Regular readers of my blog will have noticed there has been nothing new to read for a while. I guess this could be ascribed simply to the familiar problem of writer’s block, but it felt more like a complete loss of mental and creative energy. Whereas I have, over the past nearly seven years, found writing my blogposts a refreshing change from the ‘day job’, for the last month it has simply felt beyond me.
I could blame my travels in Australia and the Far East for messing with my body clock, and hence my energy levels. Plus, fast following on this trip I went to Edinburgh (admittedly for a brief holiday) and then Padua (as I wrote about here). So, leaving aside disruption to my circadian rhythm, melatonin levels or other quasi-biological problems, all those absences certainly permitted the email mountain to mushroom uncontrollably. If the inbox has swollen by a factor of four or more (for your own personal breakpoint insert the relevant figure dependent on what your ‘usual’ and acceptable inbox-count is); if the knowledge that people are chasing you for swift answers to questions you don’t know the answer to; and if the sheer act of not-answering causes you to lie awake at night sweating anxiously, then it perhaps is not so surprising that one’s energy is sapped. I realised, ultimately, that all that procrastination of responses to emails that had already been delayed by my travels was only adding to my discomfort. Eventually I managed to summon enough energy to deal with some of those that were causing me most mental guilt/pain/anxiety and that helped to unblock things further, a sort of virtuous circle.
I know there are a few invitations still sitting in my inbox preying on my mind. Other people will have different tactics for dealing with such messages, ranging from accidentally-on-purpose deleting them to continuing to ignore them in the hopes that the sender will lose interest. The reason my inbox is as big as it is lies in part in the fact that there are some ancient emails in this category which I have never yet filed or disposed of. Every now and then, I go back and finally ‘deal’ with some of these, but that in itself requires energy and time. What this past month has shown me is that my usual tactic of responding fast is really the only one that works for me personally. Even if the response is only along the lines of ‘I’ll get back to you in due course’ I feel less overwhelmed than if I am actively ignoring them. Consciously feeling unable to deal with stuff only multiplies the problems, so better never to enter that state (jet-lagged or not).
In fact there is another input into my state of mind, relating to the fact that the first anniversary of my mother’s death has just passed, the only other period when my blogging came to a halt for an extended period. Honouring her memory, reflecting on who she was and what she made me, has inevitably been a further tax on my strength and is an ongoing work in progress, but not one for public record.
Writer’s block for academics is of course nothing new. Many a student has struggled over their term paper, dissertation or manuscript. Sometimes the task just seems too large and shapeless for the hapless would-be-writer to know where to begin. I have always believed – and advised my own students accordingly – that the only way to get over this is to write, anything, in any order, just to release the blockage. Once some part, some easy part, is down on paper another bit and then another may seem more conceivable. Worrying about structure and flow of disconnected paragraphs can come later. Or, as my mother used to say when I couldn’t settle to revision during my teenage years, ‘il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte’ – it’s only the first step that costs. In other words, starting may be hard but it’s likely to be downhill after that. (She wasn’t French, but she was full of cliché’s and bons mots.)
Of course it’s not just students who suffer from writer’s block. It can happen at any stage in the academic life and most people get inhibited or stuck from time to time. It’s just that, for me, I’m not used to it happening with regard to my blog writing. I have been very conscious of my silence, but hope I have now shed the blockage and will revert to something approaching regularity in these posts. Meanwhile I am looking forward to reading a book about science writing I have just come across to get some tips from my peers about style, motivation and outcomes. Written by New Zealander Lisa Emerson, Amazon tells me that ‘The Forgotten Tribe: Scientists as writers’ will ‘offer[s] an important corrective to the view that scientists are “poor writers, unnecessarily opaque, not interested in writing, and in need of remediation.”‘ She argues that scientists are among “the most sophisticated and flexible writers in the academy”.
I look forward to finding out whether I agree with her in due course.