How can I force myself to write?
September 22, 2008 4:48 PM   Subscribe

How can I force myself to write?

I am an academic for whom writing books and articles is very important. I have a good amount of time for writing, plenty of ideas, and a good sense of what I want to write. But most of the time, I get very little writing done. I can easily go a year or more without writing anything of substance. Instead, I spend most of my time doing email, doing administrative tasks, browsing the web, and so on.

This has been a persistent pattern throughout my career. Every now and then the floodgates have come down (a big period every six or seven years, a smaller period every year or two) and I've had a relatively brief and intense writing period during which I've managed to get a lot done. As a result I've been reasonably successful. However, I haven't gotten nearly as much done as I'd like. And recently, the problem seems to be getting worse, and I'm falling behind drastically. The problem also has all sorts of negative effects on the rest of my life, as I set aside a lot of time for writing and then squander it.

I've read many books on writing and writers block (including Professors as Writers and the like), but these haven't really made a difference. I know the standard advice: find a place that's a writing place and only a writing place, set aside a time, make yourself write so many words a day regardless of quality, and so on. But knowing this hasn't helped. I find myself spending very little time in my writing room, and when I do spend time there, typically nothing happens.

I think of this as some sort of fairly serious disease of the will. I know just what I want to do, have no obvious obstacles to doing it, but it just doesn't get done. There is some sort of enormous resistance to getting started on the writing process, and a sense of aversion and unpleasantness in the initial stages when I do start, both of which prevent me from doing it. Every now and then I get past this resistance and aversion and get into a state of flow (which is then one of the best feelings one can have), but it's proven very difficult to force myself to do this.

I've been to a hypnotherapist and a regular therapist about this, but they haven't made much difference. I probably could and should have done more of this, as I think that the right therapist, with a real understanding of this issue, could probably help a lot. But it's hard to know just who the right therapist might be, and it's difficult to ask local friends and colleagues for recommendations, as I'm reluctant to tell them about this.

I think that what I need is some sort of mechanism that in effect forces me to write. I used to have no problem writing reams in an exam context, for example, and every now and then when a similar sort of immediate context arises, there is no blockage. (I also don't have much blockage in writing long emails on academic topics.) Deadlines help to some extent, but they've become less effective then they used to be as one comes to realize that deadlines are typically very plastic. I can imagine various artificial mechanisms (set up an automatic donation to an awful cause unless one reaches a certain goal, block the Internet for a certain period each day, and so on), but it's hard to make myself implement these and easy to circumvent them.

It seems to me that what might have the potential to work is something involving another person somehow forcing me into a writing schedule: be in the writing place for a certain period each day, write so many words and show them to me at the end, and so on. It wouldn't be easy to get a friend, relative, or colleague to play this role. But perhaps some sort of active therapist or writing coach might be able to do it.

So my first question is: any recommendations for some sort of active therapist or writing coach who could play this role? Assuming that things could be done over phone and email, they could be located almost anywhere (a good thing, since I don't want to disclose my location here, and local resources are limited). It might well take some sort of daily contact, so phone and email would likely be the main locus wherever the person is. I'm interested in recommendations both of specific individuals, and of kinds of individuals who I might seek out, as I'm genuinely unsure of what sort of person to approach.

Any other ideas as to approaches and strategies that might help are welcome, too. Others may have been in a situation like this before and have had experience of what helps. My own insight into the situation is limited. The whole thing is a bit pathetic, and it's taken me a long time to even get to the stage of sending out a cry for help like this. But now that I've done it, any ideas will be welcome.
posted by blocked to Work & Money (37 answers total) 109 users marked this as a favorite
 
typewriter?
posted by stubby phillips at 4:56 PM on September 22, 2008


...or maybe those little blue theme books. far far away from the computer.
posted by stubby phillips at 5:02 PM on September 22, 2008


Back to longhand, dude. Away from the house/computer. Or maybe a writing buddy? Someone you write with at scheduled times, either with the shame factor as incentive or some sort of applied deal, like whoever writes the least has to buy the beer.
posted by nax at 5:07 PM on September 22, 2008


Ignore the writing room and get out of the house. No phone, no laptop, pick up a pad and pen and hit a bar or cafe you haven't been to before, have a coffee or a beer, and write. It needn't be the finished product but you should find there is little else to do in that enironment but write something, unlike your house where there are always distractions.

