By Susan Carter
What I have loved about watching Olympic events on TV is the athletes’ demonstration of determination, self-possession and focus. At the same time, I have been reading a couple of books that deal with writer’s block, bringing the intensity of emotion around writing to the fore. The books are Alice Weaver Flaherty’s (2015) The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain and Peter Elbow’s (1998) Writing without Teachers. This post was prompted by a combination of the Olympic games backdrop to my current reading about writing. Both things are inspiring. They converge.
I keep seeing connections between Olympic effort and doctoral writing. OK, so those writing PhDs are not striving to be the best in the world, but they are labouring to become a world expert in their niche. Over the course of a PhD you need to acquire some of those strengths that world athletes take to the limit.
And the limbic system seems to have a lot to do with this.
The limbic system is something I have only just learnt about thanks to neurologist Flaherty, who describes the bit of your brain just behind your ears that stimulates creativity and motivation. It seems probably significant for world athletes and for doctoral writers.
It may instigate the persistence that Olympians endure in the build-up to their performance at the games, and the real grit they develop to push through tough patches. All that is long, slow and boring, unlike the richly emotional images of winners and losers at the games.
As a New Zealander, I watched with interest, and a bit tearily, the interview with bronze-winning 19-year-old pole-vaulter Eliza McCartney. Her exhilaration and her comments mapped so readily onto someone graduating with a PhD. She paid tribute to her trainer and other supporters. She giggled that the bronze was the most satisfying medal to get because you knew you’d only just made it.
The interviewer reminded her of some lows in her sporting build-up—‘so when you couldn’t even get out of bed, how did it feel to think about your sporting career…..’—that seemed pertinent to writer’s block and doctoral writing.
Eliza explained from her position of success that in sport training the good days are not that common. Most of the time, it is hard, it takes a long time, things go wrong, you mess things up. For her, at these Games, it all came together. That feeling was rare. Well, the same seems true of academic writing.
Flaherty (2015) had experience of both hypergraphia—the obsessive urge to write—and writer’s block, and found herself ricocheting ‘between euphoria and terror’ (pp 11-12). She became intrigued by the limbic system because research suggests that this is the bit of the brain that motivates the ability to make things meaningful. So she began considering writer’s block as a mental condition.
The Midnight Disease is a beautifully written book that picks its way delicately through the connection between creativity and unbalanced states of mind. Flaherty concludes that writing procrastination is ‘usually better treated by putting the writer in an appropriate limbic or motivational state than by cognitive strategies like making a To Do list’ (Flaherty, 2015: 16).
Meanwhile, I’m also re-reading Peter Elbow’s (1998) Writing without Teachers. He too bases his pedagogy for writing support on his own experiences of hating writing at one stage of his life, and later, writing in a mad frenzy as a cure for depression.
He changed the book’s initial title, ‘writing without tears’, when he realized that he ‘didn’t want to define tears as a problem’ (xvii). Like Flaherty, he grew to understand depression, frustration and writing blockage as part of learning and creating. Elbow’s inspirational pedagogies for writing, including free writing and early facilitation of peer writing groups, underpin how many of us still support writing. They exemplify the productivity of pain and struggle/determination.
The two books, set against the Olympic games backdrop, have raised questions in my mind: are pain and despair a constructive and unavoidable part of academic writing, and are there risks to emphasizing this when we teach about writing? As individuals, how do we learn discipline to handle the slog? Is it possible to crank up our limbic systems?
Flaherty thinks yes. After looking at the way that some prolific artists and writers resorted to alcohol or drugs to prompt their creativity, she herself found ‘grudgingly’ admitting that exercise is one healthy way to stimulate the limbic system. The old adage of a healthy mind in a healthy body has neurological evidence. I’m sure that readers with psychology backgrounds could add something here, and I probably need to do more reading….back to the slog in search of something motivating.