BCC Teachers Unlock Writer’s Block
By Anya Wayne
Topicnesia. Motivationzap. Blankscreenits. These made up words may be funny, but writer’s block is no joke. Writer’s block strikes nearly every writer at one point or another, irrespective of proficiency or intelligence. To help students better understand what it is, why we get it and how to move through it, the BCC Voice asked Berkeley City College writing teachers, Laura Zink, Sharon Coleman and Cleavon Smith to weigh in on the subject.
Writer’s block can be especially challenging when working under a deadline. Creative writing teacher Laura Zink shakes her head, silver earrings twinkling, as she declares that she’s “never enjoyed writing under deadline[s]. They’re awful.” Juggling life outside school with the obligation to produce under a deadline can be even more daunting. “Life can be bigger than campus,” she acknowledges. So, Zink asks about the specific anxiety students are feeling when counseling those with writer’s block, and she encourages students to reward themselves when meeting any deadline large or small, not to overlook these successes even when “racing toward the finish line.”
Zink then shares an idea from educational theorists Johnson and Johnson, “Motivation is the perceived likelihood of success.” Burnout, being overwhelmed, negatively affects a student’s sense that they can succeed. This saps motivation, which in turn affects productivity. It might cause students to say, “I can’t do this. It’s too stressful,” says Zink.
As a preventative measure, Zink advises students to work on their writing assignments five days a week. That way, if students have an off day, there’s the rest of the week to make up for the lost time. “If the assignment is due tomorrow, and you’re not brilliant at that moment, it’s a rough thing to deal with,” she says.
Sitting together in the paper-strewn nook of her third floor office, poetry instructor Sharon Coleman agrees that writer’s block affects everybody, including herself. She observes that “People think of their self-worth as connected to their ability to write. If they fail to recognize that ability, they may be blocked.” Having more confidence in their writing can help students recover from writer’s block. The question is how to gain that confidence.
Coleman offers practical advice: do the pre-writing. Pre-writing allows a writer to organize the material they’re working with before they try their hand at a draft. Sitting down and writing easily without doing the pre-writing is unlikely, says Coleman. Taking the steps to collect information and ideas beforehand makes writing, “a whole lot easier,” she says, as does breaking assignments down into manageable parts, ones that work for your schedule.
Another way to process ideas, according to Sharon Coleman is to take kinetic breaks, where the writer is moving in some way. For her, that’s walking; she mentioned that taking breaks for walking worked for Genevan philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau as well. But she also suggests “shooting hoops or washing the dishes.” This kind of break is a well-known technique mentioned by many writers. The value of kinetic breaks lies in way the mind processes information, Coleman says. Focusing fully and persistently on an idea isn’t always the best way to work through it. Coleman reiterates this concept, saying, “You can be doing the prep part of writing while doing something else. The mind processes it.”
Cleavon Smith teaches composition, literature and creative writing at BCC. Although he sometimes feels a sense of inadequacy when he sits down to write, what he doesn’t have is the experience of freezing on the page, which is characteristic of writer’s block. The reason, he says, lighting up as he relates this, is that he must write. Pen on paper is a pleasurable, tactile experience for him. “Goodness gracious, I love that feeling,” says Smith.
Herein lies an important realization; passion for words, ideas and stories can counter writer’s block. It can offset feelings of inadequacy and lack of motivation brought on by a low expectation of success. Getting excited about the subject can make it easier to do the work. On the other hand, Smith observes, the freezing kind of writer’s block often sets in when a student has a composition task they just need to complete and are not necessarily passionate about.
Smith’s stories are informed by the books he loves. When he reads, he’s moved to be part of the literary conversation and write. He mentions “Remains of the Day” and “The Invisible Man” as books which continue to inspire him. Smith credits his own teacher, Floyd Salas, for a technique he uses to overcome writer’s block, one he now teaches his own students. In this technique, the writer simply copies word for word from a book about which they are passionate until this story calls forth the story within them — at which point they begin to write their own words. Smith explains that this technique acts as a springboard of ideas for the writer doing the exercise.
Does writer’s block really exist? For Cleavon Smith, there’s a socio-political answer to this question. Society doesn’t “appreciate or honor the act of writing as a worthwhile endeavor of somebody’s time…The act of writing — the act of making art — is counter to those industrialistic-capitalist messages of productivity.” When we’ve absorbed this message and therefore don’t feel like we’re doing something of value by putting words to the page, it causes a conflict within which halts the creative process. (Do socialists get writer’s block?)
When I describe this experience as self-discouragement, Smith is quick to correct me. “That’s the thing,” he explains.“It’s not self discouragement. It’s the self, vocalizing to the self, the discouragement of others.”
Even though I chose this topic, writing on writer’s block gave me a frightening case of blankscreenitis, until I carefully listened to the collective wisdom of the teachers I’d interviewed. Laura Zink allowed me to acknowledge the uncomfortable pressure of writing under deadline. Sharon Coleman sent me back to the drawing board to do more pre-writing. Cleavon Smith let me know that the doubting voices in my head didn’t deserve my time. I followed the direction suggested by all three teachers and did a freewrite, which turned into my first draft. Writing is a solitary task. That, however, doesn’t mean that you have to struggle through it alone.