Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Crossing the Streams: Confronting the Fear of Writing


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In the mid-1980s science-fiction film “Ghostbusters,” the heroes receive a warning from one of their own. In the ensuing exchange, Dr. Egon Spengler, played by the recently late Harold Ramis, reveals the consequences of “crossing the streams,” or combining the ghost-battling energy their blasters emit: “Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”

As Dr. Peter Venkman, portrayed by Bill Murray, summarizes: “Right. That’s bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.”

In writing, and many other life pursuits, fear is an ever-present, yet unwelcome companion. It can be a critical motivator. It can also be a crippling nuisance. The knowledge that something is uncomfortable or for which we feel ill-equipped can seem like the notion of stream-crossing. Not knowing what is on the other side of anything we choose to attempt can keep us from trying it at all. What little we are aware of about something, such as Spengler’s 23-word pronouncement of doom, just adds another chain of restraint.
Combine with this informed feeling of dread the fact someone assigned the activity can make it seem even more daunting.

For some, the idea of viewing a writing assignment as a good thing is like a person being giddy about a root canal, or an invasive, hours-long surgical procedure. Underpinning this severe lack of enthusiasm could be multiple influences. These include – a bad experience in high school or elsewhere in college; never hearing positive feedback about writing (or anything else, for that matter);  or a perception that writing is impossibly hard.
Here’s the big reveal for this post. Ready?
All writers – from beginners to veterans – face fear.
For those just starting out, it can be the uncertainty of knowing where to start and how to phrase things, or making a mess of their work product. For the experienced, it can be the fear of trying a new technical approach, such as a creative introduction or a bending of certain rules or taking a huge topical risk.
Risk of disappointing an audience runs throughout the continuum of writers.
So, how can writers overcome these trepidations? The simple answer is by doing it, though the path forward is more complex.
Regardless of where a writer falls on the experience scale, he or she can follow these essential steps:

Brainstorm through free-writing. If a writer finds himself or herself wondering if he or she will lose a staring match with a blank page, a good way to overcome this is to take a few minutes (timing oneself is okay) and literally write down every thought. It’s okay if it’s embarrassing, or rude, or otherwise unsettling. This is not the end result. If needed, it’s perfectly fine to delete the “scratch” document or rip up the sheet of paper once the brainstorming is complete and the resulting, relevant thoughts are on a draft page.

Start writing. Get words on the page. Going back to revise is quite acceptable. The first draft may not even remotely resemble the end product, but the longer one waits to get going, the greater the likelihood that the writing piece might not be the best it could be, or that it may not get written at all.
Read aloud. While this may not work for everyone, those who are familiar with how the English language sounds when it is spoken can be a great tool to catch mistakes, or observe ways to improve the writing.

Get another pair of eyes. Take the opportunity to get a roommate, friend, relative, or classmate to read the document also. At the Miller Writing Center, our writing consultants are well-equipped to help with all of these steps and more. We work with all Auburn students at every stage of writing, from processing initial ideas to taking a last look before the work is turned in, sent off, published, or otherwise complete.

Toward the conclusion of “Ghostbusters,” Spengler decides that the best way to move forward in their situation is to cross the streams. Venkman responds that this could endanger the team and others. “Not necessarily. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive,” Spengler says in reply.


Not to give away the ending for those who haven’t seen it, but the guys do live through the experience. And for those of us who see writing the same as crossing the streams, we will too.

- Paul

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