Struggles with Writing: A Collage

[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)


Works Cited

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.

A CCCC Presentation Outtake: Some Thoughts on Silence

When I opened my notebook to arrange all my clippings into a coherent talk for CCCC 2013, Lisa asked me to pause so that she could take a picture. She tweeted it with the comment, “this is what an unblocked John Walter looks like.”

Finishing up my presentation for CCCC this Saturday, I’m wading through material that isn’t going to make it into my talk. Taken all together, the session planning emails, research notes, musings, talks with Lisa, and reflections on silence as I freewrote last spring are far more usable and are far more material than I expected. Even a lot of the raw freewriting is asking to be turned into a collage essay—a genre I learned from Peter Elbow’s work and which I regularly assign in writing classes.1

Much of this writing, even the session planning emails, is deeply rooted in the personal, and while the focus of my own part of the session is on the issue of academics with severe writing difficulties and how we as mentors and friends and supervisors can be productively supportive, I will get intensely personal, too. As I’m looking at all this material, especially the freewriting and process writing I did last year as I was struggling to write again, I’m wondering what should and should not be shared. I’m going bold in the presentation, so I might as well not shy away from things here, so here’s an unedited passage from a freewriting session I did on March 24, 2012:

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 or even silence as protest but a pathological silence. Silence I couldn’t escape from if I wanted to That kind of silence. A silence I couldn’t escape from. 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 sympton of something much greater, a deep and difficult depression, and I couldn’t address the silence until I had addressed the depression, unitl I got through that. I have gotten through that and now I seem to be writing these days. Writing something. Writing somehow. And that’s good. I like that. I’m writing and it’s good. The silence was a difficult thing to deal with.

Just do it, I’d get told. Or it finally comes down to you and the pen. You and doing the writing. You getting it down. Just write. One page a day. Everyone can write one page a day. Yes, I did that. Or tried to do that. What I produced was horrible, terrible, dark screeds against my self. Dark outpourings of self-loathing and hatred and despair. Painful stuff to look at now, but I have looked at it. I seem to have saved some of it. Some piece of it. And that is good. Not because I like it but because I have it to share in all its raw and terrible and nasty and dark ahd hateful nature. Hopelessness. I have that and I can point to it and I can say that it’s not just about doing it. 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. You need to get yourself into the proper state of mind first. Get yourself emotionally healthy again. If you don’t, no amount of freewriting is going to save you. Or, maybe I should say that no amount of freewriting was going to save me. It was but one more venue to bash myself into obilivion. Another weapon to turn upon myself. At times I tried to do the writing without beating myself up but the only thing that would come, the only kind of writing I could sustain in that vein was to attack myself. And it was not good. Not good at all. It wasn’t helpful. That kind of self-loathing would tear me down and remind me that I was once again failing at something so central to who I wanted to be and the life I wanted to live and there’s nothing good about that.

I almost titled my CCCC talk “Freewriting Couldn’t Save Me.” Freewriting couldn’t save me a year after my psychologist had decided I no longer needed treatment for the depression that developed out of my failed marriage, a depression that first manifested itself in an increasing inability to write. I’m reminded here of Lynn Bloom’s two case studies in “Anxious Writers in Context: Gradaute School and Beyond,” published in Mike Rose’s edited collection When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writers’ Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. About Ellen, the graduate student unlikely to finish her degree, Bloom writes, “To resolve Ellen’s writing problems would require a marriage therapist in addition to a writing specialist, to focus on their family context as the source of some of the difficulties (131). As Juliette Ludeker, one of my co-presenters this Saturday, put it in the title of her talk, there are situations “When Being Able to Write Has Nothing to Do with the Ability to Write.”

