Sunday, October 05, 2014

Getting Unstuck: one approach to curing "writer's block"

It's early October and, for a teacher, that means getting down to the nitty-gritty of evaluation. Students get their first report card around the start of November, and that means lots of observation and marking.

If you're anything like me, there is nothing like a deadline in any other area of my life to get me to sit down at the computer and hammer something out; I am a dyed-in-the-wool procrastinator. Seriously. Like, my house only gets cleaned when someone is coming over. So call me and then come over.

Like many of my students, I tend to hit a wall when I finally have some time to sit down to tackle the outline, character exploration or chapter that I need to do. It seems that my brain has no interest in addressing the task at hand; it's like a hungry person who is determined not to shop or cook!

My tried and true "writer's block" banisher comes from Natalie Goldberg. I discovered this right after the tragedy of 9-11. I was teaching my Writer's Craft class in a computer lab at the time, and someone figured out how to access the live feed from a building adjacent to the twin towers. We struggled to breathe as, in three second bursts, we witnessed the second plane hit, and the two towers crumble.

Everyone was traumatized, and continuing with the curriculum seemed not only crass but impossible. For the first class after the event, we just talked. I was at a loss as to how to begin to work again, and turned to Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones for inspiration. In the second class, I had the kids do "automatic writing" for 30 minutes, and then we talked for the rest of the period. Goldberg's rules are simple:
1. Keep your hand moving. (Goldberg hand writes, but I have few students who still do. I suppose they could even do it on their phones.)
2. Don't correct anything.
3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
4. Lose control.
5. Don't think. Don't get logical.
6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

I described it to my high school class like this: "Automatic writing" is simple: it's really just a total brain barf. Write everything that comes into your head. No stopping, no editing, no looking at the screen if you can manage it - turn off the monitor if you have a tower, or cover the screen if you are on a laptop. GO!

I was worried that they would type for five minutes and then just stop. Instead, an amazing thing happened. As the first week passed, not only did the students write for the full 30 minutes, but they also began to move quickly to actual curricular discussion, rather than rehashing the continued agony that followed this trauma.

By the time November reports arrived, my students commented on the fact that their marks seemed to be significantly higher than their classmates - and higher than the marks they normally earned. No one was complaining, but it was obvious enough that we kept our eye on the trend as the rest of the year progressed. While the normal mark distribution began to reassert itself as the year progressed, my writing students kept up their increased productivity.

By the end of the year, all of the students in the class had averages 5% to 20% higher than they had ever had before.

I call the phenomenon "skimming" because it reminds me of my life-guard days. Each morning I spent the better part of an hour dipping a long-poled screen over the surface of the pool to remove all the detritus which had accumulated over the night. Leaves, pine needles, tiny dead toads, trash - everything was scooped up and dumped over the fence. The best moment of my day was when I got to dive into that cool oasis, cleaving the pristine surface in a perfect arc, torpedoing along the bottom to the other end.

Our brains collect detritus as well. The flotsam and jetsam of our lives can often be overwhelming. We cram info into our brains like hungry teachers at an end-of-the-day fruit and cookie buffet. It's no wonder things get lost: I recently realized that I have taught approximately 4,500 students in my 25 year career. If anyone knows how to erase that precious space filled with names (and the lyrics to every song from 1970-2010), please let me know.

In the meantime, transferring our bobbing bits of brilliance to some more permanent format - paper, sticky-notes, computer, phone - can free our working brain to deal with other issues. Creativity is hard when your brain is engaged with grocery lists, appointment times and places, people to call, email issues to address, or any of the other myriad things we ask it to do on a daily basis. Forcing myself to keep all of my notes and reminders in my phone (I started years ago with a PDA) was one of the best habits I have ever forged.

To get myself out of the doldrums, and because starting the project I want to do is feeling way too overwhelming, I am committing to 20-30 minutes of "automatic writing" every day for the next two weeks. It's a good warm-up for NaNoWriMo (which I am, insanely, going to try, and ALSO have my writing students do!) and I am betting that it will clear out all my negative potholes, and fill them with webs of words - so much easier to drive on!

Join me! I will write a follow up at the end of each week noting how my work life (teaching) and writing life (dribs and drabs at the moment) are affected.
I would also love to hear how this tool works for you.

Write on!


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