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.

spongebob
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.

Advertisements

Mapping Don DeLillo’s White Noise

PALS is very happy to welcome Katie Fitzpatrick back to the blog. Her first post can be found here. Fitzpatrick currently works at the Coordinated Arts Program in the University of British Columbia. The following post describes a mapping classroom activity where students reacted to passages from Don DeLillo’s White Noise.


After reading
the first third of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, my students asked me if there would ever be a plot, if anything would ever happen. While reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the class had worried about Offred’s fate in the Commander’s house. While reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, they had wondered about the dark mysteries underlying Hailsham’s idyllic appearance. Now, they were intrigued by the strange conversations in White Noise, but they couldn’t begin to guess where it was all headed. I explained that there would, eventually, be a plot (DeLillo observes that “all plots tend to move deathward” and a gun appears in the third act), but that I had chosen the book for a rather different reason.

White Noise is a novel that I like to teach in first-year literature courses because it addresses so many Big Ideas – from death and religion, to consumerism and the media – both explicitly and elliptically. It is clear from the get-go that DeLillo is trying to express something profound but it’s never immediately clear what. For this reason, the book provides ideal practice for first-year English students who are just learning how to trace a Big Idea across a text.

This year, I am teaching a 6-credit, full-year course (ASTU 100) in the University of British Columbia’s “Coordinated Arts Program.” The course (capped at 25) provides first-year students with 3 credits of university writing and 3 credits of introductory literary studies. At the point in the semester when I assigned DeLillo, my students were preparing to write a research essay that asked them to trace how an abstract concept is elaborated or challenged across a literary work (with the help of four scholarly sources). I told them that reading White Noise would help them to develop the skills necessary for that assignment; in reading DeLillo, I explained, I didn’t want them to follow a plot so much as an idea.

When reading Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale, our class had focused both on very large issues (narrative style, plot, and character) and on very narrow close-readings of individual sentences and passages. Now, I explained, it was time to read between and across scenes – to note repeated themes or motifs, to consider how different passages echoed or contradicted one another. When I expressed that I wanted students to practice “tracing connections between passages” one asked (I’m paraphrasing): “Can we make a map like a conspiracy theorist with all the passages?” She used some hand gestures to paint the picture; she was imagining the chaotic walls of sticky notes and long-lens photos and red yarn and scrap paper often depicted in crime procedurals and conspiracy thrillers. This struck me as perfect. “Yes,” I said, “Let me think about it.”

The next week, I came to class prepared to run this activity. I selected and printed nine key passages from the first half of White Noise (we hadn’t finished reading it yet). Some were passages we had already discussed or close-read in class, others were new. I also brought nine magnets from home, so I could “pin” the passages to the magnetic whiteboard, which would serve as our “conspiracy map.” Next, I set out a number of supplies on tables near the whiteboard. I placed extra copies of each key passage around the tables, so students wouldn’t have to wait in line to read a passage on the whiteboard. I also put out whiteboard markers, pens, and sticky notes. I had purchased a multi-colored pack of sticky notes, and I assigned the colors to five key themes that I saw echoed in several of the passages: death, religion, consumerism, the crowd, and the simulacrum. Lastly, I displayed the instructions for the activity on a slide, projected at the opposite side of the room.

.

When class began, I instructed students to move around the tables and the whiteboard, eventually reading all nine passages. I encouraged them to note their responses and observations in several ways: 1. If they noticed a particular theme in a passage (say, consumerism) they could simply post a sticky note of that color on or near that passage 2. They were encouraged to also write an annotation on the sticky note (in pen). These annotations could explain how/where they saw the theme in the passage, note other observations, pose questions, or answer questions previously posed by others. 3. If they noticed a theme or idea expressed across two passages, they were encouraged to use whiteboard markers to draw a connecting line/arrow and to describe the connections they saw.

Students spent about 30-35 minutes on the activity, and remained focused and engaged the entire time. At first, they were very quiet; they silently read passages and tentatively added sticky notes and comments. As the activity continued, they became more animated and confident, commenting on the increasingly chaotic appearance of the board and on their peers’ observations. When the board was completed, I allowed them to take notes or photos (in a reference to the novel’s “Most Photographed Barn,” they dubbed it the “Most Photographed Board”), and then reconvened class for a wrap-up discussion.

