The Silence Project: Giving Voice to Academics with Severe Writing Difficulties
In his essay “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard: Reflections on the Inability to Write,” Peter Elbow gives an account of the writers’ block that led him to drop out of graduate school. Significant about this essay is not that Elbow’s ongoing struggles with writing eventually left him with the inability to write but that he eventually chose to make his story public.
In Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, psychologist Robert Boice explains that while severe writing difficulties are not uncommon among academics, they are rarely discussed openly (1). In fact, he notes, he’s found that most academics are more comfortable discussing their sexual dysfunctions than their struggles with writing (1). This double silence, the silence about being silent, leads those struggling with writing to struggle alone, unaware that their struggles are not unique. This silence also means that mentors and colleagues of academic writers struggling with severe writing difficulties are both unaware of and unable to distinguish between more common forms of writers’ block that can be readily addressed by traditional means (breaking the task into smaller components, free writing, relaxation techniques, forcing yourself to write, etc.) and more severe, even pathological, writing difficulties that often require more serious intervention.
The members of this panel wish to help break the silence that surrounds this issue by sharing our own struggles with writing and to use our experiences to offer insights for others. Our varied stories illustrate some of the reasons writers become blocked and illustrate that blocking may have nothing to do with specific writing tasks, anxieties, or work habits. We have three goals for this session. First, we want to help make this issue public so that others who suffer severe writing difficulties may know that they are not alone. Second, we want to make others aware of how common this issue is within academia so that all academics, especially those who mentor graduate students and tenure-track faculty, understand the difference between periodic writing difficulties and severe writing problems that are, in Boyce’s terms, “pathological.” Finally, we wish to draw from our own individual struggles to offer insights and resources for others who are struggling, for those mentoring academic writers, and for teaching.
John Walter [“Becoming Acquainted with the Silent Underground: Academics and Severe Writing Difficulties”] will begin our discussion by introducing the issue of severe, even pathological, writing difficulties among academics and how the impulse toward silence about the issue—or a tendency to elide over the real psychological and emotional damage it can cause—can hinder, even harm, those most in need of help. His own writing struggle, caused by a years-long depression and the ending of his marriage, led him to openly discuss his plight with colleagues, especially other compositionists, which in turn led him to a community and resources to better understand his own situation and that of other academics in similar straits. In turn, these discoveries led to a conviction that this problem deserves more attention within the Academy. Drawing upon both existing scholarship and his own observations, he will discuss his discoveries about the damaging misperceptions that isolate those who struggle and often lead us to approach pathological writing difficulties in the same way as more familiar and remediable “writer’s block.”
Juliette Ludeker [“Waiting for the ‘Luxury of Fearlessness’: When Being Able to Write Has Nothing to Do with the Ability to Write”] will explore the social and psychological factors that can complicate the ability of advanced writers to carry out their projects, by examining her own struggle to complete a dissertation, the topic of which (the rhetoric of adoption) has been difficult to separate from her own life experiences as an adoptee. She draws upon Audre Lorde’s “Transformation of Silence,” specifically Lorde’s claim that “[w]e have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” While recognizing and valuing that far too often it is women, people of color, marginalized groups—the Other(s)—who are silenced and displaced within the Academy, both by imposition and by fear, Speaker 2 seeks to extend Lorde’s insights to apply to additional questions (outside of being Other) of what threatens the efforts of advanced writers to write and what keeps them waiting for the “luxury of fearlessness.”
Carrie A. Lamanna [“Why I Quit School: A Performative Exploration of the Relationship Between Writing and Power”] will use Norman Denzin’s theory of life stories and Laurel Richardson’s autoethnographic methodology to create a multimedia one-woman stage performance in which she tells stories of her struggles and triumphs with writing, beginning with the first grade and ending with her current status as an assistant professor trying to write enough publishable work to get tenure. Together, she and the audience, discover that writing is at once a form of power and subject to power. Her stories ask the audience to consider how the power structures of school—from grade school to graduate school—work to deny students of authority and agency. This presentation questions the institutional infrastructure that surrounds academic writing, especially disciplinary genres and conventions and evaluation and grading.
Lisa Schamess [“Standing the ‘Almost Impossible’: Uses of Silence and Failure in Writing and Teaching”] will identify the possibilities and limitations of viewing silences, frustrations, flawed drafts, and incompleteness as writing instead of as failures. She will share the writing and teaching strategies she adopted during a decade in which unexpected widowhood and the demands of single parenthood blocked her writing (as Tillie Olsen famously articulated, “[n]ot because the capacities to create no longer exist, or the need …but because the circumstances for sustained creation have been almost impossible”). She will describe how she now incorporates her own shortcomings and struggles into authentic communication with students about their blocks and silences, removing the stigma from silence and recognizing it as valuable ground upon which writing is enacted with care and respect for the unsaid and unsayable. Finally, she will share how she has built contemplative and restorative silences into her own writing practice and her classroom techniques, the importance of non-verbal approaches such as doodling and drawing in journals, and the need to continually revisit and value silences and spaces within the writing.