On (academic) writer’s block

Well, here I am. Almost ready to start working again, after several days of numbness. The file with my unfinished chapter is open on my laptop. I have a pot of coffee by my side and I am quite comfortably seated. The temperature outside is just perfect. The air smells nice. I’m getting sidetracked.

But that’s not the only thing that happens. When I go to my chapter’s file, I realize I have to pick up where I started to draw all my ideas to their logical conclusions. That means not only do I have to start working (in the sense of getting to work), but I have to finish the chapter.

Why is it so difficult?

Just today, I have read a great post about the fear of starting on Lidiya K’s blog. Here. It resonated very accurately with what I am feeling right now (not to mention illustrating by writing this post instead of the damn chapter of my dissertation):

  • I get lost and scared in the big picture. I think of why I am doing this and the first answer that comes to mind is that I want/have to finish the dissertation. But I can’t do it in one day. So no matter how much I write today, it won’t be done by tomorrow (I still have a long way to go). Thus I am preparing myself for failure before I even start. The everyday goal shouldn’t be to “write my dissertation”, but to write, period.
  • I get overwhelmed by the prospect of “just writing” because I don’t feel ready. Well, who would be? Writing anything, be it a novel or a dissertation, both genres that have their own set of rules, actually means inventing your own rules as you go. As paradoxical as it may sound, you have to reinvent the rules of writing so they suit your own project, because you are creating something new, and this is an overwhelming responsibility.
  • Writing is extremely challenging, and this is why the goal of “just writing” isn’t quite as good as it might sound. Because chances are, if you spend your day “just writing”, you’ll come back the next and tear everything apart to start from scratch. If have done it a few times already to my current chapter, mutilating it then reassembling together parts that I’m not sure fit any longer. It passes the time, though, but it is pretty much everything it does.
  • Getting scared of the big picture can be resolved by breaking up your goal into smaller ones. This is true, but not as easy as it seems to accomplish. Because tackling a tiny problem bears some resemblance to tackling a huge one: in both cases there is a moment when you have to finish.

My fear of starting comes from the fear of finishing, both because I am afraid that what I write is not good enough to be printed out and put aside, and because I am afraid of what I will have to do next, once it’s over.

  • Because when I finish it I will have no more excuse to linger on it, thus no more excuse to procrastinate. Twisted, I know.
  • Because if I finish it I will show it to my supervisor and I fear she won’t like it. Here the best thing is to play the game of ” What’s the worst that could happen?” In the worst case scenario, I finish the chapter, then I finish the dissertation, I hand it to my supervisor and she makes me do it all over again because it is not good enough. Then, I will feel like a real failure, will have to do it all over again, and never be able to get my PhD. This is a horrible scenario and this is a risk I have to take. It is hard, no doubt about that. But an ever worse scenario would be not doing anything, not handing the manuscript in time and never even taking the chance to get my PhD. Because it is all about taking chances.
  • So the only thing I am left with is my chapter I want to finish. All the other fears melt into the big one: it will not be good enough. Not well-written enough, not insightful enough, not bright enough. Here it is, the biggest fear: what I might write won’t be perceived as being good enough. People will think I am not capable of doing this. People will think I am a failure. People will judge me by standards I have no power on.

The fact of the matter is, and this is the part that won’t sound as depressing as the rest, I am the one setting the rules. What I write about, even if others have written about it before, is something new. The way I approach the problem, my methodology, the texts I choose to analyze, all of this is new. If only because the way I am writing about this subject is my own way. So yes, it means putting my heart into something that belongs to me and having it judged by someone else. But if every writer of PhD student out there thought of his or her work only as of something that had to be judged, no new books would ever be written, no old subjects would ever be approached in a new way and, hell, the only book that would ever find it’s place in a western library would be the Bible.

So to start the writing process, the best thing there is is to break down the big picture into a lot of tiny ones, that is to break the big question into a lot of little ones.

To finish something you’ve already started, the only thing to do is to find your center: ask yourself what you want to say and say it. When you’re done answering the question, you’ll be done writing your paragraph, chapter, or book. Don’t think about how it looks. Don’t think about how someone else might have answered to the same question. Find your own answer. This works for every writing project that comes to mind, be it a dissertation or a novel. Every great writer out there has answered differently to the same few questions: “what is love?” and “why are we here?”

Easier said than done, I know.

What do you think? How do you deal with writer’s block? How do you get yourself to write every day? How do you convince yourself you’re done writing (a chapter or a book)?

I would be thrilled to read your answers below!

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4 thoughts on “On (academic) writer’s block

  1. Without a solid outline, I get depressed and anxious. Because I’ve wasted hundreds of difficult hours writing ideas/stories that veered in a wrong direction, or worse, ended nowhere.

  2. Hi! Thank you for your comment! I understand very well what you are saying, and that’s why I always love to make outlines before actually getting to the writing part. But I have discovered that most of the time outlines are also a way of procrastinating, because when you actually write, you rarely follow the outline: lots of ideas come to mind in the process of writing, and if you follow an outline to the T you might block yourself from exploring those ideas. I might dwell on this in another post, but for now the only thing I can advise is for you not to think of your stories as “going into a wrong direction”. Maybe this is good, maybe your stories are supposed to go in that direction and your job is to follow your ideas and/or characters by staying true to them and see where they go. I’ve just finished writing a post about screenwriting on that particular subject among others (here: https://dariacooking.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/how-to-yield-satisfaction-from-entertainment-of-the-necessity-of-closure/): I truly believe that when beginning a story the best way to go is to think of an ending first, so that your job is to guide your characters or storyline to this ending. This is not exactly the same as drafting an outline first, because you free yourself from prearranged plan of action, but at the same time, you don’t get to loose track of your final destination. what do you think?

  3. […] I’ve written earlier that one of the ways to push yourself might be not to dwell on the big picture (and even forget it while you’re writing), but the only way to go back to writing is to never let go of the bigger picture. When you wake up in the morning, when you go through your day, when you make the choice of not going to bed early enough, when you make the choice of staying up late and watch movies or read books that have nothing to do with your project, you have to keep the big picture in mind. Because if you don’t, all the choices you make are just another exit strategy, and days go by, and you’re nowhere near the finish line, and life still happens. So, to pick up the relationship metaphor again, all the choices you make every day have to be consistent with the big choice you’ve made once: exactly like the times you make the choice of putting an end to a fight, even though you believe you’re right, and the other person is wrong, just because you know that winning a fight is not as important as being with the person you love, well, you have to make the choice of going back to your writing even if it frustrates you and makes you miserable for some time, just because you know that putting the needs of your dissertation (novel) ahead of yours is necessary so that you can stay true to the commitment you’ve made (having a PhD, honoring your contract, becoming a published writer). […]

  4. […] I’ve written earlier that one of the ways to push yourself might be not to dwell on the big picture (and even forget it while you’re writing), but the only way to go back to writing is to never let go of the bigger picture. When you go through your day, when you make the choice of staying up late and watch movies, you have to keep the big picture in mind. Because if you don’t, all the choices you make are just another exit strategy, and days go by, and you’re nowhere near the finish line, and life still happens. So, to pick up the relationship metaphor again, all the choices you make every day have to be consistent with the big choice you’ve made once: exactly like the times you make the choice of putting an end to a fight, even though you believe you’re right, and the other person is wrong, just because you know that winning a fight is not as important as being with the person you love, you have to make the choice of going back to your writing even if it frustrates you and makes you miserable for some time, because you know it is worth it. […]

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