Writer's block

I am a grad student in English but my life is chaotic and I can't seem to get any writing done.

Published June 17, 2004 7:38PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a grad student in English, and for the first two semesters so far, I've been so blocked -- not a single term paper in yet. Now they're threatening to kick me out, and I have four papers to finish by mid-July. I am so embarrassed; I student-taught this past semester, and a big part of the job was giving writing advice. I help my friends with their papers, professors tell me they've heard such good things about my writing. I feel like a fraud, and ashamed, and I just want to curl up and forget about it -- watch TV, to hell with doing anything.

I think about writing all the time, especially now that it's such a knotty mess. Writing is so important to me, not because I necessarily want to be a "Writer" but because it's the thing in the world I value most, even when it feels impossible, but then you see where you're going and finding the right words feels so good it's almost like sex. I love being a part of other people's writing, and I would love to teach. But right now I'm tired of watching -- I want to get in there and do it. But I sit down and either no words at all or just blather.

This is what I see and hear when I sit at my desk: my parents who are so proud of me, yet don't really see what all the fuss and stress is about. My sweetie who used to be a good writer himself, but now works 40 hours a week and plays video games when he's home. He thinks I should just see these essays as my job and get them done so we can "get on with our lives."

There are piles of clothes and dirty dishes and paper and junk stacked all over the house. I owe my favorite professor two papers and she's just over it now with me. My best friend says I've changed over the past couple of years, that I used to be more calm and confident. There are mounting bills and debts (some to friends), and I could go on.

I've lost all sense of balance, not only in the mental/spiritual sense, but physically too. I often find myself tipping over, and sometimes I fall. All I really want to do is sit down and just get these papers done, but I have this feeling of all these eyes watching me -- I hate it.

I have a long-term solution. By the end of summer I'd like to find a place in the college town, settle in to a small apartment with just me and what I need, no more piles of crap everywhere, be clean and live like a monk. Get up early and meet the day on equal grounds. But then I'd have to leave the sweetie -- he won't live in the college town -- I'd have to pay more rent, and I'd feel like I abandoned him to be selfish.

What if I start off fresh and have all the space to myself I could want, all the control over my living space, and I still can't get the job done? And I hurt him in the process? If you had some advice about getting writing done when my brain is so crowded, that would be such a help. If I can start there, I think (I hope) everything else will follow.

Anxious and Blabbering

Dear Anxious and Blabbering,

If I were you, I would withdraw from school for a semester and regroup. You've probably been working too hard for too long and have neglected your emotional and physical health. So try spending a few months at a more humane pace. Find some casual part-time work, say in a restaurant or a bookstore, or, if possible, outdoors, perhaps selling tickets for boat rides in a park or caring for animals in a zoo. Eat regular meals that you cook yourself, sleep on a regular schedule and exercise three times a week. Make sure you are getting enough vitamins. If you've been consuming a lot of caffeinated drinks, alcohol and marijuana, cut back. Spend some time just walking around in the fresh air. Do your laundry. Catch up with friends. Clean house. Put your books on the shelves.

Some time away from the grind might be all you need. You sound like you're exhausted, anxious and overwhelmed, and a few months away from the demands of graduate school, with good nutrition and exercise, can sometimes work wonders.

Even if you escape, though, you might find that after a short rest, you are still anxious and unable to corral your thoughts. And escaping may seem to be, in itself, too big an obstacle. If extricating yourself from this situation seems like an insurmountable task, or if a little rest doesn't refresh you and give you a new outlook, I would seek some help from a therapist. A good, insightful professional can help you understand how you got into this situation, how to get out of it and how to keep it from happening again.

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