Having said that, the "enormous resistance" sounds a lot like a real fear of failure. A fear of even beginning to try. If you still can't write when you've truly removed yourself from all your normal distractions then more therapy is perhaps the best option. Good luck.
posted by fire&wings at 5:08 PM on September 22, 2008


I could have written this. And actually, I'm reading what you wrote right now as a strategy to avoid writing. (I should be working on the dissertation.) And so actually, I have little advice for you. Sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) a reward system works for me. Write for 40 minutes, bebop on the web for 20, etc. Lately I have not been writing at all - just sitting in front of the computer for hours re-reading the same ole crap on the New York Times or learning how to best fertilize my non-existent lawn or deal with my relationship on metafilter. Deadlines are truly the only thing that works for me. My therapist says it's anxiety mixed with perfectionism, and so I'm supposed to do breathing exercises before I sit down and then just write for ten minutes and then take a break, but I honestly haven't tried it yet. Must be the anxiety. I'm looking forward to what others may contribute.
posted by cachondeo45 at 5:10 PM on September 22, 2008


Check out Creativity Coaching.

Many of the coaches work through email or over the phone. There's a listing on the website.
posted by sugarfish at 5:12 PM on September 22, 2008


The book called: "The NOW Habit" is a great help in understanding the psychology of procrastination and what to do about it....

One technique which works is to write for five minutes. That's all. Just five minutes. Stop and then repeat. As you repeat you may find yourself working longer and longer. I think what stops us from writing is that view of the infinite load, the impossible-seeming task. But if you chop it into small bits, even an elephant is just a series of meals. :)
posted by storybored at 5:22 PM on September 22, 2008


First of all, writing's tough. But you know that already.

Second, I'm thinking of a Robert McKee line. Something to do with 99% of procrastination being a direct result of the writer not really knowing the "story" he's trying to tell. This has certainly proven to be true for me. And yes, I do think that all successful writing is, on some level, story telling.

My advice: don't worry about "writing" so much as organizing your thinking. What exactly are you trying to communicate? Take notes, plan the flow of your discourse, THINK. Take more notes. Make your intention not to write your "story" but to tell it. And then do tell it. Sit down over a couple of beers and tell your "story" to a friend, beginning, middle and end. Once you can pull this off, the written words will fall into place, and it might even be fun.

McKee calls this process writing from the outside in.
posted by philip-random at 5:24 PM on September 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


My business requires lots of writing, and I've had the same problem off and on. One thing that has worked for me has already been suggested: use a different tool in a different location. For me, that means taking my laptop (I usually work at my desktop computer) to a very different place, preferably one that has no internet access. I also turn off email and the phone. Sometimes it helps if that very different place is also very far from home, like on another continent.

Another trick that works for me is to intentionally go brain-dead and write dreck. Here's how I do it:

1. I promise myself I only have to work for 30 minutes.

2. I go into "robot" mode. I replace thoughts like "I hate hate hate hate this project" with no thought at all, just detached observation of myself as I open the necessary files. "Here I am, opening a file." It's just a file like any other file. And I'm opening it.

3. I intentionally write absolute crap. I write wordy, banal, trivial dreck with no original insight whatsoever. I pretend I'm a bad writer and I write what they would write.

4. The timer goes off. Usually, I'm in the zone, no longer writing crap, intrigued by some problem or other. If I'm not in the zone, I stop and reward myself heartily.

The more I procrastinate, the worse it gets. Pretty soon I'm not enjoying anything, including the surfing that I'm doing to procrastinate. But once I start doing something, even those 30 minutes of dreck a day, I feel better, which magically makes me less likely to procrastinate. The trick is to keep the momentum going.
posted by PatoPata at 5:50 PM on September 22, 2008 [9 favorites]


The War of Art by Steven Pressfield may give you some insight into what you describe as "disease of the will." Pressfield calls that “Resistance” and, if nothing else, identifies its incarnations.

