6 September 2011

How to Escape English Student's Block

My experiences of Oxford taught me that formal education and creative writing are surprisingly good bedfellows. Despite everyone I know insisting that academia would kill my creativity, I think I've escaped unscathed.

How did I do it? I got on with it. Also, I actually studied Music, which no doubt assisted.

English students' block - it's a well-know phenomenon. The young would-be-writer goes up to university to study English literature, spends three years reading James Joyce and Chaucer, and is totally unable to write their own fiction. I've heard many theories as to why this might be:
  • Spending too much time reading academic essays makes you write fiction that sounds like you've got gout. You'll be intelligent enough to realise your work is dross and stop writing it.
  • Constant comparison of your own work to the Booker-winning novel of your tutor is inevitable,* and will leave your sense of self esteem in tatters. You'll feel like you've got to write literary gold, when actually you'd be better off writing a nice thriller.
  • You're so primed to analyse texts that you'll keep seeing Freudian/Orientalist/metaphallicist significance in your work and throw it away in disgust.
  • You keep having nightmares about the Death of the Author.
Roland Barthes contemplating my early death.
The University of Oxford isn't exactly known for nurturing creativity, but I actually found it a great environment for dabbling in creative writing, so with a dash of self analysis I constructed a guide on How to Stop Academia Killing Your Creativity yesterday. But when I showed it to some friends, they pointed out that it had nothing to do with academia at all. My advice applied equally to anyone who wasn't a full-time writer, and most of it to full-time writers as well.

You see, English students' block doesn't exist.

Using academia as an excuse not to write is like using your job, your family commitments, or the death of your cat as an excuse not to write. They're still excuses. If you really wanted to write, you'd make the time. At some point, you're just going to have to admit that if you're not writing then you're not a writer.

I think what really stops people from writing is that they're not really prepared to put in the leg work. Whatever your aims in writing, from becoming a celebrity autobiographer to writing the next La recherche, all that planning, plotting, replotting, drafting, redrafting and redrafting and redrafting is a lot of work indeed. You'd have to be mad to be prepared to actually do all of that. The sad truth is that most people aren't mad.

There's a wonderful 1940s psychology term 'Barnum statements', which refers to phrases that when presented as a psychological report or astrological reading appear to give an insight into a person, when in fact they are totally generic. These can be vague and fudgey, like:
Sometimes you feel sad and lonely, but at other times you feel popular and joyful.
or surprisingly direct, like:
You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
One of them is:
You feel like you have a novel in you.
Maybe most people do have novels in them, but most people won't write them because it's too much effort. Even for people who do write a lot of, say, poetry and flash fiction, The Novel, The First Collection or The Screenplay is a very intimidating prospect.

The thing that distinguishes real writers from mere horoscope believers is that they actually write.

So if you're reading this as an English student who thinks they've got books breeding in their bowels, my advice is to operate immediately or accept that they're going to stay there. Try NaNoWriMo (considerably more encouraging than me) and 750words (the morning exercise routine for writers, again a lot happier than I am). Write anything and everything, and one day you - and I - will one day build up to finishing that elusive magnum opus.

Having said all that, I've heard terrible rumours about a psychological condition called English graduates block...


* This isn't a problem for most people, or for me personally, but replace "of your tutor" with "that you've studied" for the same effect. There are plenty of prize-winning novelists who are academic tutors though. Imagine having Umberto Eco as your tutor. Shivers.


P.S. Thank you to everyone who has been reading so far, and a special thank you to those giving me feedback or sending encouraging messages. For the record, it's unlikely I will write a gay romance novel set in Ancient Greece.

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