Just Begin - How to Avoid Writer's Block and Find Your Voice
11 January 2021
I throw up the blind with a violent clatter. Never shut out the Minot sun in January.
Blinding rays abruptly assault my face and chest in heated waves. Eyes pressed shut, I reach my arms straight up, as high as they can go, while filling my lungs with solar-powered air. The sun pushes its red glow through my eyelids in two vivid spheres. My forehead, cheeks, and nose flush. The corner of my mouth lifts. I forcefully exhale, then drop my forearms at the elbow, resting them on my head, and let my hands hang limp. My left cheek turns instinctively into the soft, warm skin of my left upper arm, and I breathe: “Mmmm….”
My eyes open.
The low afternoon sun skates across what once was snow but has melted and refrozen – it is now patchy ice scattered throughout the fallow field between our house and Missile Blvd. Kaleidoscopic crystalline rays range out from the orb’s epicenter in an arc, nearly a sundog. The sun will soon dip below the topmost branches of the conifer across the way. There will then be a break in the steady flood of light as the trees force their ragged dancing silhouettes upon it…the field will dim with shadow. But for now, as I release my arms to my sides and turn back to continue making a quiche for dinner, golden radiance blankets the kitchen. And offers me joy.
An impactful and apropos quote from James Tayper Pace’s sermon in Iris Murdoch’s The Bell:
‘And what are the marks of innocence? Candour – a beautiful word – truthfulness, simplicity, a quite involuntary bearing of witness. The image that occurs to me here is a topical one, the image of a bell. A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which never rung? It rings out clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved it must ring.’ (123)
I need to do a touch of prewriting, and it might as well be in this document. The writing prompt is to convince the reader to do, think, or believe something new using personal experience as evidence.
Unfortunately, I just watched a YouTube video that aims to discredit personal experience as valid evidence. Although the examples proffered in that video were outrageous such to create a strawman fallacy, I still wonder if within the claim there lies some truth. Is it illogical to cull from personal experience – because it is too simple to fall into an illogical appeal to pathos (emotion)?
This will be the challenge for my students: how can you employ personal experience as evidence without falling into this logical fallacy trap? I will ask them to be conscientious of it…
Let me perhaps use composition pedagogy where grammar instruction is of lesser value than “writing to the sixth minute” – or what is real. Perfection versus Humanity; we are not robots. Our perfection lies in our imperfections. Pure humanity is where value lies.
We should not fear to make mistakes in our writing. What we should fear is to be stifled. Often, it is by freewriting, letting go of convention altogether, that we produce our best work. It is, in fact, when we think least about convention that we fulfill pure self-expression.
Of course, there is the counterargument that written self-expression in its purest form would not, in fact, communicate effectively, as communication requires that we meet the reader at a middle ground of understanding. Herein, I think, lies the crucial difference between creative and scholarly writing. One is in a purer form than the other, as far as self-expression goes. The other is a manifestation of self-expression – within mutually agreed-upon parameters, or rules. Scholarly writing is, indeed, still self-expression; however, it must follow the rules to engender clarity and foster understanding.
To simplify: Creative writing, at its core, is an art form. Scholarly writing is more of a mixture of art and science: you must express your idea, but you must do so most effectively by employing certain standardized techniques. In neither case should the writer lose a sense of self or uniqueness of voice, however.
So – where, then, does grammar or error come into the picture as worthy of correction? I say it comes in at some intangible, subjective point where the reader loses the sense of the author’s message. Per MLA standards, this includes anything that would interrupt fluidity. But it’s more than just listing points of error; each new writer carries with them a set of bad habits. What makes those habits worthy of correction is when and how they interrupt the reader’s eye. The more frequent the interruption, the graver the error, and the more important correction becomes.
This is why, in a composition course, it is better just to start. Find a message or passion – find a topic about which your heart can fly – and begin writing without too much conscience for error. Once you have put ideas to paper, the most frequent interruptions will step forward, baring themselves for scrutiny and then correction.
In this class, we will spend very little time discussing grammar. Whatever grammar errors still exist in your writing, I will note them and provide you with resources to correct them on your own time. This is ENGL120; I expect that you should have some grammar instruction groundwork already laid, and that you have the self-discipline to correct your own errors given appropriate guidance.
If, however, particular grammar errors prove prevalent for a majority of the writers in our class, I will address them writ large, as a class lecture with activities. This rarely happens, and it isn’t often fruitful even when it does happen.
But let me tell you something. Many grammar and writing rules you have learned – almost all rules – are permitted to be broken for at least this one reason: you must not stifle your voice. The perfect sentence falls flat if it is written without interest. As Iris Murdoch writes in The Bell, “…even a perfect imitation, as soon as you know it’s an imitation, gives much less pleasure.” Because of “…the natural attractiveness of truth” (115). You may be able to parrot sentences that are perfectly formed, but if they do not express something valuable to you – some truth you bear – they are just empty words.
Let’s look at examples of how broken grammar rules will not impede, and in fact might better engender your message and purpose. Note how I began the previous paragraph with the coordinating conjunction, “but.” Haven’t you been taught that beginning a sentence with “but” or “because” or “and” is unacceptable? Next, look at how I am using first person pronouns like “I” and “me.” Note that I’m talking to you in the second person: “you.” Finally, look at how I am pointing out to you, directly, each of my sentences and even some of my very words as I write them. This is metacommentary and generally considered unacceptable in scholarly writing. All of these are writing rules that I am right now choosing to break – to make a point. My point is that you should not let rules stand in the way of your message or your voice. Here, I am deliberately breaking rules to tell you that it is OK to break rules if you do it intentionally – with purpose – as I have done.
The ultimate example I can conceive of an author breaking grammar rules appears in Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved. Within this novel are glimpses inside the mind of a character who is dead. To illustrate that the character exists outside the boundaries of this existential realm, Morrison employs what is called stream of consciousness. In this style of writing, thoughts spring to the page without grammatical constraints. Sentences are truncated. Punctuation is often lost. The first-person pronouns “I” and “we” have unclear antecedents. There are no rules. All of this rule-breaking, however, is acceptable because Morrison does it with purpose to make a point: the character is not alive on earth and is not susceptible to earthly constraints.
If Toni Morrison can break the rules and still get published, does this mean that we should eschew all writing conventions and mores? Absolutely not! Learning them is important. In fact, how can you break a rule if you do not know what the rule is in the first place? Nevertheless, I posit that grammar rules are not most successfully learned by instruction or tedious busywork. I think basic grammar is best learned by being a cognizant witness: read more. Read publications that exemplify good writing, expose yourself to it much and often, and your brain will naturally begin to identify patterns. Then, when a pattern is broken, your brain will also notice – and course-correct.
The greatest problem with grammar pedagogy lies not in the errors themselves; the greatest problem lies in the writer’s blind spot. Grammar errors most persist because your brain wants to see what it thought – not what is written. Once you have put words to page, your brain will see in them only what it wanted to see when they first came out. It will not necessarily see what is actually there. Errors that might jump at you in someone else’s writing will be invisible to you in your own writing! The horror! Herein lies the value of peer review. Peer review ensures that what is on that paper approaches more closely to what was in your mind as you were processing those thoughts to the page. Your peers have a far greater probability of noting your errors than you do. And this rule applies across the board – all the way up the writing food chain – from ENGL110 students to Stephen King or Margaret Atwood.
So stay, be still, don’t fret; think a little – or a lot – about what moves you, and then just begin. Write. Write what you know and what you love. In the end, mistakes don’t matter. What matters is that you get a piece of you onto that page. Then the real work is begun.