Sunday, February 21, 2010

overcoming writer's block

I have been thinking about my own early fear and avoidance of writing, and at this point I write more than anyone else I know. I have been accused by some of running off at the keyboard. I consider it practice. As any craftsman knows, you get better at something if you practice and are critically engaged in observing your results.

The early history of my own writing was bleak. I hated writing in school as many kids still do today. The idea that I was to sit down with a blank paper and compose and express my thoughts horrified me. I held the pencil a funny, awkward way that my teachers criticized and tried to correct. In sixth grade, I had moved from Memphis, Tennessee to Omaha, Nebraska, and my teacher, Mrs. Mummert, noticed that besides having a very strong southern accent, I had some undeveloped skills in writing. She said a few kind words about my writing but her words were not enough to overcome my reticence to write.

In 9th grade things got much worse. My English teacher, Mrs. Adamson, would take my papers, mark them with red ink to indicate misspelled words and faulty punctuation with no mention of the value of the ideas I expressed. It was as though my papers had never been read except to pinpoint my faults. I was supposed to rewrite them and turn them back in, but instead, I threw them away, disgusted with her lack of sensitivity to my thoughts and embarrassed by her red marks. At the end of the term came near disaster. She insisted that I recreate and turn in all my papers corrected or I would flunk. She was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and had far worse troubles than I, but I managed to partially recreate some papers, and was allowed to pass the course.

It's a problem in school when the value of content is marginalized relative to the rules of writing, and while the rules of writing may be important, having something to say, is the whole forgotten reason for writing in the first place. I was never one for making stuff up, and while many children and adults are looking for escape, I am one who enjoys the real world and more practical involvement in it. To write real things about the real world, requires experience as the foundation for good writing. From an educational standpoint, and in light of the pedagogist's admonition, "move from the concrete to the abstract," you can see the value of building an abstract exercise like writing from a firm foundation of concrete reality.

So if you wonder how to overcome writer's block, I have a suggestion. Do something interesting. It will provide content. Develop a non-writing skill that can be shared with others through writing. You may at some point face the critique of a Mrs. Adamson's red pen, but content is of far greater meaning and merit, and sharing something useful that empowers others to create or to understand, is an important accomplishment.

If you are have the responsibility to teach children to write, don't forget that there are many like me who need real things to write about. The opportunity to develop and present how-to narrative is a great way to get kids started in writing, but unfortunately, it requires kids to be given real stuff to do and to write about. That will come to schools with the revolutionary strategic reimplementation of the hands that this blog promotes.

My own writer's block was actually quite easy to overcome. It has to do with my choice of subject. The hands literally touch and have shaped every aspect of human life and culture.


  1. Anonymous11:31 AM

    Absolutely WONDERFUL post! The parents of my students always ask me "What can I teach my child at home?" and my answer is always "Give them real-life experiences so they'll have something to write about, other than Princess Barbie or Transformers." Thank you for letting me know that my answer is on the right path, and that experience has served you well.

  2. Thank you for this post. I am still overcoming my own personal reticence to place my thoughts on paper, something that for me started developing in second grade when I started learning cursive. At that point I did not yet have the motor skills to properly form the letters, and so I failed my worksheets upon which I had poured seemingly, to me, endless amounts of time and energy. This was in the early nineties and my dad had a computer for work, I figured that since I couldn't write the letters properly and would therefore fail any composition assignments we were given based solely on my childish penmanship I should type my writing instead. Alas, I was not given the opportunity to submit typed papers until my schooling had squashed that last of my desire to ever commit anything to paper. Since then I have been struggling to overcome this handicap. I had to retake English classes in summer school 3 times in high-school, and I failed my college freshman level english 3 times before I found a professor who was capable of inspiring me to actually turn in any of my assignments. I left that class having reduced my utter loathing of writing that had permeated to the very core of my soul to a mere dislike that I can overcome when I have a topic that is dear to my heart such as your post. Thank you for the time you spend writing this blog; it means much to me as I study wood working at Oregon College of Art and Craft. And thank you for a post that comes so near to one of my own personal struggles within the educational system we have.

  3. Anonymous1:13 PM

    Hard to believe you were not a natural writer! Iain

  4. I listen to my students as they work on projects and their conversations are almost always about movies they've seen or games they play, completely un-unique experiences that few could find anything significant to write about. Too often, they don't have anything significant to say about themselves.

    John Grossbohlin told me about taking his sons hunting, and having the other kids in school disbelieving the stories they told. So now they keep their real adventures to themselves.

  5. Nathan, it is never too late to practice cursive, and I believe it can help writing skills. In 7th and 8th grade in Omaha, Nebraska, we were told very specifically what kind of cartridge pen to buy to help our flow of words on paper. Still, to this day, I can't stand ball points, as they cramp my style.

    It took me a long time to get over my early reticence to write. But you can go back to the beginning. Before attempting to write in cursive, do air writing with a pencil, or better yet, a self-carved kindergarten pointer. Form your letters using your larger motor skills and then work toward pen on paper. Developmentally, we work from gross motor skills toward fine, and I think as you point out, we aren't all ready to do the same things in school at the same time.

  6. This is a beautiful and touching post. It handsomely ties the child you were to the adult you have become.
    I empathize with your inner child and relate strongly to your desire to write non-fiction.I had to find my own path by way of my hands and a small how-to book.