Friday, June 24, 2005

Blank Page Syndrome

This week I've been struggling with writing a chapter on blogs for a research methodology textbook. It's frustrating because I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say, and even how I want to say it, but I'm still finding it difficult to get past the blank page and get down the initial paragraphs. I have made several false starts -- the first too informal, the second too boring, the third too obsolete (I realized that by the time the chapter saw print, and especially after it had been in print for a while -- since textbooks of this type hang around for a long time -- explaining what blogs are and how they work would be as redundant as explaining the benefits of word processing or of using a search engines to find journal articles) and I am finding it difficult to motivate myself to go back for try number 4. Thankfully, I'm up against a deadline, so motivated or not, I'll get it done sometime in the next week.

Writer's block is pretty normal, of course. I've only met four or five people who do not suffer from at least that initial blockage as they face the first blank page, and I know a lot of academics and professional writers. But it is not part of the writing process that anyone sees or talks about. Most academics would like you to believe that they sit down at the keyboard and simply hammer out the finished product that you see in journals or books first draft. In reality, the material that sees print has usually gone through 5 to 10 major revisions; by which I mean, torn up and start over kind of rewriting, not just copy editing.

The problem with the pretense that we 'just write up our findings' without sweating over it, is that students or new faculty who are struggling to get something down on paper and failing, often feel like there must be something wrong with them, and believing that no one else is experiencing this level of angst, gives it up. I have on innumerable occasions seen thesis supervisors provide detailed guidance and support to their student in the formulation of the research question, the search for relevant research literature, data collection and data analysis, but once the student has their data ready to write up, they say, "well, go to it!" as if the writing process were not in fact as difficult or more difficult than all the other stages. We assume that because students have been writing papers for years as undergraduates, they should have no problem writing up their thesis, but the research I've seen suggests that it is at this stage that approximately 50% of graduate students in thesis or dissertation programs drop the ball and disappear from the program.

I am very grateful to Howard Becker's book, Writing for the Social Sciences in which he explains that the writing strategies necessary for the successful completion of a thesis, dissertation or published piece of research are almost the exact opposite strategies necessary to efficiently completing an undergraduate paper. To be successful thesis writers, students have to unlearn everything they think they know about writing. But since hardly anyone every tells them that, when their successful strategies from their undergraduate years fail them, they view it as their personal failure, and thinking they have lost it somehow, announce "I can't do this!" and throw in the towel.

I once had the opportunity of shadowing SF writer Candas Jane Dorsey for a couple of days to see how writers actually write. This was back when I was struggling to finish my dissertation, and I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, yet found myself repeatedly bogged down in writer's block. So here I was following Candas around for the day, waiting for her to start writing, and waiting and waiting. First we had breakfast. Then she did some errands. No problem, I’m imposing on her time, I can wait. Then we go for lunch with friends. This takes half a day. Then we go to a movie. Then coffee with other acquaintances. Then supper…which turned into a bit of an impromptu party as other writers in the neighbourhood (Candas then lived in an artists’ co-op) dropped in. Finally, at about 8PM, Candas announces she has to go upstairs for a few minutes. She comes down maybe 80 minutes later and says, “Phew…that was a long slog!” I ask her to what she is referring, and she says, “Oh I felt it was time to get some writing out of the way. I did about four and a half pages of finished copy just then, That’s a lot for one day.” And went back to the party.

Considering that I was getting only one to two pages out per day, this was a bit of a revelation. “How can you spend all your time goofing and still be more productive than me!” I asked. (Okay, “wailed” might be a better adjective there.) And Candas explained to me that she had been working all day -- that for a writer, going to a party, listening to conversations, picking up ideas from peers, and so on, qualifies as her research. “You can’t have output without input, you know!”

The party/luncheon/movie research may not apply too directly to my writing (though as a sociologist, listening is a pretty useful skill), but I now certainly get the “no output without input” line. So if my brain has shut down the last couple of days on this article, instead of sweating it, I’ve learned that it is more productive in the long run to just take a day off. (*Went to see The Interpreter which I would recommend as a nice little thriller.*)

Of course, the trick is knowing when to take the day off to recharge, get a fresh perspective, and start over; and when to stop procrastinating and to exercise some self-discipline. My favorite NFB short is Getting Started, a painfully funny cartoon that hits way too close to home…

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