The Right to Write
Every semester, at the first meeting of my creative nonfiction workshop, I ask the students what they hope to gain from the course. There are always a few who say that they are there because they can't write without external pressure. "I need the structure of a class," one student said recently. "I don't write unless I know someone expects me to write and is waiting to receive what I have written," another newcomer confessed. "I can't think of what to write on my own," somebody else admitted.
While these students certainly don't sound like some of the most severely blocked writers I have worked with, anyone who meets up with this much resistance to writing on their own is blocked. Their block may not loom as high as Pike's Peak. It may not even be as substantial as a Sierra foothill. But something lies in the way. An obstacle large enough that they can't scale it or navigate around it arises whenever they think about sitting down at their kitchen table or at the computer in their bedroom or study and trying to write. On their own they are helpless. It is only within the formal structure of the classroom that their words find their way to the page. Set these students on the open highway, and they stall, needing instead the safety of the parking lot where they first learned to drive.
Writing block presents many faces. Blocked writers do not necessarily struggle mightily each time they attempt to collect thewords in their heads and form them into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, full pages of text. This is the highest degree of blockage, the near-paralysis of movement--of thoughts, ideas, even single words--from head to hand. It is as if a circuit has been broken, and although energy exists at the point of origin, the pathway for the waves to travel has been destroyed.
This is the face of the block I struggled with in college. When I think of writing as an undergraduate, I see myself alone in the lounge of 99 Brown Street my sophomore year, seated in front of my typewriter, which is set up at a card table I have dragged in from another room of the residence. All around me--in the lounge, on all three floors of the old brown shingle house I live in, in the dormitories on the tiny campus of Pembroke College a block away, as well as in those surrounding the quadrangle at Brown University several blocks farther--it is quiet. Everyone is sleeping. But I am awake. I sit in the tiny lounge, in the skirt and sweater I dressed in that morning before breakfast, the ceiling light glaring down on me. I sit there typing--and retyping--tearing sheet after sheet of paper from the roller, crumpling each one and tossing it onto the pile on the floor beside me, then sliding yet another clean sheet into the platen of my IBM electric typewriter, rolling the carriage until one inch of pristine paper is exposed, then poising my hands above the keyboard and preparing, once again, to type.
I am trying to finish a paper due the next day. The subject of the paper doesn't matter. I might be writing an essay for my Chinese history class or a term paper for a class in religion. I might have something to turn in for philosophy or sociology. For archaeology. For psychology. And it doesn't have to be my sophomore year. It could be as early as my freshman year. Or as late asthe end of my junior year, when I became passionate about the history of religions and took a sequence of courses on the Old and New Testaments and then on Hinduism and Buddhism.
Despite appearances, I have not waited until the last minute to begin writing this paper. No matter when the professor assigned it--a month, two months, before its due date--I set to work immediately, researching, outlining, researching again. Writing a thesis statement. Then another. And another. Sitting down to put actual words on paper. Typing in the first sentence. Stopping. Reading it aloud. Frowning. Pulling the page out and inserting another. Typing yet another first sentence, one or two words at a time, reading the sentence from the beginning each time I stop to think, to search for a word, an expression, a spelling. This time I might complete the first sentence and move on to the next. But I will inevitably stop mid-second-sentence and yank the paper out of the typewriter, throwing it in the general direction of the first. By the end of several hours, perhaps I will have one intact paragraph.
And so it will be, each time I sit down to work on this paper, for five days in a row, or for three weeks or a month or two months. And the day before the paper is due, I will still be writing, not just to the end, toward my summary and my conclusion, away from the tension and indecision of the first words, but once again from the beginning. Yes, from the beginning. For each time I write I take it from the top, refining what I have already written, word by word, sentence by sentence until the early paragraphs--and often more, much more--are as ornate as a Faberge egg.
Luckily, most blocked writers do not suffer to this degree. For many the pathway between head and hand exists but is no longer intact. Or the signals encounter interference as they travel outward.As a consequence, their words come slowly and with difficulty. Or the sentences do not flow, one from the other. Or what appears upon the page is not at all what the writers meant to say or even thought they were saying. These damaged pathways create their fair share of unhappiness and frustration. And it's not difficult to imagine how the unhappiness and frustration might escalate over time. After all, not only do these writers experience no reward in writing; each time they write, they are left with an unpleasant aftertaste.
"Can you help me say what I'm trying to say?" a prospective client asked me on the phone the other day. "I mean, I don't seem to have trouble writing. I sit down and the words flow. But my writing never turns out the way I want it to." Another client, who made an appointment because she wanted to work on her style, arrived for our first meeting and announced, "The truth is, it takes me much too long to write. And I don't just mean important documents. You should see how many drafts I compose of a silly thank-you note!"
