Europe. She hosts online writing communities, face-to-face and online writing workshops for departments at colleges at universities across the world and (after the pandemic really ends ) face-to-face writing retreats.
She can be reached at RismansWritingRetreats@gmail.com or here