On his site FAQ:
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and novelists?

Three steps.

First, take Robert McKee's three-day course: Story. He gives it in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, London, everywhere. Check his website, www.mckeestory.com.

Second, read my book, "The War of Art."

Third, sit down and do it and don't quit no matter what.

P.S. If you do Step Three, you can skip One and Two.
Along those lines, Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland defines “blocks” and offers strategies for cultivating the all-important PROCESS of making things.
posted by bonobo at 5:52 PM on September 22, 2008


Personally — and this may just be a question of my personality — I don't think that "forcing" will ever work in the long term. Things like the "donation to a horrible cause" are fine for the occasional kick in the ass, but it sounds like you could do with something more profound. Here's what struck me as the key to your question:

There is some sort of enormous resistance to getting started on the writing process, and a sense of aversion and unpleasantness in the initial stages when I do start, both of which prevent me from doing it.

Of course, it's always much, much easier to advise people to change their thinking than it is to actually change your thinking. But here goes anyway:

I reckon that the feelings of resistance, aversion and unpleasantness are not what's stopping you writing, or at least, not in a straightforward way. The real problem is that you've come to believe that you need to eliminate those feelings before you can write Why do you need to feel good about writing before you start doing it? What if you set aside an hour a day — or even just an hour, once, as an experiment — to write alongside those feelings? To spend an hour feeling crap and also writing? You think that feeling bad is an obstacle to getting work done, but actually the requirement that you feel good before you start is the problem — an unnecessary burden you're adding to the process. I've quoted this guy here before:

"Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die."
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:02 PM on September 22, 2008 [7 favorites]


I make my living writing and actually love the process.

What works for me is to do it first thing everyday. I get up, grab the laptop and go the the local coffeehouse at about 6am. You need to find some place you're comfortable, with a nice chair and good view. Not all places are conducive to writing. Then I order a black coffee, turn on the computer and wait for the caffeine buzz to get me going. The coffee is an important part of it, as it gets my synapses firing and focused on the screen. I don't allow myself to log onto the internet or read the paper either, just focus my thoughts on the story I'm trying to tell.

It's amazing once you do this for a week and it becomes part of your habit. I don't think writing has to be a solitary thing and I'm often inspired by things I see while I'm working and try to incorporate them. It's important to stay focused and not get into morning conversations, but it's seem much more fun writing in public. You'll become a regular and start to enjoy starting your day while getting work done.

I usually go until about 10:30 or so, but even if you got there at 6am and went 'til 8am, you'd still have gotten two full hours done before the day really even begins. For me, it doesn't matter how the rest of the day goes since I've already gotten my writing done.

They key is to make a habit of it, then add caffeine...

Good luck.
posted by stevea. at 6:05 PM on September 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


Wow, I'm surprised even Robert Boice didn't do it for you. By all means, get a (writing) coach.

One more thing to try. Set a ridiculously* low word limit, and write that many words per day, absolutely, positively, no matter what. I'm thinking like 10 words/day.

Get a dedicated calendar, and put an X through each day that you write 10 words. Don't break the chain. Keep the calendar on your pillow during the day, and, say, on top of your laptop at night. As soon as you wake up, put the calendar back on your pillow.

*And, it's not ridiculous. It's more than you're writing right now.
posted by zeek321 at 6:06 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, and never, ever increase your word count minimum *above* 10 words/day. That's what you're going to do, no matter what.
posted by zeek321 at 6:07 PM on September 22, 2008


You might want to think about ways to "de-mythologize" or decompress the act of writing for yourself rather than externalizing it by giving the disciple to someone else to impose. A writing coach might work for you but there is likely something going on inside you about this whole process.

"the War of Art" by Steven Pressfield is not my style and is about "creative" writing rather than academic writing but I know a few people who have used it to success and I've used the ubiquitous Julia Margaret Cameron tome, "The Artist's Way". I think they do dislodge something if you can get past your own self-importance and the ego-driven complex that seems to be at the heart of most writer's block. Some how we get "stuck -up" as writers and academics, literally.

