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Posts Tagged ‘writer’s block’

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher CreativityThe Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
My rating: **

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam; 2nd Edition, 2002.

This book is an international best seller and often referred to in discussions on writers’ process, with many fiction writers claiming it has changed their whole approach to writing and other creative writing teachers and writers referring to it as a notable text in the field.

I bought this book to see if it could offer any tips on writer’s block, but it is a fairly standard New Age self help manual. I am not opposed to New Age approaches but having read so much of this kind of material in the past, new offerings tend to blend into sameness when I read them these days. Some of the suggestions in the book are useful from a technical point of view, but personally I didn’t find them very inspiring. Its firm location in North American culture probably didn’t help me to identify with much in the book either.

By far the best and most practical book I have read on writer’s block is Robert Boice’s well researched Professors as Writers. If his advice is aimed at an academic market, it doesn’t just work for academic writers, it provides helpful tips for writers of all genres.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from … You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day? …

You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master.. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.

Michel Foucault, (2004) [1969] Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard. CD. [This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell]

Random thoughts in response
Foucault articulates the tension many writers – and indeed many other artists – feel between their everyday existence and their art. One wants to write and feels a blight of guilt over one’s life when it is not being done, but at the same time one wonders whether more practical, physical and social activities should not take priority. Writing can only take place when these more worldly duties have been attended to. Writers, it is often joked, have the cleanest houses in the world. If one could just get all the other tasks hanging over one’s head off one’s plate, then the clear decks and space to write will become available. The reality is that this day of freedom never comes. The only solution, as every advisor on writer’s block repeats endlessly (see Boice and Silvia), is to set aside a designated period every day (or most days) and dedicate it strictly to writing.

Foucault’s statement is all the more interesting given his immense productivity. One finds it hard to imagine that prolific writers are subject to this kind of self-doubt. But the guilt of the blank page was not the only guilt mechanism on the table. Foucault also talks about the guilt he experienced in writing itself, given his upbringing in a medical milieu which saw such activity as essentially pointless. He remarked in a later interview that contrary to all reason and evidence, he felt that his writing had no impact and was an utterly useless activity.

Foucault’s comments draw attention to a widespread and historically long-standing suspicion about the social and physical utility of intellectual and artistic pursuits. Even those engaged very effectively in such activity cannot help but be infected by this general idea that what they are doing is both a waste of time and selfish – in short, that they really ought to get out more, make more friends and save the world in a more physical way. This cultural training constantly wars with that other opposing guilt arising from the unwritten word. Yet at the same time, as Foucault observed, the act of writing creates a calm and soothing organised space where one is in control and which blocks out the vagaries and hazards of everyday existence. At the moment writing takes place, one exists in an orderly guilt free zone which unfortunately, Foucault goes on to say, is never able to reduce the rest of life or the demands of the body and the physical to the same manageable two-dimensional zone of white space and abstract black squiggles.

It is small wonder then, given these complex interplays of guilt and desire, that endless volumes of advice on the problem of writer’s block are produced and so eagerly consumed by writers balanced precariously on the fault lines of irresolvable cultural contradictions.

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Robert Boice, Professors as Writers. A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, Stillwater: New Forums Press, 1990.
My rating: *****

Professors As Writers Professors As Writers by Robert Boice

I have read quite a few books on writer’s block and Robert Boice’s work on this subject is by far the most helpful and practical. Even if this particular book is aimed specifically at academic writers, all other writers can benefit from its advice. Having said this, the problem of academic writer’s block is seldom addressed – with most manuals focusing on other types of writing.

In some ways, perhaps, academics are viewed as somewhat on the periphery of the general fold of ‘writers’. Academic writing is something that occurs without the romantic identity of ‘writer’ coming into play. There is an assumption, perhaps, that academic writing is merely reporting on research, rather than engaging in the creative craft shared by other writers.

There are rigorous and practical exercises in Boice’s book which include examining and changing the internal self talk that takes place when the writer thinks of writing. His plain, organised and painstaking academic approach is, for me at least, more helpful than some of the other new age and often slightly kitsch self help manuals available on the market.

Also of interest is the following: Boice set up a study involving 3 groups of academic writers:

1. The first group continued on with their usual habits – which were binge writing in occasional large blocks. This group produced an average of 17 pages a year;

2. The second group wrote every day and kept a personal record of their activity. They wrote an average of 64 pages a year;

3. The third group undertook daily writing AND shared their productivity records with others. This group produced an impressive 157 pages of writing a year.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it has to be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring.

