Writer's Block and the Academic Career

How to Break "Writer's Block"

I ask you to notice an extraordinary situation.

In modern society, we don't speak of alcoholism or even of drug abuse as a moral failing. We don't call people fighting alcoholism "drunks." We don't call people "junkies" or "dope fiends," we treat them as "substance abusers." By appropriately recognizing the problem, instead of stigmatizing it as a vice, we permit people to treat the problem and reclaim their lives.

Yet there is still one anxiety which we avert our eyes from, or whisper about, as if we were a bunch of Manly Victorians contemptuous of this weakness. We still abandon people to deal with it on their own. It is considered a moral failing by people who do not consider alcoholism or even drug addiction a moral failing. We don't try to treat it, we just sneer at it, and let it destroy careers.

Significantly, this anxiety disorder has never received a medical name. All its many forms are jeered at as "writer's block"-- a term about as precise and useful as "wino" or "nut." It is revealing that writers tortured and ruined by so-called "block" are still a permissible subject for ridicule in popular fiction, the way staggering drunks and hallucinating nuts once were. In one week in the year 2000, two popular movies about such writers were playing simultaneously, "Wonder Boys" and "Finding Forrester."

People who would speak with sympathy of every concievable anxiety disorder, find this disorder despicable or comic. The implication is that this person suffering from a crippling and perhaps career-destroying anxiety should stop being a sissy, pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with it?.

Writing anxiety is so common that academia has had to develop a special term, "ABD," for people who were able to finish "All But Dissertation." Second tier universities are filled with humiliated people revising their dissertations for publication-- in one case I know of, for forty years.

I work in fiction as well as in criticism. There are many folk cures which fiction writers have quietly developed to ease this anxiety and free the writer. This little book will apply them to the writing of criticism.

The Magnitude of the Problem: Writing Anxiety and American Universities

After twelve years and twenty three issues of a faculty magazine in a State University, and after nursing our writers through the Asian Pacific volume, I am probably the great expert on faculty writer's block at SFSU, at least in the College of Humanities, and in Ethnic Studies. I can tell you that our faculty are some of the smartest, best educated people in the world, but they don't publish, thougG they're always ìworking on a book.

Let's start my correcting a common misperception: Writer's block doesn't mean you don't write. They all write like crazy, and they research, too. Writer's block means you never finish, so you never have to be judged. In Wonder Boys, the blocked writer is writing a novel which is already thousands of pages long. When asked about it later, he replies, "I didn't know how to stop." As long as the anxiety can stop the book from appearing, and being judged, a thousand methods may be used. Endless revision, endless research and Internet surfing, compulsive book buying and magazine subscribing, workshop attending-- anything which stops the book is block.

Why Should an Administration Care? And What Can They Do, Anyway?

Why care?

My experience at San Francisco State University shows that by the present day-- after thirty years of Ph.D. overproduction and the buyer's market--the difference in faculty between a first rate research institution and the second-tier university isn't intelligence, or even an elite education. Our people now have both. It's simply writer's block.

A second tier university, then, is sitting on a gold mine, but it lies beneath the surface. Yet our second tier universities, modeled on the research universities, don't have mechanisms to dig up the gold. These universities should create special mechanisms for breaking the faculty's writer's block, and bringing the gold to the surface.

If the reader is an administrator, do you think I'm about to suggest you spend more money on this problem? Every proposal that reaches you ends with ìif you would spend some money, right?

I think you're spending too much money! Spend less! Every year, San Francisco State spends a fortune in release time and sabbaticals on faculty. I've been Chair of Leave With Pay for the College four times, I've watched the money go out.

What do you get for your money? When the money goes out without any help for the writer's block, very little. Where are all the faculty books? I've gotten the sabbatical and not so much as a phone call from the Dean's office during the year to find out if I was working. Why not? SFSU gives me a half year off at full pay, and nobody even makes a phone call to find out how it's going? The follow-up afterward is entirely pro forma.

Is giving away money like that actually helping anybody? Since I later ask these professors, ìanything for Magazine, I watch them try yet again to finish their book, fail, submit some excuse and get waved on, like social promotion. There's a strong parallel to every other situation in which well-meaning institutions give out money without providing treatment, and the money is wasted.

And such people, waved on as if everyone knew all along they were never going to write what they claimed and swore in a printed proposal they were going to write, are not happy with themselves. I have watched people put years into research on some topic only to lose their nerve at the end and skip off onto another topic. They're no fools, in fact, they're some of the smartest people in the country, and they know what they've done and they're furious with themselves about it.

There is already a position called Dean of Faculty. But since writer's block is the sin that dare not speak its name, how can s/he provide any help with it?

