December 16, 2021
Writing essays is a creative process. Not as creative as creative writing, of course, but it is creating an argument. The problem is that not you cannot demand inspiration to strike when deadlines are coming at you like speeding bullets. Many students come to me in the Writing Centre with this experience.
Writer’s block. I hate it; you hate it; everybody hates it. We see the approaching deadline, and yet we procrastinate. I did some reading and found that some psychoanalytic sages have come forth to spew their wisdom.
One day at the Writing Centre, I picked up Dennis Palumbo’s Writing from the Inside: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. I went to the chapter that was about writer’s block, specifically. In effect, Palumbo said that your subconscious is tricking you by making you believe that you cannot write as well as you can because… well, trauma… such as when you were told you were not good enough when you were a child. I think this experience is a little hyper-specific.
Instead, I read Canadian writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She says that inspiration is like a child playing with ideas; let them brew in your head and see the results later:
She says, “Everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your senses provide, in all that you’ve seen and thought and absorbed. There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is the little kid… arranging and stitching things together” (Lamott 181).
This sounds like some psychoanalytic, age-of-Aquarius hogwash, but it has merit! I find it funny that so many anxious students come to me without any idea on what they want to write on, but after a conversation about their interest in the topic, their head starts to clear up.
I remember when I was an undergraduate student in UBC. I think I had like ten deadlines in the next two weeks or less and a biochemistry exam coming up. On top of this, I had to write a 4,000 word paper for my capstone course and I did not know where to start. My head was swimming!
“I know I want to write about the history of medicine, politics, and theology during the Renaissance and Reformation,” I said to my history professor, who was sitting magnanimously, like a good doctor. “But I don’t know what to say.”
“Okay, why don’t you write your paper in three sections: medicine, politics, and theology?”
My head lighted up. Not that I didn’t struggle writing that essay (I actually overwrote it), but a simple conversation was what it had to take. It sounds silly, but your ideas are there in your head. Sometimes you need someone to prod at them for you. And most importantly, identify the parts of what you want to write: in essays, it is all about parts, parts, parts.
Lammott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Palumbo, Dennis. Writing from the Inside: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.