Writer’s Block

I’d like to start by thanking my friend and colleague, CD McLean, for stepping in on my behalf last month. I did indeed have some family circumstances that kept me from blogging, but I’m back now and ready to write.

Or am I? Therein lies the problem. I knew my deadline was approaching and I pondered it aloud in the kitchen one night as my husband and I prepared dinner. “Middle school,” I said. “I have no idea what to say!”
“Maybe you should write about writer’s block,” he joked.
I dismissed this initially and decided that was too obvious and gimmicky, but . . . here I am.

Writer’s block is a condition that plagues all of us from time to time: this is especially true for students, except they are even more handicapped by their youthful inexperience and their general feeling of invincibility. How many times have you witnessed a kid furiously scribbling out the last sentences of an essay ten minutes before it’s due because “I work better under pressure!” A little pressure can inspire a good performance, true, but chances are the muse dances more gracefully if her tune is not quite so breathless.

As some of you know, I have a summer job. As well as a library degree, I have degrees in art history and I was a lecturer at various colleges before I became an independent school librarian. Thus, I spend my summers writing reports for a company that authenticates works of art for galleries, insurance companies, auction houses and collectors. So basically this means I write research papers for money, except mine are legit and not those horrible “use this as an example!” ones for $24.95 on Cheaters-R-Us.com. I have a deadline to meet (and the pressure of deciding if someone’s family heirloom is a valuable original or worthless fake). I don’t get a grade but I do receive a reward, so to speak. My process is exactly what you’d expect: do some research, create a bibliography, sketch out an outline based on the evidence, give examples to support my argument, fill in with some prose, wrap it up, proofread, and submit.

So how do I overcome the problem of writer’s block, and what advice would I give to a seventh grader writing a three-pager about volcanoes?

Do the grindstone kind of work while waiting for inspiration. Can’t think of an opening sentence? Put together your bib instead. Can’t decide on a conclusion? Go back and reread some key passages in your research. Can’t figure out what your third example should be? Rewrite your intro. If most of the major pieces are in place well before the deadline, then the writer is afforded the luxury of just waiting for a beautiful first line, or graceful segue, or perfect conclusion. On the other hand, if the writer is too busy finding three volcanoes that all erupted in the last 50 years the day before the paper is due, there’s no room for real inspiration and the result is a mediocre essay at best.

It leaves room for serendipity, too. There have been times when I just couldn’t draw a conclusion or felt like my evidence was inadequate, and simply having the time to accidentally discover something useful while skimming a random book or even watching a TV show is priceless. What if there were a PBS program on Mt. St. Helen’s with new facts that completely blew apart the writer’s conclusion? Three days is plenty of time to rewrite page two and make a spectacular final essay, but jamming in an ill-placed sentence the hour before it’s due is veering into C territory, or worse if the writer ends up contradicting herself.

There’s no magic recipe for convincing middle schoolers to get it done early, but if we shepherd them along carefully, eventually they’re bound to see that a well-paced process allows for discovery, thoughtful examination, rewriting, and happy accidents. To make it real I try to share something of my own process when I give research lessons, and they always focus on the remunerative part of it, to which I say, “Sure, I get paid for it . . . IS YOUR GRADE WORTH LESS THAN MONEY?” No kid in his right mind says yes, so they shake their heads and get to work.

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