Here’s the text to my CCCC 2013 presentation “Becoming Acquainted with the Silent Underground: Academics and Severe Writing Difficulties,” which I presented as part of Session N.29: The Silence Project: Giving Voice to Academics with Severe Writing Difficulties. The talk begins and then has scattered throughout passages from free writing and process writing I’ve done as I’ve been working through my own writing difficulties, and the included images come from slides I displayed during the presentation. I’ve posted my handout as a public Google Doc. I also revised and distributed the collage essay on struggling with writing I posted a few days before the session. That post has been revised to reflect what I handed out at CCCC.
“Becoming Acquainted with the Silent Underground: Academics and Severe Writing Difficulties”
CCCC 2013 | Session N.29 | 16 March 2013
I: Epigraph: Focused Free Write
“I’ve been spending a good deal of time thinking about silence these days. About becoming silent and being silent. Not silent because I want to be silent or even silence as protest, but a pathological silence. Silence I couldn’t escape from if I wanted to. That kind of silence. I struggled against that silence. I wasn’t able to do what I wanted. I was pushed into a corner. I had to fight. No, not really. I didn’t fight. I let it overtake me. Not that I saw myself has having any options at the time. Emotionally, psychologically, I’m not sure that I did. The silence was a symptom of something much greater, a deep and difficult depression, and I couldn’t address the silence until I had addressed the depression, until I got through that.” (Focused Freewrite, March 24, 2012)
I’d like to welcome you all to our session on academics with severe writing difficulties. Each of us up here today has struggled, or is struggling deeply, with writing. While struggling with writing is normal, as Mike Rose reminds us in the Preface to When a Writer Can’t Write (ix), the struggles we’re talking about here today are far more difficult. They are what I’ve come to call severe writing difficulties, the kinds of difficulties that “when given free reign,” to quote psychologist Robert Boice, “[…] can become pathological” (Professors as Writers, 1).
As our first speaker, I have three goals for this talk, the first two of which I will address now, and the third of which I will address at the end of our session. First, I am going introduce the subject of academics with severe writing difficulties and the silence that surrounds it. Second, I’m going to introduce what we’ve come to call the Silence Project with its goal of seeking to help other academics struggling with writing break their own silence and to break the silence with which we treat the issue. Finally, as a coda to all our presentations, I will draw upon existing scholarship and our own personal experiences, to offer a set of suggestions for helping others who are struggling deeply with writing and for helping to keep others from having their own writing difficulties become pathological.
My talk, as with all the talks here today, draws heavily upon my own personal experience. The reason for this is two-fold. First, as Lynn Bloom found in her case studies that led to her article “Anxious Writers in Context: Graduate School and Beyond,” writing anxiety is context-specific and cannot be addressed separate from that context. Second, in his decades of treating academics with writing difficulties, Robert Boice found that one of the best ways to start treatment is to diagnose the particular writing problems the individual is struggling with and then to share with them experiential accounts written by others suffering from those same problems (Professors as Writers 21). This is important, he explains, because it allows struggling writers to realize that they are not alone, that their problems are not unique, and that they are instead, “understandable, manageable problems” (21-22).
In his essay “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard,” Peter Elbow gives an account of the severe writing difficulties that led him to drop out of graduate school. What is significant about this essay is not that Elbow’s ongoing struggles with writing eventually left him with the inability to write and the need to drop out of graduate school, but that he 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 openly discussed (1). In fact, he notes, in the more than two decades he spent treating academics for writing issues, he found that most were more comfortable discussing sexual dysfunction than their struggles with writing (1). This double silence, the silence that comes with severe writing difficulties and 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 through traditional means and more severe, even pathological, writing difficulties that often require more serious intervention.
The goal of this panel and of the Silence Project is to help break the silence that surrounds this issue by sharing our own struggles with writing and to use our own 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.
