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.
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Barbara J. Risman