I learned that for me, it was to walk away from the ego investment in the product - much easier said than done, but literally walking away and walking often helped too. I think you gotta' be counter-intuitive with this bugger of a problem.

Lots more to say about it but it's all in this general direction. Good luck.
posted by ofelia at 6:16 PM on September 22, 2008


Oops, missed that someone else already mentioned "the War of Art". Must be popular.
posted by ofelia at 6:19 PM on September 22, 2008


Man, just get away from this damned internet. Take a notebook and pen to a cafe and sit there until something squirts out. It might not work immediately, but I swear to god every time I look back on a week and say "I did NOTHING!" it was because of the internet.
posted by borkingchikapa at 6:21 PM on September 22, 2008


Pitch article proposals to whichever outlets publish material similar to what you write. Put yourself on a deadline and watch how it will work magic on your diseased will.
posted by The Straightener at 6:23 PM on September 22, 2008


This may not seem too relevant, but I can HIGHLY recommend Joan Bolker's book "Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day."

Excellent for all writers, not just academics-in-training.

Bolker is a psychologist who deals specifically with 'writer's block'... if you live in the US, maybe you could even look her up?
posted by Weng at 6:51 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wrote a comment on this subject a while back along the same lines of what game warden to the events rhino writes above -- realizing that resistance/negativity/fear is part of the process for me, and allowing myself to sit with it, feel the fear, and write it anyway.

But I've also been stuck in a deeper, quicksandy, hard to see out of way, and I get that there are both practical and psychological fixes to be had. On the practical side, yes, absolutely: get out of the house. Writing in public (especially if you're writing in a public place where other writers are writing) (or "writing," ha ha) makes the process a little more transparent; the theory is that you're less likely to goof off, distract yourself, or waste time when there's someone else watching. Also, baby steps: find another writer friend and make a bet with each other, or challenge each other, or even just keep tabs on each other. I had a friend who would email me things like: "Just write one sentence. One measly sentence!" or "I bet you can't write one sentence..." It sounds stupid, but part of what an accumulated block is is the big-picture overload -- the self-defeating, "Well, I can't start NOW because I've already wasted the day and I have 20 chapters to write, and even if I did write anything right now, there's no way I could write all 20 chapters, so what's the point?" Breaking it down reveals the practical point: if you write one sentence, that's one sentence more than you'd have written if you just said "screw it" and given up on writing for the day. (Another idea is to attach an actual penalty to NOT doing it. Last summer, when I was on a deadline like I'm on right now, my publisher had a little built-in incentive for me and my co-author to turn in the book on time: even one day late, and we forfeited a staggering amount of our advance. That was quite the stress-inducing motivator.)

As far as the mind-games aspect of it goes... when I find myself resisting or stuck or whatever you want to call it, I do a few things. One is what I wrote about in that other comment, about seeing my procrastination and resistance as a message I need to listen to. I think about it like the way my 9-year-old will complain at bedtime about a tummy-ache: maybe 5% of the time it's really an upset stomach, but 95% of the time it's fears and worries too difficult to be articulated that instead present as real sensations of discomfort. When I find myself feeling resistant or procrastinaty, I try to approach myself the way I would my daughter. Sitting with those feelings -- not running away from them via email or, say, responding to AskMe questions when I have 20 chapters to write by October -- helps them show their true nature, so I can see whether they're a 5% actual identifiable and thus fixable problem or 95% amorphous fearful unarticulated problem. And if they do reveal themselves to be the 95%, it's the quiet sitting with them and investigating them that divests them of their power. So it's important to take some practical measures to stop myself from running away into welcome distractions, the better to delve into the less practical aspects of what's happening.

The other thing I do when stuck is ask myself, What's the payoff? What do I get from continuing this behavior? The hard part is that even once I figure that out -- payoff? well, if I procrastinate I get to maybe not meet my deadline, which makes me feel anxious, which adds to a sense of drama, which is only heightened as my falling short threatens to reveal me as the fraud that I am! -- I still have to do something about it. Which means changing my behavior. Which is difficult to do, especially when those primal motivators (maybe I'll fail! maybe everyone will realize I'm horrible!) are a tempting dramatic hook to bite. But the fact is that even though the feeling of writer's block and stuckness seems to be stasis and immobility -- it's actually DRAMA. And drama is a waste of time, unless you're writing it down.

