When I’m working with a student who is experiencing “writer’s block,” my advice is to just start writing. Period. Put the pencil on the paper and just start pushing it across the line. If nothing else, just begin – “I don’t know what to write . . . I don’t know what to write . . . I don’t know what to write. . . I don’t know . . . etc. etc.” I tell them that at some point their brain will probably kick in and the word “BUT” will show up:
I don’t know what to write. . . I don’t know what to write . . . I don’t know what to write. . . but today at recess when I was shooting baskets and Jeff and Mark . . . .
At that point they are usually off and running and don’t want to stop when the allotted time is up. I could easily get sidetracked right now and tell the story about what happened when I tried that with a class of fifth graders at Bunker Hill Elementary School in Coos Bay, Oregon during a demonstration lesson on writing – but I’ll save that story for later. Right now I’m feeling blocked again so I’m just going to take my own advice and start writing . . .
Before Richard and I left Palm Desert to return to Brookings in April, I had lunch with my friend Geoffrey. Once again we had the conversation about my problem with writing. We’ve had this conversation before and I’m sure he’s as sick of it as I am. The same words come up every time: Lack of focus. Lack of commitment. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Lack of time. Too much time. Lack of focus . . . Lack of commitment . . . ad nauseam. . .
Surprisingly, however, something new came up that day. Geoffrey asked me about my “core” – as a person and as a writer. As I struggled to come up with some sort of an answer . . . story after story came to mind about the times when writing had come easily – times when I have lost myself in the process and have loved it. As he encouraged me to continue thinking along those lines, a pattern began to emerge: I love simplifying complex ideas and situations. When a topic feels overwhelming, I find that if I do as I’ve taught my students to do and just start pushing the pencil across the paper (or pounding my fingers on the keyboard), my mood seem to shift. Things start to make sense. That “overwhelmed” feeling begins to dissipate as one idea expresses itself at a time. And later, when I read back over what I’ve written, I realize that “I Get It! :-)”
I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising since as an elementary school teacher, that’s what it’s all about. I’ve always believed that you don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to a third grader. But until that conversation with Geoffrey, I never really honored that ability – in myself or in the thousands of other teachers who do it on a daily basis.
Since that day I’ve spent a great deal of time digging through piles upon piles of papers in my office, and folders within folders in my computer, and still only have a couple of blog posts to show for it. What amazes me is just how much I’ve written over the past 15 years – and that in almost every piece there has been an element of “simplifying the complex.” Even now as I write, that’s what I’m doing. The human brain processes thought at an incredible rate of speed. But not so human fingers! They can only write – or type – or text – one thought at a time. The process of writing is a process of slowing down. Centering. Simplifying. Finding the core or what needs to be said and saying it. Period.