[Edited 29 March 2013 to reflect the version I distributed during our session.] Some snippets pulled together from CCCC 2013 presentation notes and outtakes in the form of a collage essay.
Struggles with Writing: A Collage
What does it mean to be silenced? What I do know is that I feel like I can’t write. Sometimes I feel as if my brain just won’t work. It’s thick, sludgy, unmoving. Other times I can talk through an idea or process an idea away from any place where I can record it, but once it’s being recorded, whether it’s me typing or writing longhand, me talking to a digital recorder, or me dictating for someone else to write down, all ideas just slip away and I am left with blank emptiness. At worst, the very attempt to write drives me into a full-scale panic attack. I feel intense, overwhelming vertigo. If I persist, I begin crying. What ever happens, if I try to persist, even simply engaging in process writing or free writing, doubt and self-loathing kick in and it can set me off on a depression spiral that will last for days. Because of this, I fear writing. I shy away from it. (Freewrite, March 1, 2012)
Notes on writing anxiety, from Lynn Bloom’s “Anxious Writers in Context: Graduate School and Beyond”:
“‘Writing anxiety,’ as I use the term, is a label for one or a combination of feelings, beliefs, or behaviors that interfere with a person’s ability to start, work on, or finish a given writing task that he or she is intellectually capable of doing.” (Bloom 121)
“[Writing anxiety’s] significance or intensity may be powerful enough to overwhelm the writer’s whole life, especially if finishing a dissertation or writing articles or books is crucial to the writer’s career.” (121)
“Since writing anxiety often appears as context-specific, it is clear that the particular context must intrinsically be part of the guiding conceptual framework we use to define, study, and resolve writing anxiety.” (121)
What was the problem? I started writing and everything was stupid, convoluted, disjointed, and simply wrong. I kept writing myself into dead ends. What I’d wanted to say, what I had said earlier in the day was gone. Simply vanished from my mind. While I was able to talk it through both to myself and then to Lisa, the very act of trying to write a simple, short thing emptied my mind leaving me with little to say and no ability to say it decently. I kept trying to revise it. Trying to get the words right. To make sense. To get somewhere. I’d hit a wall and turn to something else for a bit to let myself calm down and try again. I spent about 90 minutes at it, finally so frustrated that I had to give up. Regardless of what Lisa says, I failed. I was unable to write what I needed to write. (Freewrite, March 2, 2012)
I got to thinking today that if it wasn’t for Peter Elbow’s “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard,” the account of how he had to drop out of grad school because he stopped being able to write and how that led to his shift into composition, and for Lisa telling me about the silence that came with Gil’s death a year after Mona was born (she’d finished a novel but didn’t get it accepted for publication until after he died), I’m pretty sure I’d have given up hope. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish the dissertation, but their stories tell me it can be done. (Email explaining my ideas for our CCCC panel to the other presenters, May 5, 2012)
Mike Rose argues that while all writing can be marked by struggle as part of the process, “by pauses, false starts, gnawing feelings of inadequacy, crumpled paper,” some writers with some writing tasks find themselves struggling far more. (ix) When this happens, he notes, “[t]houghts won’t come, and when they do they evanesce as the writer tries to work them into written language. Pauses become longer and longer and transmogrify into avoidances. Inner conflicts manifest themselves in jumbled syntax and unclear diction. The demands of one’s life and the ways one has been taught to deal with them interfere again and again with writing” (ix). It’s not always an easy task, he notes, to tell the difference between the “necessary, productive dead end from the intractable composing-process problem” (ix).
While I maintain that I am often silenced, it is a curious thing. I can’t write, but I can. I write emails. Long Facebook posts. Sometimes even blog posts, although a look at my blog will show large periods of inactivity. When I tell people that I can’t write, that I’ve been silenced, they counter that I can indeed write and write well. They point to the writing that I am doing. And yes, I am writing. But I’m also silenced. I can’t write what I want to write—high stakes writing from scholarship to a resume all set off my anxieties which drive me to silence. And that’s the point. Boice notes that writing problems, left untreated, can become pathological, and that’s what has happened to me. And that’s why I want to do the Silence Project, as Lisa and I have started calling it.
Lisa notes that I’m “actually writing, producing good work, and getting through.” Only she didn’t see the shit I wrote last night. All she’s basing that statement off of is one day of good writing nine fucking day ago. Nine fucking days ago. So, yay me, I wrote 2,800 words of good stuff nine days ago. Stuff I did not need to write. Sure, I’ll probably use it at some point, assuming I can actually build off of it—there’s the possibility I won’t because that’s how it all works: nothing kills the ability to write something more quickly than the decision to intentionally write about it—but that’s neither here nor there right now because what I need to do is finish this application so that I can go to THATCamp. And I need to get it in sooner rather than later so that I get my application in before the event is booked up. No idea if I will, though. I guess Lisa and Mona can go without me.
And here’s the thing. I’m now scared to try to finish it. I’ve already had the fucking thing throw me into a bad mood. Right now, more than 12 hours later, I feel hollow and numb. Empty, accept maybe for some rage at myself for being such a fucking failure. I’m scared that trying to finish the thing will set me off even worse. A full on panic attack. A depression spiral. God knows what else. I don’t need that either. (Freewrite, March 2, 2012)
We tend to think of silence as a problem, and extreme silence a pathology, and much of my talk focuses on that. On understanding the existence of pathological silence. Lisa’s starting to get me to also see silence as a positive thing. Silence can represent a time of organizing, thinking through, learning, restructuring, reframing, and even of healing.
Even emerging from pathological silence—silence imposed through depression/trauma/grief, the healing process itself—may be marked/dominated by more silence.
All too often, the impulse for those fighting pathological silence and those urging them on/supporting them, is to fight against that silence. And that is necessary. There needs to be the time when one emerges from silence and the lack of confidence that came with the pathological silence can be hard to overcome.
And yet, as one heals one may need to accept silence not as the enemy but as part of the healing process. As part of the preparation of regaining one’s ability to write. A contradiction, I know, but if Peter Elbow has taught us anything about teaching and mentoring writing, it is the need to embrace the contradictions.
Therefore, we need to figure out how to recognize when pathological silence becomes healing silence and learn how to accept pathological silence as a silence to accept but overcome and healing silence as a silence to accept and embrace. (Musings, January 14, 2013)
It was Peter Elbow’s story and Lisa’s story that got me thinking that the silence project might be of use. As Lisa explains in regards to her memoir about the year between Mona’s birth and Gil’s death and the aftermath of young widowhood, it’s a book she’d like to have be able to read when she was going through it to know that she was not alone. (A feeling, Boice notes, that is quite common to academics struggling to write.) I need hope. I need possible insight. Not so much a guide as to how Person X or Person Y made it out, or even assurance that I will make it out—accounts of those who give up should be included—but understanding, identification to use the Burkean term. Know that there are ways out. Know that there might be hope or, conversely, that it’s time to give in and give up. (Freewrite, March 1, 2012)
Bloom, Lynn Z. “Anxious Writers in Context: Graduate School and Beyond.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writers’ Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: The Guilford Press, 1985. 119-133.
Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers. A Self-help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forum Press, 1990.
Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Teaching and Learning. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
—. “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard.” Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 5-27.
Rose, Mike. Preface. When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writers’ Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: The Guilford Press, 1985. ix-xiii.