Writer’s block is arguably as old as written language, maybe a little bit younger. But it has been a problem that is – as far as I can tell from my semi-interested observer-position to literary discourse – heavily discussed in authors’ circles. It is, on second thought, curious that book authors discuss this issue more than academics, but that’s primarily my personal experience. I see authors more often lament writer’s block than academics. Maybe that is because in academic circles we don’t write because it’s fun but rather because a paper is the results of our research. We don’t begin our thought process by thinking about how to get from chapter one through chapter ten, but rather by asking ourselves a research question and thinking up appropriate methods to answer it — something that must not necessarily involve writing in the process.
The result is that a writer’s block is a different kind of beast for academics than it is for authors. While authors literally have the “blank page problem,” I just experienced a writer’s block despite writing one article every week. As I indicated in my very first article, I swore to myself to publish one article every week no matter what; and thus far I only missed Christmas’ eve. This week I simply didn’t have the time to put together something more substantial, but I still had to write something. The reason I force myself to write one post every week is because I want to become so routinised that, as soon as I have to publish something important, writing won’t be the bottleneck of the process. This means that – as I indicated in the beginning of the blog – sometimes I will write just very short pieces simply to have written something during the week.
But back to the problem: I said I experienced a writer’s block despite writing. So my writer’s block certainly wasn’t a problem of what to write. In short: It felt like a writer’s block, but it didn’t look like one. It was only yesterday that I finally realised the problem.
I had indeed experienced a writer’s block, and like so many problems, it became obvious only after I solved it. What happened? For the past eight months I was getting started with my PhD; and that involves a lot of reading and getting up-to-date with my field. One cold-start for that is a seminar I’m currently taking that forces me to read about 200 pages of sociology per week. At the same time I had to develop a direction in which to go; find a space which has already been claimed by sociology with enough open questions to justify writing a PhD about. And that is difficult as long as you’re not proficient in the field’s literature. I also started out my PhD with the aim of getting at least something rough written up in the first half year – because I knew writer’s block is a thing and that it always involves the “blank page.” However, I didn’t manage to do so; despite writing about my research topic oftentimes here on the blog.
Then, two weeks ago, a friend pinged me on Twitter because they read my post on the Minnesota cataclysm and asked me for a collab. I said yes because it’s an easy catch with not too much work to be done. And that was a great decision: Our team has a strong pull and things are happening. We don’t have anyone slowing us down; to the contrary, one is almost chasing us to write something up. And then, something clicked in my brain. Suddenly, I felt confident and knowledgeable, I knew that I could do research. We wrote an abstract and the first few paragraphs of the paper in a matter of days, had fruitful discussions and it’s working like a well-oiled machine.
And that also had a strong impact on my PhD itself: After a few days, I had sort of an “epiphany” (I don’t want to really call it an ‘epiphany’ because it involved a tedious and time-consuming process; it was work rather than a sudden enlightenment). I radically threw away thoughts where I suddenly knew that they were unrelated to my PhD, and focused the remaining ones almost like adding a sort of prism to my stream of consciousness. Even more so, I talked to my supervisor on Friday and discussed that with him, and he was very confident that these were good decisions.
The conclusion is that there isn’t one kind of writer’s block. If you’re doing research, get rid of that thought that a writer’s block is only when you are sitting in front of an empty document having trouble filling the pages. That’s the least of your problems. Because you can’t have the “blank page” problem if you have something meaningful to write up. Rather, it’s coming up with what that “meaningful thing” is that constitutes writer’s block for researchers. If you already have done some research and have something meaningful to write about but you’re still struggling with what to write, then you might have the “traditional” writer’s block. But I guess that many early-career researchers might be rather struggling with the kind of writer’s block I described here.
Getting started with research and coming up with a good research plan might be the hardest step, because being successful in that is really hard, and it might take a while. After all, you don’t end up working for two years only to realise all of it was futile, right? For me, it took almost eight months with dozens of random encounters and accidents that redirected my thoughts until I arrived here. Again, it becomes clear that research isn’t just a clear-cut business; it depends upon accidents just as much as anything else in life. So if you have the weird feeling that you can’t write anything good, it might be because you’re still struggling with what to write about. And that’s why it’s important, as I had to learn, to expose yourself to a mass of other people’s thoughts early on. At some point – no matter if it takes two weeks or a full year – you will figure out what you’ll be doing for the next four years.