The fact is, you need to write. The other fact is, you're sabotaging yourself. That makes for some nice drama and maybe even a nice plot point, but the act of writing is not like the act of reading or experiencing writing. The act of writing is a boring, drama-free fact, and investing it with this narrative of stuckness and failure doesn't enrich it or diminish it, it just stops you from continuing it. When I find myself tempted to go there -- and I am tempted, every day, and especially on a crushing deadline, like I'm on now, which is why I'm typing here -- I do my Four Rs, sometimes many times a minute, and instead keep moving.

So, as I suspect you already know, the only way out of this is through it. Get yourself out of your house, disconnect from the internet, take baby steps and then reward yourself (10 sentences and then an hour of time-wasting! a page and then an hour of revelry!), listen to yourself, be gentle to yourself -- and then get to work.
posted by mothershock at 6:58 PM on September 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Maybe you don't really want to write. Maybe you just want to want to write, but really you're better suited to another occupation, or another aspect of your current occupation.

What is the actual substance of your procrastination? What is it you're doing online? What sorts of administrative tasks? At the end of the day, what we actually end up choosing to spend our time on is no accident--you might look there for clues to help determine whether another direction might be a better fit for your true self.
posted by eileen at 7:00 PM on September 22, 2008


Personally — and this may just be a question of my personality — I don't think that "forcing" will ever work in the long term

It's worked for just about every successful writer in the history of the world so far. Writing is work. Find me a construction worker who enjoys getting up and going to work every day. Find me an athlete at any level who genuinely feels like training every morning. They don't exist.

I'll second most of what's been said above- leave the house, get away from the distractions, pace yourself. I do "10 minutes on/10 minutes off" - write for ten minutes, do whatever I want for 10 minutes. I time myself with a stopwatch program. Repeated for a few hours, I get a lot done.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:32 PM on September 22, 2008


Here's something I'm considering for my own version of your problem (it's research, not writing, for me)...

1. Go to the Millionaire's club (or wherever guys hang out on the corner looking for work)
2. Pay someone ten bucks an hour to watch you work... tell him to voice disapproval if you engage in prohibited behaviors.
3. Do this for as many days as it takes to rebuild your work ethic. The fact that it's very expensive may also be a good motivator.

I'm serious.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:09 PM on September 22, 2008


I'm not a writer, but here's what I do and say to myself to avoid procrastination in my own work:
- Remember the saying that 80% of success is showing up? Well, the same goes for creative endeavors. 80% of success is just doing it regularly.
- Procrastination is about fear of failure, of producing something that sucks. So give yourself permission to suck. Most anyone who's done anything good sucked at one point, but did the thing enough to get through the suckage, started to suck less and less, until they didn't suck at all.
- Doing the thing makes me feel better because then I don't have to feel guilty at having procrastinated.
- Do it even if you don't feel like it. Often you will feel like it once you start doing it.
- Break up projects that seem overwhelming into clearly defined, smaller tasks and create a detailed todo list. Then choose whichever one seems easy or interesting and do that. Then cross it off. Make it a game to cross off as many tasks on the list as possible.
- If you don't know what you are trying to accomplish, it's very easy to procrastination. Another reason to make a todo list, an outline, or whatever other type of document you can use to organize your type of writing and collect your thoughts.
- Move around a lot. I'll work one hour at home, go to a cafe and work one hour there, take a break, go to the park and work, go back home, go to the library, etc.
- Have two tasks or projects going on at once. When I get bored with the first project, switch to the second project.
- Set a time limit. If you only allow yourself to work for one hour a day and forbid yourself from working any more, you will have to use that hour effectively to get anything done. Work and procrastination expand to fill up all the time available.
- Use the Seinfeld Method
- Get a separate computer that's not connected to the Internet and use that for all your writing. (And don't put any games on it, either. And uninstall Minesweeper and Solitaire.)
- If all else fails, maybe you don't really care about what you're trying to write about, or enjoy this line of work. Think about whether the procrastination is telling you something. Maybe you need to change the direction of your work to make it more motivating or meaningful to you.
posted by lsemel at 8:14 PM on September 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


I feel your pain. You might want to try How to Write A Lot. It's based on the premise that even just writing a teeny amount each day quickly adds up (much more than if you only write when you have a deadline) and, more importantly, that this daily practice actually makes you more productive cognitively as well - so the writing you do is better, and easier to achieve.