[Michel Foucault. (1996) [1984]. Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity. In Foucault Live. collected Interviews, 1961-1984. Sylvere Lotringer (Ed.). New York: Semiotext(e), p. 385.]

Random thoughts in response

Foucault is talking specifically about homosexual identity here but what he says can be applied to his views on all forms of identity, something which is borne out by other remarks in the rest of his work. These remarks all share the common theme that identities are a trap which limit who you are and make you subject to power relations. We need to continually escape from identity formation, not try and aspire to an identity. This position is clear in his famous remark from The Archaeology of Knowledge:

I am probably not the only one who writes in order to be faceless. Don’t ask who I am, or tell me to stay the same: that is the bureaucratic morality, which ensures that our papers are kept in order. It ought to let us be when it comes to writing
(AS:28, AK:17). Translation by Clare O’Farrell

Speaking at a personal level (I can afford such luxuries in this blog format!), I have found Foucault’s position particularly useful recently in thinking through problems of writer’s block. Why has writing been so difficult, and a problem that has haunted my existence for decades, its spectral presence never completely out of my vision? Perhaps the answer is simple. I have been aspiring to what I have perceived as the desirable identity of ‘writer’, a hugely constraining and complex set of rules which constantly provokes the question in relation to any writing activity: ‘does this thing conform to my identity?’

This question becomes particularly restrictive in the academic context which strongly polices what is regarded as suitable subject matter for academic discussion and the form in which this is delivered. The academy, for all the admirable and worthwhile rigour of its approach can also operate terrorist effects on those who have been trained to accept its norms and principles. It is an environment which is both enabling and limiting.

To further complicate this scenario, the modernist view of the academic writer and intellectual, one which I grew up with and breathed in every day, was that such a writer had a sacred mission to the world, to save mankind from its excesses, to reveal the truth, to make an important contribution to the well-being and advancement of society. Your success on this front was measured by your ‘reputation’, by the numbers of acolytes hanging on your every utterance and the volume of citations in a variety of citation indexes. There is no doubt that writers such as Foucault have definitely more than stepped up to the mark here, even if Foucault himself was by no means reticent in drawing attention to the flaws of such missionary pretensions. For example, one can refer to his remarks on the ‘specific’ versus the ‘universal’ intellectual and to his personal doubts about the social efficacy of writing as an activity.

Is this model of writing, this writerly identity, one that is productive for everyone? There is no doubt that it has been highly successful for many, but in my own case this poorly articulated lifelong quest to ‘uncover’ my identity as a writer, to somehow make it the governing principle of my existence has been constraining to the point of paralysis. Seeking to solidify an identity which would forevermore mark a place and a concrete presence in the world, like some kind of public monument, has been a shaky premise on which to operate. Aspiring to monumental status, no matter how grand, is a recipe for grinding boredom and paralysed inactivity.

So where does this leave me and my own writing activity? I can only come to one conclusion. Writing works for me when I regard it as fun, easy and disposable. I am able to write because of the cultural capital provided by my education and family background. Nothing else. There is no ‘mission’. It is a hobby not an identity. My own enjoyment and engagement, and the enjoyment of a few others observing my attempts as ‘a unique self’ (to use Foucault’s phrase) at ‘differentiation, creation and innovation’ is what makes it all worthwhile.

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Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly, ‘Boffins blogging: unlimited review’, ANU Reporter, Summer 2008, p. 34

My rating: ****

Here are some extracts from an excellent short analysis of the benefits of the blogosphere for academics. The two writers have been running a blog titled New Mandala since June 2006.

I absolutely agree with what the two writers have to say here. I find writing for an online audience really works for me. If I could just redirect that enthusiasm into more formal publication!

‘Academic blogs … dramatically extend the boundaries of conventional peer review and academic readership… With engaging content, regular updates and savvy marketing, academic bloggers can build a community of peers that would fill seminar rooms, lecture theatres and conference venues many times a day. Statistics we have seen indicated that a blog run by a couple of academics can generate as much internet traffic as the conventional websites of an entire Faculty…

And perhaps most important of all, blogging maintains the daily discipline of writing. At a time when administrative loads distract many academics from their interpretive vocation, writing online is one way to keep the tools of argument and analysis as sharp as possible. Blog posts provide valuable building blocks for more formal academic articles. And they also open up discussions to a much broader and varied audience than the academic world, which in some ways exceeds feedback from peers. Blogging promises unlimited review.’

As another example, Henry Jenkins uses his own blog, ‘Confessions of an aca-fan’ in precisely this way.

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