A personal narrative dedicated to every writer who has ever suffered writer's block and lived to tell about it.
Peer Writing Seminar–“How I Write” revised
28 September 2007
Fog shrouds campus this morning, Saturday, and my mind feels foggy, too. My roommate is gone, and I sit at my desk, trying to read and take notes before I go to breakfast. I am not making much progress. From the window of my room on the third floor of Foster overlooking the Chapel and the Green, I can’t make out the Chapel’s massive structure. Granted, the sun hasn’t yet risen. However, on most mornings, I can see the Chapel by this hour, even in the light of early dawn, and beyond, to the Library, Campus Ministries, and even Memorial Dormitory across campus. I sit here, my mind wandering, my eyes straining to make out the form of the Chapel. I know it is there. I have seen it before: on clear mornings, on bright afternoons, in deepening evening shadows, and at night, illuminated inside and out.
I return to the paper on the desk before me where my outline should be and isn’t. My mind strains as I puzzle over my topic, just as my eyes strain to see the Chapel in the fog. I know I have the makings of a great paper. I have the materials before me: the two plays to be compared, a pile of literary criticism, and several biographies of the playwrights. Yet my vision for the assignment is dim, and my mind gropes in a haze of possibilities. Writing isn’t always this difficult. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to say and how I want say it. More often, I have to write through the fog. I expect this process to grow easier in time. It doesn’t. The paper’s outline exists, but it will not appear through my mental fog without time and effort.
Pausing from my labors, I rise to make a cup of tea. I pray, asking God for grace, inspiration, and His help to have the discipline to complete this assignment with excellence. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” I remind myself. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be my best. I fill my white mug at the drinking fountain in the hall, set the mug inside the microwave, and turn the dial to three minutes. Later, as I’m dunking the tea bag, my mind jumps back to yesterday when my professor assigned the paper with which I am now grappling.
Class is almost over. I’m not paying attention to the professor’s closing remarks. I should be listening because he’s telling us about the essay that’s due in ten days, but instead I’m distracted as I stow notebook and pencil in my messenger bag. My mind snaps to attention as I snap shut the lid of my aluminum pencil box and tuck it away in my bag. Now what was Dr. Isitt saying?
Thankfully, Dr. Isitt has posted the assignment online, outlining his expectations for a paper that will compare two plays of the Restoration period. We’ve spent several class periods reading and discussing the plays, and I still don’t understand the plots, or why the plays were written.
I head over to the library to print off the assignment and do some preliminary research, pulling from the shelves a number of books that look as if they will be useful. I check SparkNotes.com, but the plays I am comparing are not among the study guides. Seating myself at a table overlooking the rolling Ozarks, opposite Lake Taneycomo, I begin reviewing my lecture notes, looking for a topic. I squirm in the chair, not wanting to be here. My mind chafes against the discipline of thought. I look out across the hills, wishing I were ambling through the field where the cattle graze, and not entombed in the quiet confines of the library. My mind jerks back to attention.
Outlining Through the Fog
Sunlight encroaches on the scene. Through the fog, the Chapel’s bulk begins to emerge. Similarly, my mind begins to clear. Is it a result of the caffeine in the tea, perhaps? Or could it be the prayer? I’m starting to see some common threads between the two plays I’m comparing. I jot some preliminary notes that will provide the basis for my outline. When the inspiration wanes, I rise. My cup is empty. It’s time for more tea.
While my second cup is warming in the microwave, I rummage around in my desk, where I locate a recording of Bach Motets that I slip into my laptop. I love the Motets because in them I sense Bach’s enthusiasm and his joy. More than inspiration, classical music, especially from the Baroque period, aids my mental processes, the intricate rhythms providing a framework for my nebulous ideas. Because they are in German, I can’t understand the Motets; even so, I feel inspired by their uplifting themes of praise, and sense new motivation to write.
I like to break from a project when I’ve reached this point of insight and inspiration. I’m excited about the themes I’ve discovered in the plays, and I need to discuss them with someone else in the class. Slipping a marker into the book over which I’ve been making notes, I untangle myself from my contorted position at the desk to get dressed. I think I will stop by the writing center for help with the outline, since outlines are not my strength.
Breakfast finished, I head back to my room to fetch my book bag. I hope I can make it to class on time! The sun has risen, and the fog is finally lifting. I’m feeling more optimistic about my paper, having had a chance to discuss my ideas with another member of the class over breakfast. Articulating my ideas with someone who is familiar with the subject gives me a better idea of how to compare the two plays. With just a rough outline in hand, I still have a lot of work to do on my paper.
It has been a week since that foggy morning. I’m seated again at my desk by the window, overlooking the Chapel that stands glistening in the morning light. No fog. I can almost count the stones in the building’s massive walls. My attention returns to the document on my laptop screen. I’ve spent around twenty five hours researching, note-taking, outlining, and writing. I’m now typing the finishing touches on the first draft of my essay. Have I communicated my ideas and arguments clearly? Later this morning, I’ll take my essay by the writing center for a reader response to check for clarity. Delineating my essay through the haze has been hard work, but not all drudgery, since inspiration has played some part in the process. My essay is not perfect, of that I’m sure, yet I feel the satisfaction of having done my best. Here it stands at last.