It's kind of like cognitive behavioral therapy - starts out being something you have to force yourself to do (which I know you don't want), but over time, you internalize it so it feels natural. Sounds cheesy, but it works - and they have, like, big chunky graphs to prove it. As a bonus, it's a quick read, and occasionally funny.
posted by media_itoku at 8:15 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've taken to literally strapping myself in to my desk chair (I always joked that I needed a seatbelt to keep me from roaming around my house while trying to write and finally just grabbed a scarf and wrapped it around my waist and the chair). It's kinda ridiculous, but that plus headphones plugged into the computer (so that I'm attached) plus an Ikea pillow that has socks to put feet in keep me grounded and in front of my computer, unable to get up without effort. The internet is evil -- when I'm trying to write, it gets turned off (I'm thisclose to getting my partner to change the WEP password during the day so I can't access it at all until he comes home). Freewriting has also been a huge help. I second the Bolker rec, which has a lot of useful strategies for writing that I've implemented with some success.

I also wonder how much you believe you should be writing in a day. If you think 10 pages is good for one day, maybe lower your expectations -- 2 pages is a lot more reasonable. And consistently churning out 2 pages a day is a lot better than stressing yourself out too much to get 10 and ending up with none.

Good luck. I certainly feel your pain on this issue.

On preview: I loved How to Write a Lot and thought it was pretty useful too.
posted by pised at 8:26 PM on September 22, 2008


I just finished a book.

I have no time to write, because I work two jobs: one from 9 to 5, the other from 7 to 10. Then I have a long commute home. Then bed.

I kept telling myself I would write during my brief periods of free time during the day, like on my commute or in the dinner slot between my first job and my second. Or maybe on weekends. But I couldn't make myself do it. My mind and body just screamed for down time. I'd wind up surfing the web or listening to my iPod instead.

So I started getting up at 6 and writing ever day from 6 to 7. I got out of bed, went downstairs, opened up my laptop and immediately started writing, even if I was still groggy with sleep. After a while, though, I got into it and it became really annoying to quit at 7.

I didn't wind up having to do this, but I thought about putting my alarm clock across the room, away from my bed, so that I'd have to get up to turn it off. I also thought about unplugging my wireless router and TV before going to bed. That way, there wouldn't be anything to do except write for that 6 to 7 hour. Do you have one of those word processors that takes up your entire screen and has almost no interface except a cursor?

I can tell you: I always felt great after those morning sessions. By 7 each morning, my brain was on fire and I'd already accomplished something.
posted by grumblebee at 8:37 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm trying to finish a thesis at the moment. Therefore, I'm logged onto metafilter reading other people's posts instead of writing.

What has worked for me (obviously not right now, but I'm sure I'll get there sometime today) is advice someone gave me at the start of the year- make sure that every day you complete something. Anything. Set a target, even if it's ridiculously easy, and do it. Some days my entire output has been typing a reference into Endnote and writing about 20 words of notes on it. Other days it's been considerably more. But just by doing something daily, I feel better about what I've achieved and have actually made some kind of headway as well.
posted by twirlypen at 9:00 PM on September 22, 2008


It (forcing the issue has) worked for just about every successful writer in the history of the world so far. Writing is work.

