Strategies for Teaching Blocked Writers

PALS Note: We are happy to have Aaron Colton take us through his composition course that focuses on the ever pervasive writer’s block. Both Colton and his students made unexpected discoveries along the way. Join us as we get a glimpse into that journey.

On the first day of the fall 2018 semester at Georgia Tech, I asked the twenty-five students in my freshman communication course whether they’d ever experienced “writer’s block.” Virtually every hand shot up. The pervasiveness of writer’s block among my students—described mainly in the context of college applications and timed AP essays—stunned me. As a longtime instructor of composition, I’d confronted a host of explanations from students as to why they had not completed a given assignment, but never had I thought to ask struggling students whether they would consider themselves “blocked.” Instead, I’d come to associate the condition solely with professionals—as is the case in popular films like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) and the Will-Ferrell-led Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Writer’s block was the burden of those who write for a living, I had thought, not students.

Writer’s block is in fact so ubiquitous among professionals that there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to curing it. Historically, the prevailing treatment for blocked writers has been the written self-help manual, which can range from simple lists of suggestions (The Chronicle and Inside Higher Education publish such pieces regularly) to full-blown monographs (perhaps the earliest of which was published in 1934, according to Zachary Leader’s excellent intellectual history of writer’s block). More recently, an array of digital productivity tools has emerged, intended to support writing by way of time management or carrots and sticks. Pomodoro timers encourage writers to follow a 25-minutes-on, 5-minutes-off schedule; websites such as Written? Kitten! and WriteOrDie celebrate progress with images of cats or, terrifyingly, delete one’s sentences should a preset words-per-minute goal go unmet.

The preponderance of articles and apps that tackle writer’s block typically call attention to the process of writing. A common assumption about writer’s block is that the blocked writer is either doing something wrong or not doing something essential. Thus, written recommendations tend to be practical—“stay off social-media,” “stop editing prematurely,” and so on—while apps force writers to abide by the same instructions.

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from Spongebob Squarepants “Procrastination”

Though the very theme of the course in which I had queried my students was itself “writer’s block,” I had not designed my course as a remedy for blockage—nor did I consider it a therapeutic outlet. Rather, my intention was to introduce students to written and multimodal communication through three related questions: (1) How should we define “writer’s block”?, (2) How is it best remedied?, and (3) How should we understand the recurring figure of the blocked writer in recent American media? However, in challenging my students to adopt an analytical approach to blockage, we discovered a powerful method for resolving students’ own experiences of it—one that I now advocate for struggling writers at all levels of the college curriculum.

In the major assignments of my course, I asked my students to weigh varying conceptualizations of writer’s block and to assess its resolvability and cultural significance. Throughout the semester, students created and revised:

  1. A 3-4 page encyclopedia entry on writer’s block. Writing in a descriptive genre, students drew from several of the perspectives on writer’s block they discussed in class—from neuropsychologists’ scientific findings to novelists’ more abstract theories—and then made tough decisions about which perspectives they found necessary to include in an informational account of the condition. Students were thus able to generate foundational understandings of writer’s block on which they would later build arguments and interpretations.
  2. A digital or physical resource for blocked writers, and a pitch to a magazine or website editor for an article about that resource. Teaching at Georgia Tech, I often leverage students’ interests and proficiencies in engineering, coding, and design. This assignment encouraged students to exercise those skills in accordance with the theories of writer’s block they developed in their encyclopedia entries. Then, in writing pitches for articles describing the utilities of their resources, students articulated the ways in which their products might assist blocked writers where others have fallen short. In doing so, students took a first step toward making discursive interventions in response to ongoing dilemmas.
  3. A 10-minute podcast, examining a blocked writer-character in American fiction, film, or television, produced in teams of five. In this project, students were asked to consider why writers or directors continually return to the subject of writer’s block, and then to argue that a particular blocked writer-character represents more than just the difficulty of creative labor. Characters interpreted by students ranged from the The Shining’s (1980) questionably productive Jack Torrance to the procrastinatory Spongebob Squarepants.

