the crumbling writer’s block

From the top: Votes for Women mug, from the Sewall-Belmont house in DC; The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert & Gubar; Oxford Victorian Ghost Stories; Ghosts in the Noontide, Jeanette Dickerson; Ghost Stories by British and American Women; Victorian Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers, ed. Richard Dalby; Oxford Late Victorian Gothic Tales; Five Victorian Ghost Novels, ed. Bleiler; Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories, ed. Dalby; A Literature of Their Own, E. Showalter; Perils of the Night, DeLamotte; Victorian Gothic, ed. Wolfreys and Robbins; Spectre or Delusion? Carter. Come on, ask me anything.

They tried to help.  Deadlines for components of the paper were imposed, meetings with outside readers were scheduled, we were told when our sources should be requested from the library, when our bibliographies should be done.

In my vast and infinite wisdom, I assumed they were talking to the other students. Me? Nah. I’ve been presenting papers at academic conferences since I started at this university. Longer papers than this. I don’t get nervous. I have an opinion about everything. Give me a rock, and I can figure out an angle to talk feminism. This paper isn’t even that long– I’ve written plenty of papers this length before, and often (most of them) in less than a week. The hand-holding is for the students who have never spoken in front of a group, who aren’t comfortable with the in-depth research needed for this sort of thing. And I, most definitely, am. Me? Puh-lease. I’m good. I don’t need help, I’ve got this. I’ve so got this.


I’ve been staring at a blank computer screen for a month. I’ve discovered the wonder of the panic attack. My house is cleaner than it has ever been and I read  The Bostonians while procrastinating. I spent nearly two weeks in bed, and watched the entire series of The Gilmore Girls while avoiding my computer. Yep, I said series. I skipped a lot of classes. I didn’t call my friends. I called into work. I slept in 12 hour increments, most of them when the sun was up.

Basically, I had myself a little bit of a meltdown. I just couldn’t get any work done, which is insanely troubling, because this is my thing. Me and books go way back. I don’t like numbers, I refuse to talk science (It’s hard to recover from Creationism in elementary—I thought dinosaurs were a myth for the longest time),  but books? Oh my god, let me get started. This is my comfort zone. I’ve never really been caught off guard in a literature class—I’m the student who has read everything mentioned and then some. I’m good at noticing allusions, at applying theories, at making connections, at asking the good  questions.  (I feel like I’m bragging. I’m so not. There are thousands of things that I’m horrible at. Did you read the part about the dinosaurs? Seriously inept in so many areas.)  But lately it seems like that which I’ve always been able to depend on—my brain—has pretty much vacated the premises.  I stare at the computer until my heart rate shoots up, and then I go hide under the covers again. It has not been a good month.

As I sat in a professor’s office today, explaining exactly how far behind I am and asking for advice (and basically just trying really hard not to cry) my extraordinarily kind professor said “This happens. It happens ALL THE TIME.  That’s why we talk so much about it. People have meltdowns. It’s a difficult time—everything is coming to an end and changing and people start indulging in self-destructive behaviors.” And suddenly my inability to come up with anything new to say about anything seemed a little less like academic incompetence and a little more like a weird and really ineffective coping mechanism. If I don’t finish this degree, I don’t have to change anything. I don’t have to move. I don’t have to leave my friends. I get to stay comfortable, right here in my little apartment with my fat cat and scruffy dog.

But—if I don’t finish this degree, I’m going to be that creepy student in the back of the classroom who has taken the same class fourteen times and just wants to hang out with other people who know more about Jane Austen than Keira Knightly and more about Queen Victoria than Emily Blunt. And if I don’t finish this degree, I don’t get to stop being in a long distance relationship. And if I don’t finish this degree, I don’t get to move on and learn more and do all of these really cool things that I’m going to get to do. 

And because of all of these oh-so-important reasons (and because my professor calmed me down and showed me exactly how I could still effectively complete everything I need to complete) I’m feeling ever so much better about all of this stuff. Understanding why I did this doesn’t write the paper, it doesn’t negate the fact that I’ll be spending the next 36 hours in this chair in front of this computer, but it helps because now I can silence the little voice that was screaming that I was tapped out before I even finished my undergrad. And that little voice was really freaking me out. 

And silver lining? I’ve done so much research on the Victorian supernatural, in all its wonderful weirdness, that I seriously think I could write my dissertation right now. Because, you know, dissertation? I’ve got this. I’ve so got this. (ahem.)

Here’s what I learned:

1. Hyperventilating doesn’t help. It’ll give you a headache, and maybe a little buzz. But it won’t write the paper. You don’t need another reason for a headache,  so maybe try not to do that.

2. Cleaning the kitchen doesn’t help. Half a bowl of ramen in the sink is not why you can’t write. You should be looking at the computer anyway. Cutting your hair doesn’t help. Bangs won’t help you concentrate, they just get in your eyes. Basic, I know, but for some of us *ahem* that bears reiteration. (I blame her.) (There are about a million other things that I could add here, but you get the idea: if you’re not working, you’re not working, and you should be.) 

3. You don’t need a break when you can’t figure out what to write. You need to keep writing. Inspiration is not going to come in a dream during your nap or magically appear while you take a bubble bath. Keep writing. Have a popsicle, have a cupcake, (no, have an apple) but keep writing.

4. Inspiration hides between the fourth and fifth paragraph. Or maybe the fourth and fifth page (sneaky little bugger). You won’t get there until you write your way there. If you wait to start until you have a good idea–an idea that you can instantly see through, all the way to the nice, neat, lovely conclusion, you’re going to spend a lot of time with your gut in a knot.  

5. You do not need medication. (rephrase: I do not need medication- no judgment, some do, obvs.) I don’t have ADD. I’ve never had ADD before, so I probably didn’t develop it overnight. If I can spend eight hours happily reading The Historian, I don’t have ADD. 

6. And finally, go back to the basics. In third grade they taught you to make notecards—try it!  Trying to hold everybody else’s position in your head as you try to find your own is impossible. Read it, write it down, take it off the table. It’ll be there when you need it, and you can forget it until then. 

I know, these are hardly earth-shattering. The last one was probably the most useful for me (well, once I came out from under my comforter): my brain just felt so much clearer after exchanging my stack of books with sticky notes in them for neatly labeled notecards, that everything just started fitting together a new and interesting way. And hey, if nothing else, I’ve figured out some things to try—or maybe just to avoid–for the next time I’m suffocating underneath a writer’s block.

Because Snoopy makes me happy.
And it’s the end of the semester–we all need a little more happy.

1 thought on “the crumbling writer’s block”

  1. I love your blog 🙂 I am graduating in less than three weeks with my bachelors in english. I have three papers and two presentations due in the next week, plus final exams and a final conference. I am stressed to the max. Where am I? Here. Commenting on your blog! Seriously though, I was doing a search on Tretheway and found your blog. The title, “southern bluestocking” caught my interest and I had to come see. It’s nice to meet you! Come check out my blog the next time you want to procrastinate. It’s fairly new and it is my attempt at a “professional” presence online. I’m a little behind on updating it because of school and work… but I will be resuming on a regular basis soon.

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