Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"I Hate Writing"

...was the emphatic statement made by a young acquaintance recently.  Why do some find writing akin to passing kidney stones, whereas others absolutely love writing? 

I think the answer is that people who abhor writing are people with writing problems, otherwise known as "writer's block".  Contrary to what most people imagine writer's block to be, this affliction encompasses a whole suite of behaviors (and their accompanying thoughts) that many writers will recognize:

"I don't feel like writing [this morning, today, this week, this semester......the rest of my life]!"

"I have no ideas for this writing project."

"Even if I do a good job [writing], the reviewers will criticize it for some picayune reason."

"I write best when I'm under the gun."

"I wish I had never agreed to write this [paper, book chapter, review]."

"My writing will never be as good as my peers."

"I've got too much to do, and not enough time."

"I like to keep revising and perfecting, even after the paper is 'good enough'."

"What if I've made a mistake or left out an important reference?"

"I hate outlines."

"I can't write unless I can set aside large blocks of time when no deadlines are looming."

The above thoughts are from a test for writer's block in a book by R. Boice.  The next series of posts is going to focus on writing problems.  I hope to cover the causes of writing problems and some possible solutions for dealing with them.  Some of this discussion will be based on information in resources such as the book mentioned above.  Other insights will be based on my own experience and that of colleagues. 

But first, a personal story to illustrate the fact that it is possible to go from near paralysis at the thought of writing to adoring writing (technical and non-technical) and everything about writing.

I was entering the home stretch of my master's program, having completed all my field and laboratory research and data analysis.  It was time to write my thesis.  I had not given much thought to this part of the process up to that point because I had been so busy taking classes, working in the lab, and admiring my data.  The memory of the moment I sat down to begin writing is scorched into my brain.  I was in my apartment at my desk, which faced a window overlooking a forested lot.  Outside, the day was somewhat overcast, but still bright enough so that I did not need additional light.  I had a new yellow legal pad and several new pencils sharpened to perfection (this was way before personal computers).  I picked up a pencil, looked at the blank page, and.....froze.  Not my mind though.  It was going 90 miles an hour.  Thoughts of how to start, what should I say, which parts should I include, what did my results mean--all tumbled around in my head.  I could not focus on any single thought.  The harder I tried, the worse it got.  It was like trying to grasp an handful of sand. The more I squeezed, the faster the grains escaped.  

I thought, "Oh, God.  I'm stuck."  

And I was, in more ways than one.  For the next several hours, I sat there, paralyzed.  I could not move.  The longer I sat, the more difficult it was to move...to even imagine moving.  The light grew dimmer as evening approached.  Still I sat, staring at that yellow pad.  My initial shock turned to despair.  I began imagining how I was going to explain to my adviser that I couldn't finish my thesis.  What would happen to me?  Where would I go now?  What about my dreams of becoming a scientist?

"Stop it! Stop thinking.  Just sit and try to relax."  I finally started talking to myself.  I did not know what else to do.  Eventually, I felt the need to go to the bathroom, but I could not move.  I felt that if I moved from my spot that something dreadful would happen.  "You've got to move,"  I said to myself. "Are you just going to sit there and wet your pants?"  That thought galvanized me.  I told myself all I had to do was to go to the bathroom and then I could come back and cower in the chair.  

That was all it took.  Once I started moving, I was able to gradually do other things.  I eventually applied the same tactic to my writing--breaking it into small stages.  I would set a tiny goal for myself in the beginning--write the first paragraph of the methods.  Then another paragraph.  I did not think about anything beyond the next small task.  Before I knew it, I had a rough draft of the Materials and Methods done.  Eventually, I finished my thesis and passed my defense.

That experience put me off writing for a long, long time--years in fact.  In the coming posts, I'll describe how I transformed from that writing-averse person to a well-published author, now approaching my 100th publication.  Along the way, I'll relate my experiences to known causes of writing problems and describe what can be done to resolve them... or avoid them in the first place.

I hope you'll share your writing problems and solutions.

1 comment:

Genevieve said...

Hi! I'm a new follower of your blog. I just finished my Master's degree in Ecology (focusing on wetlands). I love to write but the thought of writing an entire thesis was daunting. My suggestions? 1) Start early 2) Take some days [or weeks] to make an outline. Sit down with your coffee and a pad of paper and just write an outline. You can change it later. Scribble all over your outline if you have to. 3) When you start typing your thesis JUST TYPE but try to follow your outline. You can go back and fix it later. Don't ponder over one sentence for a long time or you will not finish!