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.

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.

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.


Bad Teacher: In Defense of “Winging It” in the Classroom

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This semester it feels like I’ve had an awful lot of those days where I’m just not as prepared for class as I’d like to be, and I’ve been struggling with guilt about that. I have a very reasonable teaching load, so it’s not a matter of being overwhelmed or tired. I am teaching a course for the first time, so I’m still figuring out how the course works, and maybe that is a factor. I’ve also been more aware lately of how easy it can be to unintentionally silence my students. It is stunning to me how easy it is after a decade of teaching for someone even as introverted as I am to turn facilitating a discussion into a lecture–to just dominate the discussion because I can. But whatever the reason, this semester I’ve found myself in my office a few hours before class trying to figure out what to do in class besides just sit in a circle and discuss the day’s reading. And you know what? The classes I’ve “planned” (and I use the term very loosely here) on those days have been by far the most successful. While I’ve had carefully planned classes fall flat, I’ve never had a class that I’ve improvised go terribly. So, for my final post of the year, I thought I share with you the things I’ve stumbled upon that have saved the day in case they might save your day in these final weeks of the semester.

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Worksheets and Handouts. I know it seems antithetical to not planning but if you are going to wing it, you need worksheets. Think of them as props. But pedagogically sound props. What worksheets give you is structure–and they make that structure clear to the students. In my experience, when you sit down to put together a worksheet, no matter how rudimentary, you end up planning a really effective lesson. I’ve also found that students really appreciate worksheets and handouts. We often assume that students prefer digital documents, but because so much of their lives are carried out in digital spaces they get overwhelmed by all they have to keep up with. Sometimes a hard copy keeps all of us focused a bit better than just conveying ideas orally or through a document somewhere on the course website. I know for me a printed handout or worksheet helps me to clearly walk students through activities and processes. I’d also like to think that by providing so much structure even to an otherwise typical in-class discussion or activity that I’m modeling how inquiry and critical thinking and research actually work–generally, the activities I assign in class are really just processes that scholars do in their heads without a second thought.

Student-led discussion. Another strategy I’ve used is turning over discussion to the students–again, in a structured way though.  I’ll give them a guiding question, or I’ll take a few minutes to recap what we discussed in the last class or week. Then, I make it a game: I won’t talk for 10 minutes (or 20 or 30, depending on the particular class and whether or not we’ve done this activity before). Sometimes there is awkward silence but eventually someone will talk. And, while they talk, I take notes on the board. After the time is up, I walk through those notes, pointing out to them the patterns, observations, insights, and questions that I identified as I listened. It can also be a good opportunity to point out the strategies that the students used in their discussion, both what worked and didn’t work. Usually, there are a couple strong discussion leaders in a class, and I can point to the way that they invited a classmate to contribute to the conversation or built on something that had been said previously. Not only does this strategy help students to understand the course content but also it does important work in teaching students how to participate in a group discussion and make it productive for themselves. It is all too easy to take for granted that discussing complicated and complex ideas is in itself a skill that must be practiced and learned. Giving students a structure in which to practice that skill enriches the class and the students’ experience in other classes and in their future workplaces.

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Self-Assessment. In another instance I stumbled onto an effective lesson after I forgot to fill out the assessment rubric we use in our writing program. I had graded the papers and given lots of in-text and summative comments but filling out the rubric had just slipped my mind. So, I quickly made copies of the rubric for each student and asked them to review their graded essays (that they had likely forgotten the content of after 2 weeks) and my comments (which many students don’t expect to get), and then fill out their rubrics based on that. I also asked them to parse out what mistakes they wouldn’t likely make again (typos due to proofreading late at night or citation errors because they overlooked the directions) and which they needed to keep in mind next time (lack of a thesis, too many ideas in a single paragraph). This activity, like those above, does double duty. While it provides a chance to revisit previous writing and to talk about what it means to revise, this activity also ensured that students knew where/how (and that) I had provided feedback and had time in class to ask me to clarify that feedback when needed. In other words, the activity brought transparency to my role in their writing process, and it provided the students with an opportunity to practice taking the lead in their own learning.

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Making Connections. Most recently, I realized that we couldn’t just keep barreling through the readings. I was pretty sure none of us were attending to the details like we should, and I couldn’t put any of us through another meandering 75-minute discussion where I knew that I would end up talking far too much. So, I wrote down on index cards the titles of each of the works that we’d read in the last couple of weeks and gave each student 2 cards at random. They then had to come up with 3 points of connection. The next week, each student added a third reading to their lineup, found another 2-3 connections, and then they shared with the class what they had come up with. Through the presentations, we were able to identify the core concepts and questions of the course, bringing some sense of closure to the semester. In addition, the activity has helped me to think about how I will structure and teach the course differently next time.

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Elevator pitches. I teach the writing process as a multimodal process, meaning that I design activities and assignments that encourage students to draft and revise ideas in multiple modes (oral, visual, and electronic). One of the easiest and most effective activities to promote a multimodal writing process is the elevator pitch. Basically, the students sit in a circle and each takes a turn giving a 1-3 minute overview of whatever project they are working on in this class. What are they researching or writing about? What is their purpose and argument? What is their methodology? Why should this work and their conclusions matter to us? There is never a bad time in a semester for students to practice articulating their responses to the course material, and oftentimes that can open up fruitful discussions both about their individual projects and about the course readings.

Canceling Class. Sometimes though, our students need the break. At least once each semester, I will end up canceling class and calling it “open office hours.” On these days, the students can come to class and work together or individually, and my job is just to be available to them. I always feel a bit guilty and lazy about doing this until I get about halfway through the class period. But every time I end up having a great conversation with a group of students or answering a question that really helps a student move forward with a project. Every. Time.

I hope that perhaps you might find in this list an activity or approach that helps you here at the end of the semester (or at the end of a future semester). But even more so, I hope that this list is a reminder that we should all be kind to ourselves: teaching is difficult and it is even harder when we put pressure on ourselves to be at our best every day. Sometimes, “winging it” or “making it up as we go” is actually the best teaching.