While undoubtedly productive, students made it clear in their reflections on these assignments that they had not been liberated entirely from blockage. Far from it, several students found themselves grappling with writer’s block even while examining the subject. As one student noted late in the semester: “the ironic thing is that I would usually still be undergoing writer’s block as I wr[o]te about overcoming it.” At the same time, however—and in spite of their continued experiences of writer’s block—my students gained a consistent and considerable wealth of material for defeating it. The key lay in method—that is, in treating their likely (or even inevitable) frustrations as objects of analysis.

shining.png
from Stanley Kubrick’s  The Shining

Because the course assignments fused the experience of writing—or failing to write—with critical thinking, students never found themselves without a compositional foothold; their experiences of blockage could always lend themselves to the assignment at hand. One student, for example, reflected on how when scripting her podcast, which examined the blocked writer Karen Eiffel from Stranger Than Fiction, her own battles with blockage allowed her “to see inside Karen Eiffel’s mind,” and thus equip herself to make meaningful interpretations. So while not a panacea, “[s]tudying writer’s block,” as another student described, “created a sort of placebo effect when attempting to communicate my ideas.”

While I am not recommending that every composition course center on writer’s block, I do believe that blocked students, both in composition and in other humanities disciplines, can benefit from sustained and nuanced meditations on the experience of blockage. By transforming writer’s block into a topic of pre- or mid-assignment exercises, students can probe the academic, social, and personal contexts from which writer’s block emerges, and in doing so gain insights into what it might take to reclaim their compositional capacities. Instructors can ask student to write as specifically as possible on questions like these:

  • What does writer’s block feel like? Is it physical? Emotional? A mental state?
  • Where do you think your writer’s block comes from? Is it a product of the assignment? Of the sources you’re writing on? Is it a personal issue? A combination of these things?
  • What does your writer’s block sound like? Is it a critic who says your ideas are no good? Does it assure you that writing will happen, only later—like the night before the deadline?
  • Do you feel that you’re missing something essential to your writing process? If so, what is it? A main idea? A link between ideas? The perfect passage to dig into? Motivation?
  • Recall the last time you wrote unblocked—what did that experience look and feel like? How long did you write for at a time? What gave you motivation? Did you start writing with ideas already prepared, or did your ideas arise as you wrote? How did you find your ideas?
  • Imagine that you’re interviewing a future version of yourself who has finished the assignment. What did this person do to get back into the writing groove?

The difference between this technique and the plethora of articles and books on overcoming writer’s block is that it approaches blockage from a topical rather than procedural angle. Instead of recommending that students take walks or try out stream-of-consciousness prose, it suggests that they write both descriptively and critically about the very writing they’re failing to accomplish.

Ideally, prompts like these will nudge students to identify the questions or personal/motivational issues they need to confront in order to jumpstart their writing processes. But even without such realizations, an added advantage of this exercise is that it demands the same procedures of critical thinking that most writing assignments depend on. That is, even if students do not achieve the mythical “flow state” of writing—where ideas pour forth as if given by a muse—reflecting on writer’s block can bring students to prime the very intellectual muscles they’ll need to exercise in their assignments. So, in getting those first words about writer’s block onto the page—even if they are seemingly tangential to the main assignment—students take a crucial, and analytical, first step to beating writer’s block.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_1544Aaron Colton is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he has recently taught courses on writer’s block as a cultural phenomenon and sincerity and irony in recent US culture. His research on 20th- and 21st-century US fiction has appeared in Studies in American FictionCollege Literature, and Postmodern Culture, and his current book project examines the representation of writer’s block in postwar American literature.

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On the Importance of Repetition in Poetry: Robert Hayden and Drake

PALS is pleased to welcome a guest post by Alex Bernstein a poet, teacher, and editor in New York City. Please find below Bernstein’s descriptions of how he made Robert Hayden’s poetry more accessible through Drake. 

