Reading, writer’s block, and creativity

I need to write a another PhD chapter, but I can’t, and the reason I can’t isn’t being resolved by the copious sensible options offered by Pat Thomson, or any other experienced academic writers.


A Cornucopia

Since I have been here before, and become unstuck, I am not too worried (just a bit), and since I am bursting to write, I’ve resorted to my bloggy cornucopia for release.

Prompted today by a more recent Patter post, by a lovely colleague who tweeted how lonely he felt in writing his dissertation, by the seriously unbearable building work going on outside my study window, and by having tried all day to stop reading and start writing my own thesis, I have finally given up, accepted that, once again, ‘today is not the day’, and resolved to write tomorrow (as I have done for the past month).

Last week, I met with one of my two very ‘generous’ supervisors (in the sense that I feel they either over-indulge me or have too much faith in my vague over-ambitiousness, or both) about plans for this final year-and-a-bit of my PhD. I had a ton of plans – publishing, writing, re-genring – all of which have been causing me stress and anxiety. He listened, and then simply reminded me of how much I was enjoying the first couple of years of my research and advised me to find a way of enjoying it again.

What he meant was to simply get on with writing (the bloody thing) and not feel the need to do anything else. Writers-Block

So here I am. Resolved to ‘enjoy’, once again. The problem, however, is that I am enjoying the Reading way more than the Writing. And that is what is blocking me. I am finding the Reading far more satisfying than writing my own stuff, than re-reading myself, editing, re-writing (yawn).

Clearly, this is not good since I am now committed to finishing what I have set in train. But it’s a fact.


Becoming unstuck

What has given me some solace today is Keith Sawyer and his tome on Explaining Creativity. Chapter 17 is all about writing, and although he doesn’t explicitly talk about academic writing, he may as well be, because his anecdotes and insights resonate with writing a PhD thesis.

Here is a mash-up of what Sawyer says and what is giving me encourgement:

  • T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was arguably co-authored by his wife and Ezra Pound, both of whom had to heavily edit it many, many times before it became what it has become.

IMG_20171026_174904914I am in no way taking from this that I am going to get someone else to write my thesis! No! On the contrary, I am totally obsessed with my ideas, so would never be able to share them with anyone other than my supervisors and very close (academic) friends. What I am taking from Sawyer’s example is that there is no such thing as a perfect first or second or third (and so on) draft, and that writing is really hard work, requires dialogue with others and is pretty lonely without it, as he goes on to say below:

many successful writers seek out good editing, listen very closely to such comments, and are grateful for them. Eliot’s story shows us that creative writing is often the result of collaboration (p. 320)

  • Sawyer develops this idea with reference to other writers, highlighting that writing is a craft that requires hard work, multiple attempts and failures, that the Romantic impulse and one-off inspiration is not enough to get you through to your final text, and that the actual act of writing is helping us to think through our ideas:

Jessica Mitford engaged in a constant dialogue with her unfolding drafts: “the first thing to do is to read over what you have done the day before and re-write it, and then that gives you a lead into the next thing to do” (p.321).

Poet Mary Sarton wrote: “The poem teaches something while we make it; there is nothing dull about revision” (p. 321)

Novelist Ann Lamott, in her writing advice book Bird by Bird, emphasised the importance of generating “shitty first drafts” (p.321)

Since writing this post (and blog) helps tremendously with unblocking my own writing, I’ll end it with a quote, again from Keith Sawyer on p. 324, that resonates with where I am at right now (my bold):

… the writers all emphasised the constant dialogue between unconscious inspiration and conscious editing, between passionate inspiration and disciplined craft. They all agreed that it is important to listen to their unconscious. They kept notebooks nearby at all times so that sudden snippets of text or dialogue could be quickly scribbled down for later evaluation. They worked in a problem-finding style, starting their work with only a phrase or an image rather than a fully composed plot, and the work emerged from the improvisational act of writing and revising. There was never a single big insight; instead, there were hundrends and thousands of small mini-insights. The real work started when mini-insights were analysed, re-worked and connected with each other; and as with every other type of creativity, many ideas that sounded good at first ended up in the trash.


Mam Tor, Castleton – I still have a fair whack to go ….




One thought on “Reading, writer’s block, and creativity

  1. Pingback: Write Your Way Out | Explorations of Style

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