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Writer’s block

Topics/tags: Writing, autobiographical

Yesterday, I wrote a draft of a potential project description for the new CSC 151. That draft, although very rough, was still remarkably hard to write. I had trouble getting text down. I rewrote many parts multiple times. I threw away and rearranged things. And, in the end, it’s nothing special.

I’m not entirely sure why it was so hard to write. It may be that I’m planning on sharing it in the Obermann discussion group in a few days, and so I’m worried about the reception of the material. It may be that I still don’t feel like I have a deep enough sense of the course. It may be that I’m finding writing hard in general.

As I’ve said in my recent musings on writer’s block, the experience feels new. While I sometimes struggle when writing research papers, I’ve generally been able to churn out instructional material at a pretty good pace. Right now, it’s much harder to write instructional text now than it used to be. But it’s not all of my writing; I’m still able to muse with some frequency. Are the musings at fault? Perhaps they have caused me to set a higher bar for my regular writing [1,2]. Perhaps I’m spending too much time writing less formally, and that affects my ability to write more formally. I’m not sure.

I had thought that one of my main obstacles was that I was spending too much time on code, either sample Racket code or additional code for the formatting system I’m using. But I wrote the draft project description in Markdown, and it involves no code. So, while the coding may be getting a bit in the way, it’s not the primary factor [3].

Or perhaps I’m struggling with the same thing I regularly see students struggle with: When you don’t understand a subject well, it’s harder to write (well) about it. I’ve always written instructional materials with a sense that I’m learning while writing. But maybe a combination of an internal change in standards and less familiarity with the material is causing some difficulty. However, I’m even struggling to write about Scheme concepts that I’ve taught for more than twenty years.

At the same time, I’ve realized that I’m ignoring one of the principles of agile programming: Write for the problem at hand, not the problem you anticipate in the future. You can always generalize later. I find that I’m regularly asking myself how I should make the textbook appropriate for more than just Grinnell students. And that takes time. I need to get the Grinnell-specific version done first and then go back and generalize it later. I should also apply that attitude more generally. That is, I should get something reasonable done and then go back and make the other changes I’m anticipating, such as rearranging topics or refining examples.

I’m getting older [4], so it may be that I am not able to work as efficiently. Certainly, I’ve never been as productive as I was early in my career. I still don’t understand how I got so much done. But I worked reasonably efficiently on the data science materials two years ago, and my productivity should not have fallen off that much in those two years.

It may be that my anxiety about the state of the world, the state of the College, the state of the department, and the state of my family are all affecting my writing. Each day seems to raise another depressing or troublesome issue.

I’ve always claimed that I work best under pressure, so it may be that I’m missing the tight deadlines that often accompany my writing. If it’s Sunday night, students need to read something for Wednesday’s class, and a colleague needs a chance to review them before the students read them, then I have no option other than to write (something*. If it’s not due until next semester, there’s less urgency. However, the project description should have led to a similar sense of urgency. I need it ready by Monday morning for Wednesday’s Obermann discussion, so there is actual time pressure.

There are, of course, way too many distractions. I am, as we all know, overcommitted. Hence, I’m not able to focus as much on writing as I’d like. And I’ve found too many days when I sit down to work on my writing only to discover an urgent task that distracts me for a few hours. That uses up mental energy. And, in some cases, those tasks also affect my mood. But I struggle on days in which tasks don’t interfere, too.

How do I move forward? I’m not sure. It may be time to start experimenting with free writing. Or maybe I’ll just keep plugging along and hope that things start to click.

Postscript: I apologize for so many musings about writer’s block. But writer’s block is my primary experience these days [5] and I remain hopeful that by writing about my writer’s block, I’ll unblock myself. At the very least, it means that I’ve written something.

Postscript: I started this musing last night after finishing the draft project description. I wrote most of the musing this morning as I tried to figure out how to deal with the frustrations I was still finding. Then I wrote an alternate project description, took a nap, and spent about six hours writing. In that time, I completed one reading and set up some apparatus for about four more. In contrast, I used to be able to write a reading and a lab in about three or four hours. Nonetheless, I’ve found a way to make forward progress. It’s just slow forward progress. Let’s hope that I can continue to make some progress by just plugging along. And let’s hope that my pace can accelerate. We shall see.

[1] Given how much editing Janet had to do when I wrote the original CSC 151 materials, that may be the case.

[2] It’s kind of scary to think of my musings as setting a high bar. But the issue may be that, subconsciously, I know that my other writing should be better than my musings.

[3] Upon further reflection, the issue with coding may be that it gives me an out when I can’t write. If I can’t write, I have things that I can still do and feel productive.

[4] Aren’t we all?

[5] There are also feelings of anxiety and sadness relating to the state of our country.

Version 1.0 of 2018-10-28.