Friday, March 4, 2011

writer's block.

Ah, there's a title that every aspiring writer and postgrad student winces at. I had a bout recently the likes of which I'd never experienced before. I've been stymied before, have sat adrift in front of a blank Word doc wondering where to start before, but have known all the while before that once I did words would stream unstoppable down the page. 
This was different- it was like a a brick wall was crashing down between me and the vision I was trying to articulate (using the word 'vision' for my ideas makes me sound impressive, doesn't it? Totally intentional. I'm trying to wow you with my evocative vocabulary) and try as I could, I couldn't push through.
That's the metaphor used for writer's block too, or the working out of ideas that's hard: you push through it, you struggle on, you have a breakthrough- all very physical, aggressive sounding phrases for a condition that leaves you lacklustre, limp and anxious.
O yes,  because for better or worse, much of my perception of myself as a student is bound up in what I can do- ideas I might have, research I get done and so on, so when I couldn't do my confidence was shaken. Hard. I wondered clammy-palmed if I had what it takes to a prolonged research project. I wracked my brain for clues as to how I had gotten so stuck. I had rosy-tinted flashbacks to my honours year, of giving myself hi-fives as things leapt up off the page and into shining prose and doing The Fonz-style finger clicks at everyone I passed in the hallways. (There weren't even any hallways- my department was in a basement. But in my ficto-memory, it's all pep rallies and late but satisfying nights hitting the books.)
I get distracted. 
At the heart of the matter was the overriding curse I hissed through my teeth at myself: "it wasn't like this in Honours. What's wrong with you?" And frustration, sheer uncomprehending frustration at my perceived inability to get work done because I like writing and I had ideas to write out. But I couldn't- and therein lay the rub. I just couldn't do it.

I wasn't going to write this all up because who wants to read about my writer's block? Yet it occurred to me that maybe people need to read a post like this. Maybe there are other grad students currently in the welter of despairing panic I was in this January, tying their temporary block to a supposed lack or inability within themselves.
I have come to understand that it's very common to get a severe block like this. As Mel said yesterday, when you do a PhD you're taking the research and writing skills you have already learned into deeper, more rigorous territory, and learning a lot of new skills besides. Learning to waltz beyond the block, to discover a breakthrough that will see you leap forward onto new ground is part of the skill set you and I will need for a professional career doing more of the same. (And what a wonderful prospect, huh?)

So I guess the skeleton holding this post upright is the shared idea that writer's block may crash your PhD party somewhere along the way too, and you may end up feeling engulfed by the vastness of what you're trying to explicate. Hopefully this doesn't happen to you but if it does- you will be okay. It's a normal if exceedingly unpleasant occurrence. Have a break and talk about it to your peers or your supervisor and for heaven's sake, take a break! See what's new on or go away for the weekend or do exercise (I can't guarantee doing exercise will make you feel better not in more pain but some people swear by it so go crazy if that's what you want.)
And remember the very sage advice my friend Bicky gave me- 'your PhD is not a prison sentence!'- so remember to have fun with your research too.

As for me, I re-evaluated where I had come and where I wanted my project to go. I had a few key conversations with a few understanding people and made the changes I felt were necessary for the health of both me and my project. Happy to report we're both flourishing and that I have been writing furiously- three chapters seem to be streaming out simultaneously which is a worry but is also kind of a relief.

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