Friday, July 26, 2013

Writer's Block; or, doctor heal thyself

Currently, and for the past five years, I have earned a living (sort of) by teaching writing. The irony of this is not lost on those who know me because, when I was in college I was a struggling writer--I don't mean struggling writer as in a writer who is poor and trying to get published--I mean I would struggle to write my essays.  I was a bright student who had a lot to say. I could, as they say, talk a good game, but my essays were always a little disappointing. Part of my problem was that I was really good about talking about literature and ideas, so when it came time to write about it my professors (all good writers themselves) expected great things. And really, I delivered average things. But for the most part, the problem was that I didn't know how to become better.

The struggle to become a better writer was made worse for me though, in that I cared--really cared--about what my professors thought of me. The essays I was turning in were not just assignments, they were litmus tests of my abilities, a tangible measure my self-worth right there in black and white. To exacerbate the issue, I was in a field--English--that valued writing above all else. It almost didn't matter how brilliant the ideas and theories were when I shared them verbally, they were not brilliant until I could write them down. My desire to please and because I wanted to go on to graduate school, I would take critiques of my writing very seriously. When a paper came back to me with a litany of failures, I would go to the teacher's office and ask for help. The thing is though, I never really got any useful advice. I mean they would try, but in reality they would just end up diagnosing my ills without being able to offer any cures.

There were professors who were better at helping than others. There was one who was a big help, but he got a new job on the East coast and moved away. Another who likely would have been amazing, but I was intimidated enough by her to be too scared of accepting her help. Of course, in one of my many lapses of judgment the professor I chose as my mentor was particularly inept at teaching writing. He was great at other things--like being charming--things that would be of little help in my career, but writing, not so much. He was quite good at identifying errors; he would point to my flaws and say, "There is your problem." I would ask how to fix the problem, and he would just repeat that it was wrong and needed to be made better. I remember one tearful conference where he just kept repeating all the things that were wrong and I would say, Okay, but how do I DO that? Finally, he just slammed my paper down, shouting, "I don't know, you just have to figure it out!" and walked away, leaving the paper on his desk. Now, years later, I can accept that I was asking him to do something he couldn't. A pattern in our relationship that would end with a similar conversation, with much higher stakes, that would lead to him walking away from me for good.

There was a level of shame to struggling with writing that led me to believe that there was something wrong with me. I was convinced that there this was magic thing out there that some people had and some didn't: And I just didn't. Then one day I was talking to a friend who was a couple of years behind me in school. She was frustrated with her writing. She showed me her paper and told me that her teacher (my mentor) just kept telling her all the things that were wrong with her paper, but he wouldn't tell her how to fix it. I looked at her paper and I saw the errors, but for some reason I could also see what could be done to make it better. I think it was because it was a level lower than me, I was able to just *see* how to revise it. I gave her a couple of real, practical solutions for ways to rewrite the essay. The light bulb went on: There are tricks to this. A couple of days later when I saw her again, she told me that she had done what I suggested and that her paper was better! I felt so good about helping her that day, that it felt a little like I had helped a younger version of myself.

As I continued through school, I would pursue writing instruction whenever I could. Now that I teach writing for a living I have learned to separate the task of writing from the value of the ideas, and from the value of a person. I tell my students that writing is a communication tool, and it can be learned. When my students come to me and they ask me how to fix their flawed writing I have tangible practical ways to teach them. Some of these tools I learned from taking classes in teaching composition, but many of them I have developed on my own. My favorite days are those when I can hand back an essay to a student and they can see their writing has improved. It is such a rewarding feeling

It likely does not take a psychologist to know that as I teach these struggling writers, I am teaching my past self. I am erasing my own struggle one student at a time. The reality is that I am a better writer now, nearly ten years after I graduated from college, than I have ever been. In learning how to teach others, I have taught myself. Sometimes, I think about that struggling writer I had been, and I want to sit my younger self down and show her a handout on topic sentences and paragraphing. A handout that has her name on it, because she wrote it.


  1. I had one professor who was able to sum up my primary problem when writing. She said that I told too little. She said that she felt, when reading my papers, that I did not want to offend my audience by assuming they could not make their own connections by seeing the obvious, so I never quite stated the obvious or made the connections. She suggested that I write everything, and if, after the essay is complete, there is TOO much, then take out some of the obvious, but do NOT make the audience make connections that I should include.

    After talking to her, I went back and looked at my essays from the previous two years or so. She was RIGHT. I was gobsmacked, but so happy that she could help.

    P.S. I'm really happy to see you writing again. I love your blog.

  2. Isn't is amazing when someone just doesn't tell you what is wrong but also gives you remedies?

    Glad to hear from you!