Other writers, with no history of difficulty, find themselves blocked for the first time the last semester of their senior year in college. Or in the middle of writing their dissertation. Or their first tenure article. I once worked with a university professor who had accumulated quite a bibliography of academic publications. Then he decided to try something different. He wanted to write a more personal piece. Not a completely personal piece. But an essay that combined his research with observations and stories from his life. And he found himself mute! Here he was, a full professor known for his eloquence, his curriculum vitae studded with awards and laurels, and he couldn't write a word.
Or what about the stay-at-home mother who received praisefor her writing throughout college, and who desired to write a short story she had carried in her head for years but never seemed to get around to actually writing it down? By the time I met her, she was furious at herself. "After all, I should be able to set aside an hour a day to write. I'm lucky enough not to have to work, and I don't have all that many obligations. And my God, my kids are in school all day. What's wrong with me?"
The most elusive of writing blocks masquerades as writing to deadline. We all know people who wait until the night before a term paper, a legal brief, a business report is due to sit down and begin writing. If asked, most of these writers would claim, "I write best if I wait until the last minute." Most people who write to deadline don't realize they are blocked--until they face a writing project that simply can't be completed the night before it is due. For a long time I thought that journalism nurtured this adrenaline-filled, roller-coaster relationship with writing. After all, you can only write about news once it has broken. Then I became a member of a writing group that included a journalist who had moved from news to feature stories, and no matter what her topic or how far in advance she received the assignment, she continued to write to deadline. With disastrous results. Watching this woman panic about not being able to finish each piece that was due, I realized that my logic might have been backward. Newswriting doesn't necessarily nurture writing to deadline; instead, it might attract writers who are most comfortable waiting until the last possible minute.
I'd probably be safe in claiming that at least 25 percent of the students in my workshop classes write to deadline. "I love writing, and I want to write. But I don't seem to get anything done unless I'm faced with a deadline," one might say. Or, "I alwaysturn in my assignments. The problem is, I don't get to them until the midnight before they are due." While these last-minute writers seem at first to have a lot in common with the writers who need structure and assignments to write, over the years I have discovered an important difference between the two. Deadline writers don't usually blame themselves for not getting around to writing; they blame their schedules or their jobs or the other people in their lives. "I know I have to eliminate one or two of my activities if I want to write, but I can't seem to figure out what to drop," a writer told me last semester. Another student asked the class to help her figure out how to say no to at least part of her social life. "My friends don't seem to understand when I tell them I want to stay home and write," she said. Many of my clients struggle over the writing-versus-exercise competition. "I don't have time to do both," they tell me. "And the trouble is, I feel rotten when I don't exercise and rotten when I don't write."
No matter what stories they tell about not being able to write, and no matter how convincing their stories are, all of these writers struggle with writer's block, though its face might look different to each of them. It may scowl at the client who disliked how his writing turned out, glare at the woman who labored over her thank-you notes, grimace at the blocked university professor. It may hoot or boo at other writers. Or it may laugh raucously every time they put a word on the page. It is not through its appearance that I diagnose writer's block, but through the way it interferes with people's lives. Whether they agonize in order to write or chronically hesitate to put words on paper, whether they avoid writing whenever they possibly can or hate whatever they do write, anybody whose relationship with writing is impaired suffers from some degree of blockage.
Think about how we all would suffer if we struggled to thesame extent and degree with speaking. Some of us would remain mute. We'd watch life as it played itself out before us. And as we watched, we'd think; sometimes our thoughts would even be profound. But we would hardly say a word. Others of us would hesitate a good while before we opened our mouths, worrying about how to express what we were thinking, what words to use, how quickly or slowly to speak, what intonation to settle upon. And when we did speak, we might become flustered, contradicting ourselves immediately. Taking back what we said. Apologizing for ourselves. "That's not really what I meant to say. I didn't use the right words. I spoke too quickly. Let me try again. No, that's not right either. It's more that I ... ."
Of course, what I'm describing will strike you as ridiculous. After all, most of us do enjoy the power of speech, a power that was cultivated lovingly by our parents as soon as we pronounced our first word. It's true that some of our mothers corrected our grammar, particularly once we entered high school. Mine wanted me to answer the phone by saying, "It is I," if anyone asked to speak with Jane Anne. I even occasionally slip in a correction, in the form of an innocent restatement, when my son, Jonah, speaks. But Jonah is twenty-eight and for at least his first ten years, I listened adoringly to everything he said.