I agree with this to a point ... but you can force it too far. To the point of madness, which I very nearly did once or twice when younger and sillier. What I finally learned is that every now and then, you just have to shut your notebook (laptop, typewriter, whatever) and walk away and remind yourself that life goes on and, in the end, it's just words.
posted by philip-random at 9:41 PM on September 22, 2008


This is a serious, hard problem for lots of people, as you know, and there are just no quick fixes for it. It seems to me that even the most fitful successes can help to establish better working patterns, but the threat of getting stuck never really goes away. Everyone's writing block is their own: it's a problem of your personal psychology, so it may be useful to rotate scattershot-fashion through a lot of different approaches, trying them all until one works for you. A few other quick thoughts before I answer your real specific question about coaching:

You've read some books about writing. Have you read Peter Elbow's Writing without Teachers or any of his other work on writing? His incredibly humane thoughts on the problem of teaching or learning a functional writing process can be useful even just as therapy from a sympathetic voice to remind you you're not alone. He also has some good thoughts about what makes writing groups work.

From the bag of small tricks that sometimes work:
* A separate laptop for writing, with no web browser or email installed, that you carry to a new place without distractions. (Or the software equivalent: a separate, highly restricted user account that you log in to for writing.)
* Write about what you want to write: emails to yourself or a friend or colleague or mentor, describing the idea for the project, outlining its components, explaining what excites and interests you about it. Even just the phrase "What I want to say here is..." can be liberating – and you can often just delete the lead-in later and find you've written perfectly usable, revisable prose.
* Write the footnotes first: describe and summarize the research and sources you'll be using for the article. This gets you started in a less thought-intensive way, and often eventually you'll end up just drifting naturally into some of your original argument about the sources and find yourself with at least some subsidiary points that need making. Or write about what you're unsatisfied with in some recent articles, and develop what you write until it's no longer a quarrel with them but a freestanding piece of your own.
* Revising is easier than writing: get a few pages of rough notes together any way you can, from transcribing your notes on reading or conferences to pulling a page with an underdeveloped point out of the last thing you successfully wrote. Building on any rough foundation can be easier than imagining you're creating from scratch.
* Find yourself some un-missable deadlines. Conferences are popular with many seemingly productive writers I know, for just this reason: you have to have the paper written by the day you read it. Revising a short and sketchy conference paper for publication is never as hard as writing a new piece.

Tricks are sometimes useful, but I doubt tricks will ultimately solve this problem for you. I think you are completely right that you need to socialize your writing process, take it away from your isolated office keyboard and make it part of some regular interactions with people you respect but don't fear. Get the problem to live somewhere outside your own head, and come out of the closet about it. Your question seems (to me, though it's always possible I'm projecting) to carry a lot of implied guilt or shame about these writing blocks; perhaps this feeling that it needs to be kept private and personal is what's impeding you in finding others to help.

You asked about what kinds of people to approach, but I don't think this requires any professional skill so much as it needs someone who wants to help. Almost anyone can perform the role you need, the checking in and listening to you talk about the work, and discussing as you go, as long as your relationship allows them to sympathetically and gently keep you on track. Are you sure that (what I read as) your fear of opening up to a colleague or friend, or at least your doubt that they'd help, is justified? I think you can certainly talk to some academic friends (even far outside your discipline should be fine; or old grad school friends?), sympathetic and trusted colleagues or mentors, or just other folks in your life. Set up, if you can, a semi-regular scheduled meeting with one or a group of them where they check in on you and you show them, and discuss, what progress you've made and what you hope to accomplish next. Try to do this at least every two weeks or so. If doing a friend a favor isn't enough compensation – and I encourage you to imagine that it might be, and ask your friends if you're right – you can easily perform the same or similar service (proofreading?) in return, which is a great boon to any working academic. I'd guess there are several others, at whatever your institution is, who'd appreciate a reciprocal arrangement. Opening up enough to ask around about it may be the only change you need to make.
posted by RogerB at 9:58 PM on September 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


drjimmy11: ['Forcing' has] worked for just about every successful writer in the history of the world so far. Writing is work. Find me a construction worker who enjoys getting up and going to work every day. Find me an athlete at any level who genuinely feels like training every morning. They don't exist.

