A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block

Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block

Author(s): Mike Rose

Source: College Composition and Communication , Dec., 1980, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 389-401

Published by: National Council of Teachers of English

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/356589

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Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block

Mike Rose

Ruth will labor over the first paragraph of an essay for hours. She’ll write a sentence, then erase it. Try another, then scratch part of it out. Finally, as the evening winds on toward ten o’clock and Ruth, anxious about tomorrow’s deadline, begins to wind into herself, she’ll compose that first paragraph only to sit back and level her favorite exasperated interdiction at herself and her page: “No. You can’t say that. You’ll bore them to death.”

Ruth is one of ten UCLA undergraduates with whom I discussed writer’s block, that frustrating, self-defeating inability to generate the next line, the right phrase, the sentence that will release the flow of words once again. These ten people represented a fair cross-section of the UCLA student community: lower-middle-class to upper-middle-class backgrounds and high schools, third-world and Caucasian origins, biology to fine arts majors, C+ to A- grade point averages, enthusiastic to blase attitudes toward school. They were set off from the community by the twin facts that all ten could write competently, and all were currently enrolled in at least one course that re- quired a significant amount of writing. They were set off among themselves by the fact that five of them wrote with relative to enviable ease while the other five experienced moderate to nearly immobilizing writer’s block. This blocking usually resulted in rushed, often late papers and resultant grades that did not truly reflect these students’ writing ability. And then, of course, there were other less measurable but probably more serious results: a grow- ing distrust of their abilities and an aversion toward the composing process itself.

What separated the five students who blocked from those who didn’t? It wasn’t skill; that was held fairly constant. The answer could have rested in the emotional realm-anxiety, fear of evaluation, insecurity, etc. Or perhaps blocking in some way resulted from variation in cognitive style. Perhaps, too, blocking originated in and typified a melding of emotion and cognition not unlike the relationship posited by Shapiro between neurotic feeling and

Mike Rose is a lecturer in English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of that university’s interdisciplinary Writing Research Project. He has training in both English and counseling psychology.

Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block

Mike Rose

Ruth will labor over the first paragraph of an essay for hours. She’ll write a sentence, then erase it. Try another, then scratch part of it out. Finally, as the evening winds on toward ten o’clock and Ruth, anxious about tomorrow’s deadline, begins to wind into herself, she’ll compose that first paragraph only to sit back and level her favorite exasperated interdiction at herself and her page: “No. You can’t say that. You’ll bore them to death.”

Ruth is one of ten UCLA undergraduates with whom I discussed writer’s block, that frustrating, self-defeating inability to generate the next line, the right phrase, the sentence that will release the flow of words once again. These ten people represented a fair cross-section of the UCLA student community: lower-middle-class to upper-middle-class backgrounds and high schools, third-world and Caucasian origins, biology to fine arts majors, C+ to A- grade point averages, enthusiastic to blase attitudes toward school. They were set off from the community by the twin facts that all ten could write competently, and all were currently enrolled in at least one course that re- quired a significant amount of writing. They were set off among themselves by the fact that five of them wrote with relative to enviable ease while the other five experienced moderate to nearly immobilizing writer’s block. This blocking usually resulted in rushed, often late papers and resultant grades that did not truly reflect these students’ writing ability. And then, of course, there were other less measurable but probably more serious results: a grow- ing distrust of their abilities and an aversion toward the composing process itself.

What separated the five students who blocked from those who didn’t? It wasn’t skill; that was held fairly constant. The answer could have rested in the emotional realm-anxiety, fear of evaluation, insecurity, etc. Or perhaps blocking in some way resulted from variation in cognitive style. Perhaps, too, blocking originated in and typified a melding of emotion and cognition not unlike the relationship posited by Shapiro between neurotic feeling and

Mike Rose is a lecturer in Engli

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