Writer’s Block: Perfectionism

Ironically, the best student in class is all too often the one who suffers from writer’s block.  She is often the student who arrives prepared and on time, who takes notes and asks insightful questions.  When this student misses a writing deadline, the behavior seems completely contradictory, and yet when I stop to ask, this student has lots of ideas and made lots of genuine connections between the material and herself. After talking at length with this student, what I hear is something like this: “It’s not perfect.”

I identify deeply with this student who seems to be sitting by the side of a stream waiting for the precise and singularly correct moment to step in and . . . what?  My analogy falls apart because what the student wants is for the stream to stop flowing, for life to stop.  And to complicate matters, her ability to write the perfect sentence, the perfect essay, is all tangled up with her confidence and self-esteem to such a point that she ends up dropping the course, which is self-defeating and very sad to observe.

There are writers who write and write and write in order to discover what they think.  But the writer who suffers from perfectionism does not belong to this category.  She knows what she thinks.  Her idea is as densely packed as a rebus, so she has to be convinced that writing is a process.  “Tell me the last time you made an honest mistake,” I’ll say.  “Did you go back and begin your life again, or did you learn something and move forward?  Did you sit down in the middle of the path and refuse to take another step?”

The student who suffers from perfectionism has to unpack each individual idea and allow herself to pursue that idea through drafting.  That’s hard to do.  It demands trust.  The writer has to trust that, after drafting the trajectory of each idea, she will be able to put things back together coherently.  She has to trust that unpacking her idea is not the same as running out of ideas.

As she begins to learn how to draft, this student often judges herself harshly for the amount of time it takes her to move from first to last draft.  She is convinced that she should be able to draft rapidly, to learn all of these technical skills immediately, as if anything that matters in life is an “instant mix” concoction.  “When you were learning to walk, did you enroll in a marathon that same week?”  Of course not.

In trying to help this student in her struggle to accept the unique value of her thoughts, the humanity of putting the stream of her consciousness onto paper and recording her perspective in this moment of her life, I realize how the classroom seems more and more to be a counter-cultural space in which, to develop intellectually, students are asked to do exactly opposite of what they see around them.  “Move slowly and thoughtfully,” I tell them.  “Multi-task,” the world shouts back.  “Keep writing,” I whisper.  “Keep writing.”