Poetry is a great medium for teaching students close reading skills. Usually, when introducing poetry to students who have never enjoyed reading at all, I say that poems are meant to be difficult because they are designed expressly to reanimate and reactivate the language we already know. This disclaimer often leads to relief: if you use language, I say, in any way on a daily basis, you can actively read poetry. The poet and teacher, Matthew Zapruder, says in his collection of essays, Why Poetry (2017), “the true difficulty—and reward—of poetry is in reading what is actually on the page carefully” (18). For me, the “reward” of poetry in the classroom is seeing how attention and concentration to what’s “on the page” lead students to glimmers of actuality, the paradox and complexity and uncertainty, that lies behind the way we usually perceive the world. This often means that students must confront their own personal histories, come to understand themselves within a larger social context, and see their lives in the reflection of a deep engagement with words. However, everything begins on the page, and if I can get students through the doors of their own attention, then all the learning objectives for a particular unit seem to fall into place: critical thinking; close, active reading; and comprehension of rhetorical devices.

So, how to get students to pay attention? In the lesson that follows, I outline how to teach close reading skills to students who have no formal experience with poetry by emphasizing the importance of looking for patterns of repetition. I work partly with what I’ve called, The Method, a series of list making procedures which ask students to select and analyze key repetitions—sounds, words, and syntax—in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Drake’s “Nice for What.” When I first mentioned this lesson plan to some of my colleagues, they were excited, I think, by the possibility of pairing Hayden with Drake. Ultimately, I wanted a way of getting my students’ attention, and we were all still listening to Drake’s new album Scorpion (2018). I knew I wanted to discuss the importance of repetition in poetry and to tie in Drake somehow. I immediately thought of Hayden’s lines, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” However, the class discussion of Hayden and Drake really developed what, at the outset, felt like a hunch into an insightful and meaningful learning experience for me and my students.

On the Importance of Repetition

I’m always thinking about repetition in relation to the poems I’m reading and teaching. Repetition forms the building blocks of rhythm and of the larger fabric of associations that make up a poem’s spirit and architecture. It’s a pattern-building, mnemonic process which is always going on and instinctively informs the movement from attention to pleasure which is the joy of both reading closely and thinking about daily habits beyond language. Making my students aware of how daily experiences touch in us certain patterns and rhythms is important to setting the tone for our conversation about Hayden and Drake. I begin the lesson by discussing with students how repetition informs our everyday lives—walking through the front door of our homes, waking up in order to get to work on time, the evening sunset. I ask them to free write—in list form—for 7-10 minutes about the kinds of objects, people, and activities they return to on a regular basis. As most of my students are aspiring nurses already working in hospitals, we spend a lot of the time discussing how caring for people in clinical settings often means returning to them: managing prescriptions, performing tests, adhering to feeding schedules, etc. The discussion also returns to picking up children from school, which, for parents who are also students, often means managing time effectively. The larger theme which emerges out of our discussion is that repetition builds a sense of security into our daily lives: the comfort of healthy patients, the welfare of a child’s safety. Although they might seem mundane, the commonplace acts of repetition we inhabit regularly have about them a metrical quality. They ensure the completion of tasks and build and relieve worthwhile tensions. They compel a kind of lyric attention, of memory and inspiration, and ask us to return to people and to things, giving us a larger sense of connectedness. This is what poems do, I tell my students. They ask us, quite literally and line by line, to return with our attention to words, to people, and to things.

