I still had many ideas for posts. I collected them in a list on my phone. I composed pieces of them in my head while doing other things. The problem was that I utterly lacked the will to do the work of writing them. What was going on?! More generally, how should we respond to “the writing wall” when it presents itself? And what can we learn from these situations?
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Writing is always hard mental work. Most of us have some kind of procrastination dance we do, and we’ve all known the difficulty of a piece that just does not come together. But sometimes writing gets really hard, and doesn’t let up. This summer, I experienced some serious writing resistance–from myself! After years of writing six blog posts per month, articles, and a full-length book, I seemed to have hit some kind of writing wall.
The writing wall was foreign to me. I had always composed blog posts rather easily (once I’d gotten myself to sit down and start), but rather suddenly, that changed. I still had many ideas for posts. I collected them in a list on my phone. I composed pieces of them in my head while doing other things. The problem was that I utterly lacked the will to do the work of writing them. Sometimes, I would sit down at my laptop and begin a promising opening for a blog piece, only to quickly lose interest or energy to complete it.
What was going on?! More generally, how should we respond to “the writing wall” when it presents itself? And what can we learn from these situations?
I can’t say that I am truly past the wall yet, but I have not cowed down to it either. I’m moving forward and here are some of the lessons this experience is teaching me.
Lesson 1: It’s okay to take a break from writing!
A (potential) lifetime of writing is long. Most writers do go through periods of writing convalescence. I, however, had not taken a real break from blogging and education writing since I began seven years ago. While it’s always been easy for me to recognize the need for breaks from teaching children—the physical exhaustion speaks for itself—I’ve always used my school vacations to write even more than usual. Over the last two summers, I had really ramped up, writing a full-length book on top of blogging. I wouldn’t change a thing about the past, but I see now that I never gave myself a significant break (more than a week or two). Maybe there’s a cost to that choice…
When the writing wall finally presented itself and wouldn’t just go away, I felt guilty. I felt like a slacker. Real writers write regularly, if not ever day, I told myself. I wondered if I’d ever get my writing flow back. Then I read this NY Times Opinion piece, On Not Writing, in which Bill Hayes describes his prolonged period of “not writing.” The article opened the door for me to Google search “taking a break from writing” only to find a plethora of articles and blog posts on the benefits of allowing oneself to stop writing and recharge. Sometimes we need to push ourselves to write and write more; other times we need to permit ourselves a break.
Lesson 2: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
I did not truly stop writing, but I did slow my roll wayyyy down. I still had a few writing commitments I needed to come through on, though, and I struggled to motivate. I complained about my lack of willpower to a friend. After a while she asked, “Well, do you have to do your best work every time? Can you, occasionally, just write something to get it done, and not worry so much?” I did not like the sound of that. I have high standards for myself…but perhaps she had a point. I thought of all the times I’d clicked an online article link with an interesting title, only to read a mediocre piece with maybe one good tidbit. Was the post great? No. Did the helpful tidbit have value? Yes.
I also recalled advice a guest speaker, journalist Linda Villarosa, gave my students when she visited my 8th grade classes last year: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” she said. I reminded my students with perfectionistic tendencies of her advice throughout the year. To be a writer, you have to finish things. Though I had never viewed myself as a perfectionist before, I figured it was time I practiced what I preached. I wrote a piece I knew was not my best work, but that still carried some strong points. I was able to share my imperfect thinking, move on, and the world did not end.
Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to switch up your writing process.
When you are used to writing in a certain way, it can be confusing when that process seems to fail. Luckily, there are many ways to write, and often an obstacle is a call to change something, or stretch into new territory.
I was used to a process that went like this: I have an idea for a blog post. I mull it over in my mind for a few days. Then I sit down and write it to completion, usually in one evening. At first it frustrated me that I couldn’t finish what felt like a simple post in this way. Now I’m okay with pausing and returning to a post several times, finishing it over a week or so. In the past, I also never outlined blog posts, since they were short pieces that seemed to flow organically. Now I’ve experimented with outlining to clarify my thoughts before starting, and it’s been helpful.
Finally, when my own thinking feels too daunting, I’ve reached out to fabulous colleagues and featured their thinking in my posts. This has been truly rewarding writing work, and allowed me to shift into a more of a curator’s role. For example, I intended to write a post about my anticipation of teaching a high school class for the first time this year, after ten years of teaching only middle school. When I sensed my own resistance to writing this piece, I reached out to my colleagues who had experience teaching both middle and high school, and compiled their reflections and advice. This ended up being much more interesting and valuable! In August, I also interviewed a friend, NYC middle school teacher Genevieve DeBose, who spent three years working in education policy, and has just now returned to the classroom. Talking to her was so interesting that I decided to simply publish my notes as an interview, so that others could “hear” her story as I had. The role of seeking out interesting topics and people, engaging in dialogue, and then framing the results in a blog post was a welcome departure from being inside the walls of my own brain.
There are so many ways to change the writing process when something isn’t working. I believe we have to be accepting of change, even if that means taking a break, being “good” not “perfect,” or doing things differently, to allow our writing identities to shift and grow.
[Image credit: Wall by Niels Linneberg; creative commons licensed for non-commercial use.]