V: “Nothing says it better than a whole page of fuck”
Boice, as I’ve already noted, argues that when left unaddressed for too long, writing difficulties can become, to use his term again, “pathological” (1). Let me give you a sense of that by reading from one of my freewriting sessions, dated September 22, 2011:
“Okay, so I’m pathetic and I hate myself. Glad to get that out of the way. I can’t write, either. I am pretty much a failure. Depression wins. I lose. I suck. I guess acknowledging this is a good thing isn’t it? I repeat stuff because I don’t know what else to write. I have too much to write but I can’t write and I have no desire to write it now that I’m sitting here because I suck. That’s simply the way it is. Failure. Go failure I’m just typing because I’m to type for ten minutes no matter what and I hate this as almost as much as I hate myself. Failure is an option. I’ve failed. Oh hell. I’ve been at this for not even five minutes yet this is painful and I hate myself and the fact I acan’t write […]. I have a blog post I never published but almost did it was nothing but eight thousand fucks because I wanted ot say fuck. A page full of fuck. […]. I wish I had more than that to offer but that’s about all I can do because I’m a failure.” (Freewrite, September 22, 2011)
VI: Just Write
Far too often well meaning people who sincerely wished to help me, to nudge me along, gave me the standard advice. You know, stuff about how we all find writing difficult from time-to-time, that you just need to sit down and force yourself to do it, to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, that the problem is time management or procrastination, that all you need to do is commit to writing one page a day, that everyone can write one page a day. Stuff like that. And, really, all of this is good advice for your run-of-the-mill writing difficulties. It can be, however, devastating for someone whose writing difficulties have become pathological. You, with your serious writing difficulties, are unable to resolve your difficulties by doing what everyone knows are the ways one goes about resolving writing difficulties.
So, more than a year after my therapist decided I no longer needed to see him on a regular basis, almost a year after my doctors decided I could go off my antidepressants, four months after I left my tenure-track position at Creighton University, a position I held for three years even though my dissertation was not finished, I followed the one model I had: Peter Elbow’s. He’d learned to write himself back into writing, so surely I could too.
VII: On Being Silenced
What I produced was horrible, terrible, dark screeds against my self. Dark outpourings of self-loathing and hatred and despair. You see, it’s not just about sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. You need to be ready to write. When writing difficulties have become pathological, you need to resolve the underlying issues first. What I learned during the fall and winter of 2011-2012 is that one needs to be ready to do the work of writing—if the issue has its origins outside writing itself or if the writing issues have become pathological enough, you can’t just freewrite yourself into fluency. Such sessions, none of which lasted more than 10 minutes, usually put me into a full-scale depression spiral that could last for days, and it would take me a week or more to work up the courage to try again and start the process over.
VIII: Even the Silent Speak from Time to Time
I should tell you that it wasn’t always bad. I had the occasional good writing day. Between September 2011 and February 2012, I can recall three. Two were autobiographical pieces exploring the interrelationship between personal memory and social memory and dealt specifically with the need to integrate into my own life ghosts of a past that was not mine. You see, when I left Creighton, I moved to Washington, DC to marry Lisa Schamess. We’d been friends for six years and had realized that we had fallen in love. The ghost was Lisa’s first husband, a man who had died of cancer in January 2000, a few days before their daughter turned 13 months old. Lisa is working on a memoir of that year between Mona’s birth and Gil’s death, and our friendship and our relationship are built upon talking about ideas and teaching and writing, and her in-laws had become her parents by the time I’d met her, and so I needed to work through that past, and for whatever reason, I could write about that experience.
My other good day of writing was December 15, 2011. Despite the anxiety and fear and stress, I forced myself to write about why I still want to study the rhetoric and poetics of memory. I forced myself to keep writing in an attempt to articulate, succinctly, what it was I want to do. It wasn’t easy and I recall sitting in a Starbucks crying as I wrote, tears dropping on the pages as I kept asking myself “why memory?” and writing responses, and for whatever reason, even though it was hard, I was able to do it that day when on other days I was not. Knowing what I’d done was important, I tried to capture the moment with some process writing:
“That was difficult. I still feel—felt as I wrote—that I am standing outside wherever it is that I think. That I’ve been locked out of my own mind and I can only skim the surface, only see things in large, indistinct shapes and colors but no detail or focus. I kept asking myself the same damn question and kept bashing at it to no end until finally an idea emerged. Nothing new, really. An old idea, but maybe expressed just well enough to use again.” (Process writing, December 15, 2011)
IX: Relearning to Write
Over the past year, I’ve been relearning to write. From the outside, it could seem that my “small victories” came from short periods of freewriting. And yes, I did start doing that at the end of February 2012. By May 2012, I was well on my way to reaching 100 consecutive days of writing at least 750 words a day on 750words.com. I would have too, except an illness in the family threw off my schedule, some days I was writing just after midnight and some days just before. That lasted for a week or so and then, 15 minutes into what would have been the 99th day, I realized I’d missed the 98th. The writing helped me gain fluency. I can’t deny that. But those short freewrites where I wrote anything worked because I’d been given the space and time and supportive environment to do so.