Robert Hayden and “Those Winter Sundays”

I then hand out to students a one-sheet called, “Close Reading and Interpretive Claims,” or The Method: a step-by-step approach to breaking down texts, objects, and images. The lesson on Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Drake’s “Nice for What” focuses only on step 1: locate and list exact repetitions. Twice we read Hayden’s poem aloud as a class and discuss our initial observations. For students who don’t have much experience reading poetry, a good entry into any poem is listening to its sounds. We make a list on the whiteboard of all the repeating sounds: blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic. We notice the hard, percussive K sounds are repeated 10 times. We then move on to listing exact repetitions of words and phrases:

Sunday (x2)

cold (x3)

What did I know (x2)

him/his/he’d (x4)

The act of making lists, I tell my students, is an act of discernment. By identifying these repetitions as a class, we are implicitly making interpretations about the poem together. For instance, the repetition of cold three times, we notice, immediately makes apparent its opposite, fire, which is only ever mapped out according to its equivalents: blaze and warm. At this point, we haven’t yet begun to speak about the relationship between the poet and his father. We are charting the language and learning how to read the poem according to its sounds and melody. One student points out that the hard, percussive K sounds are Hayden’s way of implicating the harsher elements of winter, a season that, when put up against the poem’s motif of fire, sets the tone of reconciliation. We conclude that, in the poem’s main repetition—“What did I know, what did I know…?”—Hayden discovers the harmony of sound that embodies the poem’s spirit of admiration towards his father.

Drake and “Nice for What”

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One reason Hayden’s “Those Winter Sunday’s” pairs well with Drake’s “Nice for What” is because both use repetition as a device for layering and harmonizing different textures of sound. Drake’s song meanders, whereas Hayden’s poem is formally tighter and more discrete. However, both Hayden and Drake use repetition to chart out melodies which suggest admiration and reconciliation toward their respective traditions. As a class, we read the lyrics and watch the music video for “Nice for What.” It’s easy to get lost in the verses’ maze of sound-play, so I focus the discussion on Drake’s chorus, which is a remix of Lauren Hill’s “Ex Factor”:

Care for me, care for me, I know you care for me

There for me, there for me, said you’d be there for me

Cry for me, cry for me, you said you’d die for me

Give to me, give to me, why won’t you live for me?

On the white board, we make a list of exact repetitions: for me (x10), care (x3), there (x3), cry (x2), give (x2). We also point out the different rhymes in the chorus: care and there; cry and die; give and live. One student notices the coiling effect the chorus has throughout the song, as if, she says, Lauren Hill is an omnipresent force looped in and out of Drake’s verses. I also want the music video to be as much a part of our discussion as the lyrics are. Another student points out how Drake’s decision to remain on the side-lines for most of the video empowers the 20 iconoclast women (such as Misty Copeland, Rashida Jones, and Issa Rae) who are the reoccurring centerpieces of the video. Many of the students know well Hill’s “Ex Factor” from her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and they are quick to point out how the combination of powerful iconoclast women and the looping remix of Lauren Hill makes Drake more than just a “male cheerleader”; the thoughtfulness and savvy of the video actually feels sincere, one student says. Like Hayden, Drake’s remix of Hill’s “Ex Factor” is percussive and hymnic. However, one of my students points out, where Hayden is subtle, Drake announces his intentions like an anthem.

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It is a myth that, in order to understand poems, one must always know what is going on. If you have never closely read a poem, you are drawn first to the repetitions and textures of sound, then you begin to discover the narrative elements. Following those initial intuitions of sound and texture is actually how students begin to form personal relationships with poems, a kind of research that makes students into lifelong readers. The acts of breaking apart, of counting, and of listing patterns of repetition as a class gave my students a system and a practice for discovering the larger associative frameworks which were the hearts of the poems they were assigned, and when it came time to write their compare and contrast essays, they used the skills learned from our class discussions to develop the conversation in ways that felt very personal. In the lesson on Hayden and Drake, more than anything else, I wanted students to feel themselves thinking, to feel the pressures and tensions of making leaps and following language and sound associatively, and, in turn, to feel the joy of surprise and discovery in the act of reading literally. What students ended up with was rich, clever perspectives about how repetition informs creativity and how creativity informs their lives.

* Zapruder, Matthew. Why Poetry. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2017.

Bio:

Alex Bernstein is a poet, teacher, and editor living in New York City. A recent graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, he is an adjunct English professor and director of the writing center at Mildred Elley college. His prose and poems have been published or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, The New England Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The West 4th Street Review, and elsewhere.