Eyes are transfixed on the lighted screen, glued to the flashing line that keeps time as reliably as a clock. Blink, blink, goes the cursor against the empty white background. The eyelids never move. Neither do the hands. They hover over the keyboard, motionless.
The above image is one I’ve seen countless times over the past 15 years. As an instructor of English at a local community college, I have the opportunity to observe my students’ writing process, see them in action. Sometimes, the “action” involves a lot of inaction. I’ll be in a computer lab with them, wander past their workspace to find…nothing. Nada. Zip.
It’s my job to get them unstuck, help them move past the apprehension, indecision and worry. I’ve had a litany of conversations with students to get them to put fingers to keyboard and produce something, anything. “It doesn’t have to be perfect; just get it down,” I’ll say to students that I know possess exacting editors in their brains. Sometimes, I get them to vocalize their ideas, so it’s easier for those concepts to materialize on screen. Since several assignments involve personal experience, I can sometimes offer four words intended to reduce the stakes of a college assignment: “Just tell your story.”
Under the best of circumstances, writing isn’t easy. For some students, penning papers for College Composition is a painful activity, one worse than consuming overcooked Brussels sprouts — at least that’s what one student told me. And that student isn’t alone.
There is a ritual that occurs every semester on the first day of class. After I’ve confirmed attendance with a few students, touched base with others about permission numbers, there will usually be one or two students who linger. They want to talk to me individually. They are good students. They want to do well in my class, have done well in previous courses. But they’re scared. They approach me hesitantly. Their voices low, their eyes dart about. Then they blurt out, GODIhatewritingandimbadatit.
So I break down essays into small bite-sized pieces. Students complete one- or two-page assignments that, if done properly, can be incorporated into a larger paper. I have students write in class so they’re unencumbered by expectations of take-home work. I’m actually pretty good at getting students unstuck.
There’s one student, however, that I’ve had a helluva time connecting with: myself.
I’ve been stuck.
For three years.
It’s been that long since I’ve written regularly. Sure, I’ve put together letters and poems here and there – I even drafted a short journalistic piece about a year ago. But nothing that’s sustained itself. I could blame children, a hectic work schedule, moving. But when I am honest with myself, those issues have never been significant. Like my students, my writing malaise is far more complicated.
Why abandon something that has brought me so much joy in the past? Well, the process isn’t easy, and, upon reflection, a few matters have contributed to my dearth of words. There’s no doubt, the state of our country has worn on me. Witnessing the atrocities of my country’s executive branch that is so hateful and cruel has taken a toll. I’m tired. I feel helpless. Some evenings, it’s just easier to not write.
I know I’ve lost confidence in my writing of late, too. Yup, I’m a 47-year-old published writer who’s lost his edge. Like my students who sit idly at the keyboard, I’ve allowed that nefarious editor in my head to get the better of me.
In the past few months, I’ve started a lot of pieces then deleted them. My work just doesn’t seem good. And I know about Anne Lamott and her essay/chapter “Shitty First Drafts.” I realize I need to be more forgiving of my initial efforts. But lately my inner editor has been particularly harsh. I’m even filtering what I hear from others. A good friend of mine – one who is inherently encouraging and supportive of my work – commented that writers, to a degree, are narcissists. And lately that’s the comment that’s stuck with me. Never mind the dozens of compliments and positive feedback she’s given me. Those are scattered on the editing room floor, crumpled pieces of paper that I don’t allow myself to reread. Instead, I’ll start writing and think, this is narcissistic drivel. And I stop.
So I’m doing something: I’m picking up that mini-me editor, that teensy but loud voice that has kept me from writing and putting him in a box. Sorry little guy, but I gotta take some chances, be willing to publish work that maybe ain’t that great. And I’m going to write, goddamnit. I’ll be here every Wednesday. Every Wednesday, rain or shine, shitty drafts be damned. See, I’ve got some stories to tell.
Maybe I’ll see you around.
David Weinshilboum is an English professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. He is comfortable ending sentences with prepositions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .