All posts by Jo Cohen

Getting past “getting stuck”: what can you do when you just can’t write?

This week we are taking a pause from our videos, and taking some time to think back on some of the issues they have raised. One of the themes I have been reflecting on is what happens when I get “stuck.”

One of the hardest things to do can be to write your way through a problem. Reasons to put off the moment when you actually sit down and commence the process of putting words to thought can pop up like mushrooms in a damp cupboard: there are other research tasks to be done; you do not yet know enough to begin; you have not done sufficient planning; you must first complete that other shorter task or send that all important email. I usually know I am in trouble when I decide that as well as needing a cup of tea, I also have to wash up the horrendously greasy frying pan that I had left to soak from the previous night. Procrastination can take many forms, some of them quite productive in their own ways, but once I get to stage of cleaning cookware, I know I have reached the point of self-sabotage.

Sometimes I find it is worth reflecting on why I am so unwilling to start. If it is because I am about to embark on a new project, the answer can lie in my feeling that I have not yet worked out precisely what I want to say. Those are the occasions when I can type in and delete an opening sentence over and over again, leaving me with only a blank page at the end of a morning as well as, of course, a feeling of intense frustration. At other times, in the middle of a project, it can be because I have been struggling with an idea that takes me to the limits of my research or understanding. The notion of doing the mental work to get past that problem can feel overwhelming. Or I admit there are other occasions when I know that a draft I have written needs real improvement but the idea of tearing it apart and working to build it up again feels daunting and dispiriting.

But as Iain said in a previous post, writing is supposed to be hard. Sometimes, a day wrestling with a big idea, making minor tweaks as you figure out why a structure or sentence is not working, is better understood as a part of the successful process of writing, rather than bracketed and labelled as a failure. But there is a fine line between accepting that the pace of writing varies (and gracefully accepting one or two slow days as a part of that process) and finding yourself struggling to such an extent that you simply grind to a halt. When that happens, it is important to recognise that this halt is no longer part of the process of successful writing and institute emergency measures.

Tactics and strategies…

The first is to get away from the computer and write out any thoughts on a piece of paper. The blank screen of the computer and the demanding, expectant blink of the cursor can be off putting when you are attempting to slow down and figure out a big idea. A piece of paper is more forgiving and also allows for scribbles that can be connected to one another in a more fluid way. I usually turn the paper sideways – giving myself a landscape to try out my ideas. Using arrows and lines, circles and spider diagrams can be useful when it comes to finding out how and where you are making connections between the different parts of an unknown whole.

In the same way, a second technique I have used is to write about what I think is the most important idea in my paper or chapter. Once I am writing about the project (instead of writing THE PROJECT) I feel less pressure to get it right. An art teacher of mine once said that you never paint onto a blank canvas. You paint it first with a translucent ochre wash. Then you start painting on the lines of your image. I see this free writing process as something similar. No longer concerned with the objective of creating a perfect painting or piece of writing, there is some freedom to try out new images or ideas until you find what works.

When all else fails, it is time to think about time itself. Often, it is the fear of a deadline, the sheer size of a project or all the other worrying things I have to complete that prevents me from simply getting on with the task at hand. I am so distracted by all of those other anxieties that I simply cannot concentrate. When that happens I need to change my relationship to the task at hand. By promising myself that I will only write for twenty five minutes and then stop no matter what, I can forget about all those other factors. A day broken into twenty five minute portions is far less intimidating than finishing the whole thing. This strategy, known as the Pomodoro Technique, has something of a cult following and can be really useful as a way of getting past a real obstacle. But for me, it is nothing more than that. My aim is always to get back to a place where I can do some sustained writing over a few hours at a time.

But one of the reasons the Pomodoro Technique and other strategies like it are helpful are because they are great reminders that writing is at the end of the day a habit. If you stop for too long, then getting back to it can feel challenging. But if you encourage yourself to write every day, then you practice that habit of writing past problems. Once you stop associating the process with turning out a polished and finished product every time you sit down and instead focus on the habit of writing day in and day out, then writing becomes a process of accretion. As you accumulate words, polish your text, return to it and refine it still further, writing ceases to be something to fear and something to enjoy instead.

Why “Writing Matters”?

By Jo Cohen

What is the most important thing you have ever written? Was it a card, a letter, an email, an essay?

No one remembers everything they have written, but you remember what matters to you. They are the pieces that made you understand something different about yourself or the world around you, the documents that shaped you for better or for worse; the things that you wrote as an offering to the collective task of human understanding, past, present and future.

Writing matters because no matter how rarely we do it, it has the power to shape our identity and the way we relate to each other. Even at a time when images, films and digital communications threaten to overwhelm us, what we write remains one of the most important ways we have to explain and define ourselves, communicate our most cherished thoughts and our hardest won conclusions to the world around us. From scraps of paper to perfectly formatted essays, what we write matters and it helps to make us who we are.

And so we work at it. Not all the time and not always successfully. But if we care about how we are heard and what we can say, then you do. Sometimes it is sheer joy and other times it is frustrating misery. Sometimes you look back over a day’s work with pride, other days with a sense of loss, that the time you put in doesn’t reflect the work you got out. Picking up a piece you wrote a year ago can be full of pleasure (I wrote that? It makes perfect sense/it sounds beautiful!) But it can also be embarrassed horror (why does it sound so awful/pretentious/clumsy?) Every writer who hopes to be better has all of these moments and more. When writing matters to you it takes your time, your energy and your emotion. But as a process it gives back. You can feel pride, satisfaction and relief; you can know that you have left something behind of your own that will stand.

If writing matters to you, in any way, this blog is for you. The QMUL School of History’s Writing Matters blog is a conversation about the ways we write and why we do it. Of course, as historians we are interested in how the practice of writing and the nature of history intersect. But that won’t be all we talk about.

In the coming week you can learn more about what we have planned. But our starting point is this: because we believe in writing as a personal process, we are not going to argue that there is any one way to be a writer. Rather, we want this blog to be a forum for you to share your experiences of writing: how have you succeeded and where have you struggled? What makes it worth writing and when do you want to give up? What have you accomplished as a writer so far and what do you think you might do with your abilities in the future? It can be about writing history or not. In fact, whether it is about the nuts and bolts of crafting prose or poetry or if you just want to talk about why writing matters to you, then add your thoughts (in writing) here.

And for the record, the most important things I have ever written (so far):

  1. A poem (sonnet in fact – my first and last) about my ex-best friend. I was 16.
  2. My UCAS personal statement (I said I was an “ardent dramatist” and it still makes me cringe to think about it).
  3. An unsent letter that helped me make up my mind.
  4. My first published article.
  5. A father’s day card on behalf of my daughter.

What are yours? Share them below.