Monday, July 21, 2008

Writing My Way Out

So, I'm trying this new thing with my writing.  I think I've mentioned that I'm terrified, blocked, horribly pained when it comes to academic writing.  I produce the most convoluted, smarmy sentences you've ever seen.  I have anxiety about it, and about revision, and about rejection.  I become someone I do not recognize on the page.

I've used my best skills to tackle the problem.  I've prayed and written visioning statements.  I've asked friends for advice.  I've gotten more comfortable at shopping my work around with friends and colleagues, and at being open to criticism.  I've meditated.  I've visualized the block as a hard nut in my chest, which is where the anxiety locates, dissolving into millions of pieces of light.  I've affirmed that I am a conduit for creativity.

My new age hocus pocus is failing me.  The problem is resisting treatment.

As a last ditch effort--one step shy of abandoning my career and running away to Alaska--I picked up a book by the composition guru Peter Elbow.  He's a guy who flunked out of graduate school at one point because, like me, he couldn't write a coherent academic sentence.  Everything he wrote was circuitous and belabored. 

So he took some time to figure out why he was struggling so much, and solving that problem became his life's work. Now he is a beloved and respected writing maven.  I've had one of his earlier books, Writing with Power, on my to-read shelf for years now.  I first picked it up because I thought it would help me be a better teacher.  Of writing.  Little did I know I would be reading it years later because my own writing was so miserable.

Yeah, I hear you saying, I like your blog, you write fine, you teach writing, you're too hard on yourself, what the hell did you expect, all that jazz.  But I will reiterate:  this academic writing stuff is hard for me.  Like, bloodletting hard.  Like, Everest hard.  I just can't figure out why.

No more figuring, then.  I'm just going to try something new.  I'm putting on the Peter Elbow patch and letting it course through my veins.  I'm smoking the Peter Elbow crack.  I'm diving head first into the Peter Elbow pool of writing instructions.  Cowabunga.

A few observations as I begin.

First, I just have underestimated what a process it is.  I was always the kind of student who just felt my way through things.  I've had very little writing instruction myself, and through a series of lucky encounters just fell into being a writing teacher (irony of all ironies).  Being the dutiful writing teacher that I am, I teach the importance of the writing process.  Dirty little secret:  I hadn't treated it much as a process myself.  As a writer.  So when I'm faced with revision and rejection it freaks me out.  And yes, I plan to incorporate my own lame story into my teaching from now on, assuming this all works out.

Second, Elbow recommends lots and lots of freewriting.  Write tons and tons without revising or editing, he says.  Then put down your creativity pencil and pick up your analytic red pen.  Figure out the best parts of your freewriting--there will be some in there--and begin to shape them.  But don't try to be creative and analytical at the same time.  It just won't work.  This is also something I thought I had "taught" my students. 

Do as I say, students, not as a I do.  Because I almost never turn the editor off.  And especially not with academic writing, where I'm always fretting about audience, purpose, format, prose, punctuation.  What ends up happening, then, is I spend many painstaking hours building what I think are perfect sentences and paragraphs, and when they end up sucking, I'm shocked and dismayed and feel a failure.  Better to produce what Annie Lamott calls some "shitty first drafts," and then go back and just comb through the shit for the pearls. 

I hope this works.  I'm now officially on the Elbow writing diet plan.  I plan to gain many pounds of freewriting in the coming weeks as I work on a paper on communicating climate change.  I'm scheduling in freewriting.  I'm scheduling in research.  I'm scheduling in revision.  As separate processes. 

I'll let you know how it goes.  In the meanwhile, you're stuck with the single process on this blog.  Love it or leave it.


  1. I love it!
    I share your woes. Academic writing is another beast entirely--though it shouldn't be if we remember that writing is still communicating clearly. But Elbow's advice, and your own, is on the spot. I also think it helps if you do the freewriting in chunks of, say, no more than 45 minutes. And as the Professors as Writers book suggests, leave each freewrite when you're feeling strong, not fizzled out. Then you can start the next one in a good place.

    Who am I to talk. I procrastinated my writing all day yesterday.

  2. How funny is it that you wrote this blog 3 years ago and I stumbled upon it today when I was browsing blogs.
    Yesterday I began my quest to build upon my skill sets to become a better writer. I could not afford to do the college thing so I bought a used text book off of
    What makes my finding your blog funny to me is the fact that the very first chapter in the book is on The Writing Process.
    I will heed your warning and will try to seperate myself from editing any first draft versions of my work until they are complete.
    I hope that after these years have gone by, you have been able to finally break free of your writing block.