  1. The more I think about a collage essay representing/exploring the silence of pathological writing difficulties, the more I’m intrigued. It would make an interesting companion to Dasiy Levy’s collage essay “On Silence” in the eighth issue of Harlot: A Revealing Look at the Arts of Persuasion and Peter Elbow’s own “Silence: A Collage,” first published in Brand and Graves’ Presence of Mind: Writing and the Domain Beyond the Cognitive and reprinted in his Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. []

A Research Visit to the Walter J. Ong Collection


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Sparkle Pony and a letter in the Walter J. Ong Collection

Sparkle Pony helping me with some research.

Last month I spent a week in Saint Louis to do some research in the Walter J. Ong, SJ, Manuscript Collection. It was my first research visit since I finished my three years as the initial processing archivist of the Ong Collection and left Saint Louis for a visiting position at UNC-Wilmington back in 2007. Far too long, really.

I went back with some specific plans, including the creation of two digital exhibits based upon materials in the collection and getting permission to write an introduction to and seek publication for the one article which Father Ong had fully prepared for publication but never placed. All in all, it was a great trip, and, as Lisa predicted, just what I needed at this stage of reclaiming my scholarly voice.

Going through my notebook I took with me on the trip, I found the following snippet, and I have no idea why I wrote it down other than that I found it amusing. In a Sept. 18, 1978 letter to Brian Vickers regarding the cost of possibly holding the International Society for the History of Rhetoric conference in the Netherlands, Fr. Ong wrote: “Maybe we could hire ourselves out to turn windmills or plug up the dikes.” [call no.: DOC MSS] As I said, I have no idea why made note of this.

Note on the picture: That’s Sparkle Pony with a letter from the Lincoln Lecture files [call no. DOC MSS], which covers a month-long lecture tour Fr. Ong took through Western Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zaire) in 1977 on behalf of the U.S. State Department as a Board of Foreign Scholars Lincoln Lecturer. Sparkle Pony is featured in Sierra & Stedman’s Kairos article “Ode to Sparklepony: Gamification in Action” (in particular, see “Part 2: The Game“) and inspired the Sparkle Pony Adventurer Soceity. Sparkle Pony wants you to know that while it is the Sparkle Pony, it is not the only sparklepony. Yes, Sparkle Pony often travels with me.


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The Silence Project, CCCC 2013, Session N.29

With CCCC next week, I thought I’d edit this post I wrote in July and move it up. It’s a description of the session Juliette LudekerCarrie A. Lamanna, Lisa Schamess, and I put together.

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.

A Wedding Started

On July 16, 2011, Lisa Schamess simultaneously proposed to me both in person as we sat beside a small lake under a full moon in Western Massachusetts and online. Today, July 15, 2012, as this post goes live, we should be saying our vows. Afterwards, close friends and newlyweds Lara Coutinho and Scott Dean shall read from John Donne’s “Love’s Infiniteness,” My response of sorts to Lisa’s choice of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

“Love’s Infiniteness”
—John Donne

If yet I have not all thy love,
Dear, I shall never have it all,
I cannot breathe one other sigh, to move,
Nor can entreat one other tear to fall,
And all my treasure, which should purchase thee,
Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters I have spent.
Yet no more can be due to me,
Than at the bargain made was meant;
If then thy gift of love were partial,
That some to me, some should to others fall,
Dear, I shall never have thee all.

Or if then thou gavest me all,
All was but all, which thou hadst then;
But if in thy heart, since, there be or shall
New love created be, by other men,
Which have their stocks entire, and can in tears,
In sighs, in oaths, and letters outbid me,
This new love may beget new fears,
For, this love was not vowed by thee.
And yet it was, thy gift being general;
The ground, thy heart, is mine, whatever shall
Grow there, dear, I should have it all.

Yet I would not have all yet;
He that hath all can have no more,
And since my love doth every day admit
New growth, thou shouldst have new rewards in store;
Thou canst not every day give me thy heart,
If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it:
Love’s riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stays at home, and thou with losing savest it:
But we will have a way more liberal,
Than changing hearts, to join them, so we shall
Be one, and one another’s all.

I was hoping to include my vows here, but I’ve run out of time so I’ll leave you with some Mudhoney instead.

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