Maybe I wasn't clear — my whole point was exactly that you need to start doing the activity without insisting that you first feel like doing the activity. What you don't need to do, and what many professional writers I know don't do, is to harangue yourself into doing it, or seek to punish yourself for not doing it, or in other ways "blast through" the negativity and resistance. You can just let the negativity and resistance be, and write anyway.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:51 AM on September 23, 2008


When I really need to force myself to write--which is often--I need all of the following to coincide:

-Longhand
-Another person writing in the room with me
-A set time limit
-A reward

Longhand eliminates the temptation of reading Metafilter or Wikipedia instead of writing. It also forces me to edit later, when I type it. Others above have also suggested coaches and writing buddies. For me, the person has to be writing too--a person sitting there and staring at me just unnerves me, and a person sitting there and reading or listening to music on headphones or drawing makes me want to stop writing and do that activity too. But my boyfriend comes over and we have a set "writing time" where we sit in silence for an hour or so and just write in a room together, and it feels analogous to writing an essay in an exam, which was always easy for me. A set time limit helps create that feeling too, and makes the whole thing manageable, as does a reward. This comment makes me sound like I hate writing and like I'm five years old.
posted by millipede at 7:36 AM on September 23, 2008


Yellow legal pads and Adderall.

I found this summer as I was procrastinating writing my dissertation prospectus that--for me anyway--the computer is absolute death for creativity. Words just don't flow on the computer, they don't come out properly. It's too hard to write a sentence without Control-Tabbing my way over to metafilter.

So I printed off about 500 pages worth of JStor articles, divided my work into sections of about 1000 words each, and told myself that I'd damn well finish a 1000 word section each day, even if it turned out to be a steaming pile of crap. When I was done, I'd take a break, and then copy it word-for-word into Scrivener, using the full-screen mode to block out distractions.

This works. Part of the creative process is getting the stuff that's been percolating in your brainpan out into the open. It's also being comfortable with the fact that first tries are mostly crap, but that most people don't get to the first try to find out.

And the Adderall has helped enormously.
posted by awenner at 8:09 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The best article I've ever read on this can be found here: Productive Habits of Scholarly Writers by Robert Boice.

I'll just let you read it. It's inspiring, and imminently practical. And based on research.
posted by mecran01 at 9:10 AM on September 25, 2008 [4 favorites]


Ah, I see Boice wrote the book you referred to above. Anyway, this article is condensed and still helpful. I hope.
posted by mecran01 at 3:43 PM on September 25, 2008


I sympathize with this post. I, too, have a "disease of the will" when it comes to writing, except, unlike the original poster, I never seem to find that "flow state"-- writing is uphill all the way, one painful phrase at a time.

A few questions for the poster: 1) you say that checkpoints come every 6 or 7 years, and that you've done well so far, which makes it sound like you have tenure. In that case, the pressure is off, no? 2) What was writing your dissertation like? I assume you accomplished around 250 pages of quality writing in around two years' time. Can you recall the habits and self-talk that got you through that, and try to replicate them now?
posted by ms.codex at 2:33 AM on November 1, 2008


It's the one-year anniversary of my original post. The constructive response here was heartening and invaluable. I thought I'd post an update.

Within about a day of posting this message to Ask Metafilter, I wrote an overdue small piece. Within a couple of weeks I warmed up to getting started on a book I had been planning for a long time. That brought the floodgates down, and over the course of the last year, I've completed a draft of that book and gotten a lot done besides. This is, obviously, a good feeling.

Now, I'm not fooling myself that I have cured the problem in the original post. This is quite likely an extended binge of the sort that I mentioned I get every few years. I still have pathologies and I haven't changed my underlying work habits in some enormous way. Still, it has at least been a steady and reasonably controlled binge, one that I've been able to get back to and pick up after some time off, and one that is still going on. So I will surf the wave while it's here. In the process I think I have learned some lessons about what works and what doesn't. It's an open question how well I'll be able to take advantage of these lessons later on, but I will be interested to see.

Numerous thoughtful comments posted here have been valuable in this process. I won't name names, but there is a lot of really good stuff above. Reflecting on it helped a lot in getting unblocked. And the very fact of this discussion played a crucial role in getting the whole process kicked off. I'm very grateful. So: thanks, Metafilter.
posted by blocked at 7:12 AM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


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