Editors know what to do. Editors are the people, par excellence, who help writers overcome anxiety.

In all the years I'm here, have I ever had so much as a phone call from the Dean of Faculty, ìHi, are you working on anything? How's it going? I make calls like that all day at Magazine, every editor in the country has to. That's how I got all those colleagues to publish who never had before. Okay, it's not his job (and that job is so poorly defined, so enormous, so clogged with bureaucratic paperwork, I can't picture enlarging it.) Whose job is it, then? Why isn't there a job like that? Nancy provides me for College of Humanities faculty, but a call from me isn't like a call from Administration. I'm only carrot, not stick.

Okay, I'll write my books anyway, but the people around me won't. They don't. It's a waste of talent and money. The gold stays buried under the surface. The second tier university has to develop new strategies to get out there and dig the gold up.

What can be done to further multiculturalism, a questionnaire just asked? How about helping those people reach national publication, in real presses. That lights a fire in everyone's heart, and then in their students' hearts in turn. Talk about ëself esteem!' You and I remember how exciting it was to see your prof's picture in the paper on Sunday and have him call you by your first name on Monday. We spend money publicizing the University. The best road to prestige is a publishing faculty, nationally known. That is an obtainable goal. Not only is it doable, I just did it. And I have no power, none. A Dean would start with the sabbaticals, as I describe below.

Finally, if we're going to be basing more salary on ìmerit, a goal I strongly support, then perhaps we simply must give people new help in achieving. Letting people know they'll be helped, not merely judged, could relieve some of their anxiety as we shift to this new method of compensation. Isn't some of their resistance that voice inside that says ìI can't! built up over the years of trying to write and failing?

(At this point I must stop to formally say that I trained there by the late Bill Dickey, who was editor before me; and that the general concept of MAGAZINE editor as a kind of faculty mentor, would be impossible without the release time and moral support Nancy McDermid provides. I already discussed with Nancy whether I should apply for Dean of Faculty and I've decided my present combination of MAGAZINE and teaching is more satisfying.)

But I see the situation and I want to help-- help you help the faculty, if I can, why not admit it's personal, not just an abstract love of SFSU.

Here's advice, just for starters: immediately after the sabbaticals are announced, early in the summer, the Dean of Faculty calls each person at home and congratulates them. He or she asks one or two interested, supportive but serious questions about the topic, and simply listens. This call is no formality. The Dean of Faculty asks about the timetable, says that if there's any red tape that needs to be cut at the Library, if any letters of introduction are needed for Museum work, anything like that. The Dean's office will help, the Dean is involved, the Dean honestly cares that you write your book, and bring honor to yourself and the University. You're not in this alone. We're betting money on you. Dean says feel free to call, and Dean promises to call back.

Every editor in the country makes those calls all the time. This isn't theory, it isn't new, it's normal editorial practice transposed to college administration. It works. This is why magazines have editors. I know it sounds like pressure tactics, but it isn't experienced that way. When you're gently pressing somebody to do something they desperately want to do, something they've girded up their loins to do, sworn on a piece of paper they were going to do, they're grateful to have you there. People beg me, ìI'm looking for a writing coach who'd be Hitler and make me write, but they really mean ìwho'd be Dumbo's feather for me. At the same time you're pressing, you're simultaneously creating that feeling of caring.

Believe me, our faculty is (by 1999) as smart and well-educated as any research faculty. The only thing that separates them from their former classmates now teaching at Stanford and Columbia and Wisconsin is, all too often, simple writer's block. Giving them the money without giving them the editorial treatments, as it were, that cure it, both wastes the money and sets them up for disheartening failure. That's a losing situation for everybody, since they want to finally publish that book even more than the university wants them to. There are tried and true methods that have helped people beat block, I've used them successfully with our faculty for twelve years, and I'm happy to share them with you.

What an Editor does: a guess

Nobody really knows; here's a guess

I know all the ways to do it, I've done worse. And I can tell you, as a fellow sufferer, they have classic writer's block.

Yet for me they break it. And I'm no Dean, all I have is a carrot, not even a hint of a stick. I've done 23 issues at Magazine, and the book. For colleagues I break the block by showing the writer there's a person out there-- me-- who wants terribly to read what he or she has written. I keep my contact records: I can show you two years of calls behind some articles for Magazine.

It can take that long, but eventually I replace the writer's internalized picture of her reader, which has been paralyzing her, with the supportive image of myself. A great director just said that his secret was creating an intimate supportive atmosphere in which the actors forgot the audience and just acted for him, taking risks for him they'd never dared take for an audience. That's exactly what I do with our faculty. Any of these people here are so smart and so educated they're bound to write something decent, if they just can finish the damn thing.