Lisa had made it clear that I only had to write if I wanted to. She was writing, and we both had the assumption that I would at some point write again, but the assumption was there because I wanted to return to it. Whether or not I finished my dissertation, whether or not I returned to academia, whether or not I ever tried to write again was my choice.
This was not always the case. My depression, which eventually left me suicidal in the Fall 2008, was the result of an 18-year relationship that was not supportive. We started dating my first year of college, and I made accommodations for her depression. I’d grown up with a bi-polar mother and thought I understood it. Simply put, I subsumed myself in the relationship, and as my depression grew, it manifested itself in writing difficulties. Eventually, my struggle with writing became a second locus of depression. In retrospect, this is not surprising. There was no interest in my work and early on in graduate school, I started hiding the fact I was working on papers because I’d be yelled at if I spent more than two days working on the same seminar paper. I could go on, but I won’t other than to say that by the time I entered therapy in October 2008, I was passive and silent in most aspects of my life.
On July 31, 2008, less than two months after we’d moved to Omaha and just a few weeks before I started my new job at Creighton, she told me she wanted a divorce. She’d been threatening to leave me on and off for more than 10 years by that point, the result of her depression and anger deflected on to me, and I had so subsumed myself in the relationship that there was nothing I feared more. My three years at Creighton were hard, and largely a blur.
By Spring 2010, I was doing well enough that I was able to cobble together a presentation and attend CCCC. And once I was there people wanted to know why I still wasn’t finished with the dissertation, where I had been (I’d been missing CCCC and Computers and Writing), and how I was doing. So I started whispering my story to those who needed to know or those to whom I owed apologies. And as I told my story, a few told me theirs, and I started telling my story more openly and more frequently, and more people told me theirs, grateful to learn that they were not alone, that someone understood what they had gone through or were going through. They—we—are the Academic Underground, the writers who can’t write and have felt unable to talk about our inability to write. And that needs to end.
Coda: Some Recommendations
There are some things we, as compositionists, can do to help those who are struggling with severe writing difficulties and to help circumvent writing difficulties from becoming pathological.
- First, we can talk about severe writing difficulties openly. Discuss them as problems not of moral weakness or a sign of inability but of “problems of excessive self-consciousness” (Boice, Procrastination and Blocking xx). Discuss them as resolvable, treatable problems that can affect any of us under the right conditions. This should be part of graduate student and new faculty orientation and repeated often. The single most effective thing we can do is demystify severe struggles with writing and remove the fear and shame and isolation that they can bring.
- Make sure your library has copies of key texts on dealing with severe writing difficulties such as Boice’s Professors as Writers and How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. Consider having a few copies floating around in your department. Even better, start off discussions about writing difficulties by using the first few chapters of Boice’s Professors as Writers, “Why Professors Don’t Write” and “The Phenomenology of Writing Problems,” and/or the Introduction to Boice’s How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency so that those who find themselves struggling with writing will already be familiar with those texts.
- If you are at an institution that requires publication for tenure and promotion or has graduate students, advocate the hiring of a specialist in writing difficulties for your counseling and/or professional development services, someone who can work one-on-one and with groups.
- If you mentor, train, or supervise graduate students and faculty, know how to intervene gently and effectively, and when you suspect someone may be struggling with severe writing difficulties, do intervene. Clearly, intervention will be context specific (the situation itself, the person struggling, the people intervening). Intervention is easier if you’ve already created a culture in which severe writing difficulties are discussed openly, but you can even point to our session and Boice’s books as a starting place. They key to intervention is to let person know that they are not unique and that there are ways to overcome the difficulties. Putting them in touch with others who are struggling or have struggled can be psychologically helpful, and being able to offer someone the first few chapters of Boice’s Professors as Writers is also a good move as they can reinforce the understanding that severe writing difficulties aren’t unique or career ending, and they offer those struggling a way forward.
- Seek to put accommodations into place for people struggling with severe writing difficulties. As a graduate student, my options were to slog through or take a year of leave in which I would have no official connection with the university. A year of leave meant being cut off from the community and from the library. The one thing I could do effectively was research. Being cut off from that would have been psychologically devastating.
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. Procrastination and Blocking: A Novel, Practical Approach. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.
—. 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.