I’ve written about, or at least mentioned, my using 750words.com a couple of times, first briefly at the end of a post in February when I’d only used it a few times, and then in late March as part of my documenting my participation in A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities. I started using 750words because, as I mentioned back in January, I’d been quiet for far too long. In fact, while it didn’t always look like it online, I’d largely become silent in far too many ways and had been so for four or five years. Simply put, I’d become unable to engage in most forms of formal writing, especially professional writing, which, for an academic, is disastrous.
Long story short, in the build up to the ending of my marriage—an 18-year relationship—I became deeply depressed and that depression manifested itself in an inability to write, a problem which eventually took on a life of its own and became a second loci for depression. The writing issues really took hold in 2005, the worst of my depression was during 2007-2009, and a couple of friends intervened in late 2008. For a while, I tried addressing both issues simultaneously, but eventually realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I let go of the struggle to write and focused my attention on my original issue. By March 2010 I’d regained enough of a sense of self to start reclaiming my life, and that summer I started struggling with writing again, which usually resulted in depression jags that could last from a few days to a few weeks. By the end of 2010, I decided I needed to stop fighting myself, which meant, among other things, giving up my job at Creighton. (A decision which made it much easier to say yes to a radical life change a few months later.) If I started writing again, it was going to be because I wanted to write rather than because I was required to.
And that brings me back to 750words.com. In August, for the first time since I started kindergarten, a new academic year started without me. I want back in. So I tried writing again. I’m not sure I can really convey the struggle I had. Trying to write could still induce panic attacks and depression jags. In working towards writing again I reread and read more deeply Peter Elbow’s work and took much inspiration from his own account of dropping out of graduate school because he’d lost the ability to write,1 and I took much inspiration from Lisa‘s own struggles with silence after she was widowed in 2000. In October, I failed in my attempt to write a conference proposal about how I’d been teaching Marshall McLuhan over the past four years. The panic attack was so overwhelming I couldn’t even dictate enough of my ideas for Lisa to cobble together a draft for me.
Finally, at the end of December something broke. It might be more accurate to describe it as a breakthrough, but it never felt like that. It felt like something broke, and I found that an episode of Elbowian free writing wouldn’t result in a session of self-loathing. It took me a few months to trust myself, to believe that I could sit down to write and not fall apart, but I found that I could. Finally, one day in late February, I wrote nearly 3,000 words in one sitting (some of which was the post “Memory Work: Making Another’s Past Your Own“), and in March I wrote a CCCC presentation with little difficulty even though it was under serious time constraints—my presentation was to be a response to the rest of the panel. I’m sure the CCCC presentation went so smoothly because I’d been using 750words.com, not yet daily, but 4-5 times a week.
When the end of March came, I was using 750words.com daily, so I decided to bite the bullet and take up the April Challenge—write at least 750 words/day for the entire month of April. Yesterday, the last day of April, I wrote for the thirty-eighth day in a row, meaning I completed the challenge. (The image at the top of this post is a screen shot from yesterday’s report.) Considering that less than six months ago my attempts at freewriting could induce a depression spiral, this is a real victory.
I’ve been wanting to write about my struggle with writing for months now but I’ve been afraid to. Writing is what academics do, and as a specialist in rhetoric and composition, I teach writing. One thing I’ve learned, however, both from reading up on the issue and from talking with others, is that serious writing difficulties are far more common among academics than we all let on. And by serious writing difficulties, I’m not talking about your typical writers’ block or procrastination that afflicts most of us from time to time. I’m talking about writing difficulties that pyschologist Robert Boice classify as “pathological.”
In the introduction to his book Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing,2 Boice explains that under pathological writing difficulties, “[w]riting projects acquire aversive, even phobic, qualities while writers grow distressed, even depressed” (1). This problem, he argues, is made worse by the fact that pathological writing difficulties are rarely discussed publicly, keeping those who are struggling from realizing how common the issue is within academia. In fact, he notes, that in his more than two decades of treating academics with serious writing difficulties, he has found that most people are more comfortable talking about sexual dysfunction than their struggles with writing.
I want to work towards changing this, and based on a number of graduate students and tenure-track faculty who have come out to me as I’ve selectively whispered my own story to them, I know that we desperately need to talk more openly about serious writing difficulties and we need to become better educated about them as well. This is of vital importance for those who supervise and mentor graduate students and pre-tenure faculty. I have much more to say about this issue and will do so, both here and in other venues.
- He gives an account of this struggle in “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard: Reflections on the Inability to Write,” first published in Reflective Stories: Becoming Teachers of College English and English Education (1998) and reprinted in Everyone Can Write: Essays Towards a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing (2000). [↩]
- Boice has written extensively on writers’ block and overcoming writing difficulties. In addition to finding a number of his articles useful for understanding my situtation—for instance, I learned I suffered from five of the six most common causes of blocking—I’m finding both Professors as Writers and How Writers Journey from Comfort and Fluency to be helpful for a long-term strategy for keeping me writing. [↩]