These are not at all the conditions most of us experienced around our writing. Beginning in kindergarten, the way we formed our letters and our words was scrutinized and corrected by our teachers--and often by our parents as well. There was a prescribed way to hold the pencil, to move it across the page, to create each letter, both uppercase and lowercase. And just when we thought we were able to write, we entered third grade and were told that printing didn't count; we now had to learn cursive. So many more opportunities to misform our letters, to slant ourwriting in the wrong direction, to misconnect or disconnect. To do it wrong.
It is no wonder that so many of us struggle with writing block in its various forms. Only the staunchest of us could march through the minefields of cursive and sentences and grammar and diagramming and paragraphs and essays without being wounded. Complicate these smaller injuries with the assault of a teacher who tears up our wrinkled piece of lined paper and tells us to start again. Or the teacher who tells us that what we have written makes no sense. That our spelling makes us look stupid. Or a parent who tells us he or she is embarrassed to read what we have written. Or asks if that is the best we can do.
In America we believe in our right to say what we think. If someone feels they have been punished for or intimidated about speaking his or her mind, they can demand their First Amendment rights. If they have not been allowed to speak, they can claim freedom of speech. In Berkeley every teenager knows about Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement. About how the students took over the administration building at the university in order to make themselves heard.
As someone whose ability to express herself on the page was nearly silenced, I am equally passionate about our right to write. I don't mean writing poetry or oratory, novels or treatises. I mean writing what we think, what we desire and hope for, what we love and what we hate. I mean telling our stories on the page, or the stories of our families. I mean arguing with written words for a cause we believe in or against a cause somebody else believes in. I mean writing about our summer vacation. About the foods we love. The games we play.
In the course of working my way through my own serious writingblock, I remembered that as a kid I had written poetry. I don't know when I composed my first verses, but in seventh grade I won a literary contest, and my poem "Autumn Leaves" was published in a slim anthology. Three years later, at the beginning of high school, I was still writing poetry. This time, my ninth-grade English teacher recognized my talent, and once again one of my poems was published. Four years later, sitting in my dorm room at college, I could no longer write. What had happened? What mine had exploded, hurling its shrapnel on the part of me that had composed those tender poems? Or if it wasn't as violent an event as a mine exploding, what collection of injuries--of cuts and scrapes, bumps and bruises, twisted muscles and broken bones--had I acquired between ninth grade and my freshman year in college? What scabs and scars were inhibiting my writing, making it almost too painful to write? Who or what in those four years had revoked my right to write?
It took me fifteen years years to stand up for my rights, to begin putting words on the page again, and to allow those words to accumulate, slowly, into poems, essays, and stories. And now, for all those who have lost this right, I'm evangelical about reclaiming it. Now is the time. Writing is the way. I use the classroom and my office as a pulpit. I preach at dinner parties. On the telephone. On walks with friends. I want everyone to see the light, to know that they can relieve themselves of the misery of not writing, of the frustration of not liking what they write, of the fear of not being able to write at all. And I offer to show blocked writers they can do this. Not by looking for culprits. And not by filling themselves with regret or thinking of all the time they have wasted. I want to help by assisting them in the process of recovery. By showing them that their struggle or their strain with writing,while personal and particular, also shares a great deal with the struggles and strains of many other people who find it uncomfortable to write. That by recognizing their responses and reactions, understanding their origins and motivations, and learning new strategies to deal with writing, blocked writers can reclaim their right to write, just as I did.
1. Think about sitting down to write--a report, a term paper, a legal brief, a short story, or any other form you choose--and observe your emotions, your thoughts, and your physical response. Do you feel a sense of dread? Does your heart beat faster? Do you tell yourself, "This will never work out"? Or do you quickly think of something else you should be doing instead?
2. If you have caught yourself avoiding writing or feeling tense about it, ask yourself why. Ask yourself, "Why do I always wait to begin until the writing is due the next day? Why have I suddenly decided to learn Spanish or train for a marathon? Why do I find time to solve everybody else's problems but not to do my writing?"
3. If the topic of writing comes up in conversation, how do you react? Do you join right in? Or do you stop participating? Do you try to change the topic? Walk away?
4. What have you done to encourage--or force--yourself to write? Have you felt angry with yourself for not writing? Punitive?
5. Think about sitting down to write. What images arise for you?
6. If you usually write to deadline, try beginning your next writing project ahead of time. Notice how you feel writing in advance. What kinds of thoughts run through your head?
UNSTUCK. Copyright © 2003 by Jane Anne Staw, Ph.D. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.