Writer’s Block and this Unbelievable Coffee Shop

 The problem of writing: in order to designate something exactly, an exact expressions are utterly unavoidable.  No at all because it is a necessary step, or because one can only advance by approximation; on the contrary, it is the exact passage of that which is under way.

The conversation about composition continues.

The above comes from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Trans. Brian Massumi. Minnesota UP, 1987).  (There is a little more on these thinkers in the previous post).  Published in 1987, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia feels right for the late 80’s, but returns with a vengeance for relevance today.  Here I’ll just reflect on its implications for writing, writer’s block, and the difference between what we know about writing and how or if, we write.

The dynamic D&G duo—I’m not always so enthusiastic, but today I am—say something here that beginning writers everywhere live.  You’ve got to fake your way through composing.  Only Deleuze and Guattari argue that faking it, to “advance by approximation” avoids the trap of representation, in favor of the realization of rhizomes. Rhizomes, understood philosophically (as opposed to the way the term gets used in Botany) is a concept that embraces continual connections that can inject innovation and growth.  This positions stands in opposition to the narrative or origin-seeking search for knowledge and truth. Rhizomes imply that there are no clear-cut origin points nor distinct moments of truth, or telos.  They are the “radical middle ground” that started off my interest in keeping a blog.   Experienced writers might say that writing involves, to conjure a cliché, “process.”

Knowing that writing involves a process is a problem.  We who are not “beginner writers” get trapped in the already accepted belief system that you’ve got to embrace approximation in order to get somewhere.   We think we get it: there is no one linear pattern or passage to composing.  Isn’t that what “the process movement” in Composition was all about?  Freewriting—just write—might be the praxis to the theory of rhizomes.

But knowing first isn’t always productive. Non-beginners believe but don’t in reality live this epistemological heuristic.  We (I) want prose to be polished and just south of perfect (the ideal scholarly essay shows some strain for the sake of intellectual authenticity, but that genre’s motto might be:  never let them see you suffered).  We want what used to be called “the ideal text” though we don’t believe in that.  Writing is born free but everywhere writers are in chains (sorry for that cheap mash-up of Rousseau but Denby’s Great Books still is unfinished).

Beginning writers on the other hand, are stifled by not knowing that the map of a text makes itself known only after you’ve reached the destination.  In other words, you’ve got to write a lot to get even close by to where you want to go. The writer and education scholar Mike Rose helps define the preconceived beliefs about writing and knowledge as a condition writer’s block.  Rose’s interview with Krista Tippett from NPR goes into poetic detail about how “unprepared” students often remain there because of closed-off “passages” (tests, profiling, no time, resources, theory for practice). See Rose’s inspiring interview with Tibbit here.

Writer’s block belongs on the continuum of complexity.

The relationship between writing, complexity, blocks, and beginning anew introduces the conclusion of this post and its title.  I spent Tuesday afternoon avoiding the New York Public Library where the plan was to write.  Instead I over-caffeinated at a Manhattan coffee shop that insisted on blocking my writing.  In what struck me then as pretentious but now feels prophetic, Café Grumpy on West 20th Street in Chelsea prohibits laptops use.  Everywhere there are outlets but still computers are banished (that’s the last of these Rousseau quotation approximations).

Plenty of opportunities to write (open tables, outdoor seating,  outlets on every wall) and instead there was the steady buzz of conversing.  I caught a glimpse of one person sneaking a second on her cell and a clandestine tap or two on a tablet, but on the whole, this was a writing-free zone.

After the initial moments of shock, I had to make a quick decision: settle in to some non-composing activity or run for the hills (far uptown, towards home).

Reader, I stayed. I read for hours and finished a book.  It’s called The Future of Invention.







About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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