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One Academic’s Successful Treatment of Writer’s Block

Satoris S. Culbertson
Kansas State University
When I sat down to write this column, I stared numbly at the computer screen for longer than I’d like to admit, with nothing—I repeat nothing—happening. Plenty of ideas emerged. And some of them, I think, would have resulted in a pretty good column (and may still, in the future). The problem was that I just couldn’t seem to get excited enough about any of them to actually start writing. My mind was stuck. If it were a conversation, I’d be speechless.
Here’s the thing: I’m not the speechless type. As anyone who knows me well can attest, I like to talk. My mom says I haven’t stopped talking since the day I said my first word. I’ve never received a student complaint about dead air. My husband jokes that the last time he got a word in was when he said “I do.” Heck, apparently I even talk in my sleep.
So, there I sat. Speechless. Don’t get me wrong. I know that writing is not the same as talking. That said, I can’t say I’ve ever had the problem of writer’s block before either. Usually, as long as I have an idea for a topic, I can at least get something on paper. It’s not always great, or even good, but at least it’s a start and I can go from there. And, if in need of a little assistance, a simple glass of wine or bottle of beer (or bottle of wine for extreme occasions) has been known to help. This time? No such luck.
At this point, I’m assuming (or hoping) that this is something that might sound familiar to many readers. You sit down to write. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing—a class paper, a journal manuscript, a long-overdue book chapter, your thesis, a grant proposal, your dissertation, a statement of your teaching philosophy—but BAM! Nothing.
After reading a few articles on the treatment of writer’s block (Didden, Sigafoos, O’Reilly, Lancioni, & Sturmey, 2007; Upper, 1974), it became increasingly apparent that I was doomed. There was no easy solution, at least not one that didn’t lead to cirrhosis of the liver or typing that resulted in incomprehensible gobbledygook, as if my toddlers were having their way with my laptop. Then, suddenly, the answer appeared. Luckily I was attempting to write my column with the assistance of background noise from the television because there he was, the lovable misanthropic pill-popping diagnostician, Dr. Gregory House, informing me that I had to determine the underlying cause in order to figure out what to do. Of course!
So, I thought to myself, what was the underlying issue that was keeping me from being able to write? And, as if Jack Nicholson himself were talking to me, I realized what it was: All work and no play makes Tori a dull girl. That was it. An individual who studies work–family balance, I was forgetting to actually practice it. Without realizing it, I had let work take over my life. I love my work, but I love my nonwork too.
As it turns out, in the past month, I had spent an abundance of time on all things work. I had been spending an increasing amount of the time usually devoted to family and nonwork activities to work. I suppose it was bound to happen, given I was on multiple search committees that were honing in on hires, had several reviews due, was knee-deep in requests for recommendation letters, and was buried in projects at various stages. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, I was burning the candle at both ends, so to speak, and had forgotten that whole “balance” thing. Oops.
Once I had this realization, it became easier to write. Granted, this is what I wrote so I suppose it’s debatable as to how effective my discovery was. Nevertheless, my writer’s block disappeared by simply knowing that as soon as I finished I would be able to turn my attention to nonwork activities. My discovery led to a flurry of activity and my fingers actually started typing!
My point here is that I had forgotten to maintain balance. I should have kept my promise to myself to make sure I fit in my runs, no matter how busy I am. I should have thought back to how energized and refreshed I would feel after an evening out with friends. I should have taken a page from other academics that I know and admire who take—and make—the time to pursue other creative endeavors such as painting and photography. And, most importantly, I should have remembered that I chose to go into academia because of the freedom it provides in terms of being able to spend quality time with my loved ones.
So, I close this column by reminding everybody to maintain balance. And for those of you who don’t need the reminder, I encourage you remind others of this every now and then. I could have used the reminder this week. On that note, I’m off to read Goodnight Moon to two handsome little boys, which is guaranteed to energize me more for my work tomorrow than anything else I could imagine.
P.S. I strongly encourage readers to look at the articles on writer’s block. They are wonderful examples of how to be concise in your writing while getting all of the necessary information across. You’ll wish you had written them.
Didden, R., Sigafoos, J., O’Reilly, M. F., Lancioni, G. E., & Sturmey, P. (2007). A multisite cross-cultural replication of Upper’s (1974) unsuccessful self-treatment of writer’s block. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 773.
Upper, D. (1974). The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of “writer’s block.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 497.