During the discussion, I asked students to share any connections they had found especially surprising or interesting. I also asked them how this activity had changed their understanding of the character of Murray (three of the nine key passages I selected were his speeches). Our “conspiracy map” had helped students to perceive some continuity in Murray’s seemingly random observations, particularly when counter-posed to quotes from the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney. Overall, they could now see that Jack tended to take a pessimistic attitude toward crowds and consumerism, while Murray tended to take an optimistic view. I asked them to consider whether DeLillo (or, if you prefer, the text) was giving more credence to one outlook or the other, if one was more obviously satirical or exaggerated. Lastly, I gave students a short homework activity: they had to write a paragraph about two of the passages and one idea connecting them, considering whether the two passages treated that idea in similar or different ways.

Because I teach two sections of the same course back-to-back, I was able to run this activity twice in a row. It was interesting to note how the “conspiracy maps” in the two classes differed. The color-coded sticky notes allowed me to quickly perceive the main themes each class had identified. For example, one class had marked a scene where Babette (Jack Gladney’s wife) appears on television with yellow sticky-notes (religion) and pink ones (the simulacrum), while several students in the other class had marked the same passage with blue sticky-notes (death). I also observed that one class tended to identify surprising new themes with a single word (“UFOS,” “disease,” “academia”), while the other class used the whiteboard markers to offer more elaborate responses to my pre-identified themes (“both Murray and Jack seem to be constantly thinking about death but Murray seems to have confidently accepted it because he can articulate it so well”).

Teaching the activity twice also allowed me to make changes from one group to the next. At first, I assumed the activity would take all of my 50 minute class. When students finished after 35 minutes, then, we were all a little unprepared for the wrap-up discussion, and it started off slow. By the time the second group arrived,  however, I was more prepared. I told that group I would later be asking them to share a connection they found especially interesting or surprising; thanks to that simple warning, they were ready for the discussion, which got going faster. Meanwhile, I had developed our conversation about Murray spontaneously with the first group, but posed questions about him more deliberately with the second. If you replicate this activity in your own class, I recommend planning out your wrap-up discussion more than I did (and I’d be curious to hear what you come up with!).

Overall, however, I would describe the activity as highly successful. It was fun, creative, and thought-provoking. It also got students interacting with the text, one another, and the classroom in new ways, thus echoing some of the “active learning” strategies I learned from Cathy Kim and Linda McGuire while teaching at Muhlenberg College last year. Moreover, because the idea was generated by a student, it demonstrated my willingness to adapt the course in response to their input. Most importantly, students practiced tracing connections between and across passages – both during the activity itself and in the related homework assignment. This is a skill that proved very useful when it came time to design and execute their final essays (which they are drafting as of is this writing). While not every student is writing on White Noise, those that are have developed their own twists on topics covered in the “conspiracy map,”  analyzing masculinity & consumerism, for example, or academic & popular ways of knowing.

Lastly, the “conspiracy map” helped students to see White Noise as a novel less concerned with the unfolding of a plot and more concerned with the working through of ideas. Eventually, Jack Gladney becomes embroiled in the plottiest plot – attempting to kill his wife’s lover – but by the time students reached that section, they saw it as embedded within a larger, more intricate network of ideas. As a result, we were all able to read Jack’s discussion with the disbelieving nuns as the novel’s true climax – the moment when the concepts we were tracing (religion, death, the simulacrum) achieved their most complex inter-articulation. Ultimately, the activity helped us all to perceive what “happens,” or fails to, in White Noise.

Bio:

Katie Fitzpatrick teaches in the Coordinated Arts Program at the University of British Columbia. Next year, she will be joining UBC’s “Arts Studies in Research & Writing” program as a Lecturer. Dr. Fitzpatrick also works as an Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her writing has appeared in both public and scholarly venues, including The Nation, Aeon Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Post45.