Right now, I am “blocked” in a number of ways.
- I’ve been working on a novel for the last ten years. I use the term “working on” loosely. I go through periods of productivity. Every so often, I sit down for a week and have a pretty good time “working on” this novel. Then my energy wanes. I get bored. I lose focus. I decide I’d rather go for a run in the morning or spend the day doing school prep. At the beginning of this summer, I promised myself that I’d make this novel a priority, but it hasn’t happened. The story is still a baggy, unfocused, structurally unsound mess, and I have no real desire to fix it. I’d like to throw it away, but I feel a strange sense of responsibility toward it, even though no publisher is waiting for it. I feel like I have to finish it. Perhaps this is because I’ve received government funding to write it and have been awarded a place at a competitive writers’ workshop – twice – to work on it. Tossing it seems disrespectful and lazy.
- For the past few years, I have taken stabs at becoming a serious meditation practitioner. I’ve taken classes in Shambhala philosophy, have attended week-long meditation retreats, and, for brief periods, kept up a regular morning meditation practice. For almost a year now, however, I haven’t meditated at all. When I think about sitting down to meditate, my chest tightens, and I do something else instead. I trace this aversion directly back to a “city retreat” I attended last August, where I threw myself fully into five days of meditation practice and Shambhala community participation, only to emerge feeling raw, shaken and hurt, mostly because of one long-time member of the community who, for reasons I did not understand, was rude and mean to me throughout the retreat. (My sense of alienation was not mitigated by the fact that almost everyone else at the Centre had been only kind and welcoming.)
- For the past few weeks, I have been trying to find something to write about, in order to get Classroom as Microcosm up and running again for the fall, and the only thing I can come up with is that I’m blocked. So I’m writing about being blocked.
There’s a blog about writing that I like, called The Urban Muse, that has lately proposed a couple of explanations for blocks, writers’ blocks in particular. One suggestion is that we get blocked when we overthink what we’re doing. Another is that we get blocked when we are doing something that isn’t coming naturally. I think both these explanations are plausible, and connected.
I think teachers should take the question of blocks seriously, because we see them happening in our classrooms all the time. We ask our students to do things that they are (usually) not naturally inclined to do. We often ask them to overthink what they’re doing, or they overthink of their own accord, because they don’t know where to begin, or because they panic and try to think/plan/flail their way out of paralysis. They may also have unpleasant, humiliating experiences associated with whatever we’re asking them to do (a mean lady at a meditation retreat, a bad grade, a teacher’s or peer’s derision) that make it scary for them to even try.
I think we can see blocks in a subtly different way, however, a way that is perhaps more productive and healthy. We can see them, not as blocks at all, but as diversions.
This summer, for example, I promised myself I would work on my novel, but I’ve been diverted by a couple of things. First of all, I’m planning my wedding. Planning a wedding is a big and complex job. It is a job that causes many people a lot of stress. However, I am at an advantage in that I have a long summer vacation in which I can, if I like, focus almost all my energy on this job. I discovered that if I focus on the wedding planning and don’t try to squeeze it in around other projects (like a novel), planning a wedding can be really fun. It’s a pleasant and interesting diversion in which I’m learning a lot of things, including how to book tables for an event, what “wedding favours” are (we won’t be having any, but still), and how to do my own makeup.
This last has become a full-fledged diversion in its own right. Since the age of about eighteen, my makeup regime has consisted, on a good day, of a smear of blush, a swipe of mascara, and maybe a bit of lip gloss. About a year ago, a makeup professional gave me a lesson in how to apply concealer, and on the days I get it right, this can take about ten years off my face. My plan was to have my makeup done for me on my wedding day, but one morning, I was flipping through a “wedding magazine” and came across a section on doing one’s own makeup. It didn’t look that hard. I was suddenly possessed by the desire to buy myself some eyeshadow. So I ran to the pharmacy, bought a four-pack in neutral brown tones with instructions on the back, and spent a few minutes in front of the mirror. I liked what I saw. The next day I took a trip to a fancy cosmetics store and set up an appointment for a consult. And within the space of a few days, I had accumulated a massive pile of fashion magazines and several books on basic makeup. Eyeshadows and mascaras began spilling out of my bathroom cabinet. I was OBSESSED.
I had never given a damn about makeup before. What happened? Why was I devoting all this time – time that could have been spent writing or meditating – on something that I had never cared about and that could be seen as completely inconsequential?
The fact is, I had always been intimidated by makeup, and so had never bothered to learn anything about it. If anyone had suggested that I spend an hour doing my makeup, I would have greeted this suggestion with derisive laughter. I had far better things to do with my time. And this might have been true, but at the root of my derision was insecurity – I simply didn’t know how to do makeup, and didn’t believe I could learn. This same insecurity led me to avoid physical activity for many years – I wasn’t the kind of person who exercised, because I was too busy developing my mind. It never occurred to me that exercise, and makeup, could be FUN.
And fun is really the point here. I have been lamenting for several years now that writing fiction is no longer fun for me. Hell, even READING fiction feels like work a lot of the time, maybe because I’m an English teacher. And meditation certainly isn’t fun. And while blogging often is – at least, it’s fun in the sense that it often helps me enter a state of “flow” – there are times when I need to get away from thinking about teaching and do something entirely different with my brain.
So instead of doing the things I think I should be doing with my summer – writing a novel, meditating, blogging – I’ve been planning a wedding and playing with eyeshadow. And it’s been a lot of fun.
But more than that, I see a deeper purpose to throwing ourselves into these little obsessions, these little diversions. Writing fiction started out as an obsessive diversion for me when I was a child (growing out of another obsessive diversion: reading). Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to read and write, and never made me feel like these were frivolous wastes of time. Meditation and Buddhist philosophy were also obsessive diversions, and blogging is, too. My interest in these activities waxes and wanes, but they are always there for me when I go back. There is no need for me to treat them as jobs.
This is not to say that painting my face is going to become a central activity in my life, the way writing is. I’m not going to go to cosmetology school. But new interests are great fuel for writing. One of the main characters in my novel, for example, is the sort of person who might become obsessed with makeup. And writing about her obsession with makeup would probably be a lot of fun.
Here’s the point I’m trying to get to in a roundabout way: obsessive diversions are good. They bring us a lot of pleasure, and they help us learn. We can’t predict where they’ll come from, and we can’t necessarily create them in others. But is there a way we can make our classrooms less block-prone and more obsession-friendly? Can we create environments where our students are more likely to become obsessed with something we offer them? Granted, calculus and Shakespeare and molecular biology are not eyeshadow, but we know they can be fun. If we can get our students to fall in love with them, to want to know more and more, to cram their bathroom cabinets full of them, then we can stop hounding them to do their homework and stop texting in class. How do we do this?
Image by Christine Weddle