Writing and stuck? try a “ventilation file”


I am sure that most of us have experienced that feeling of guilt and dread that comes from not getting down to a writing task. We find lots of other things to do instead. More important things. Like looming deadlines. Like people asking for our help. Like new and interesting writing. And when we do – finally – sit down to write, the words don’t come. Despite being determined to crack the nut, the writing just doesn’t happen.

Now I’m not talking here about a bit of trouble getting going. The faltering beginning and stuttering start… well, that happens a lot – and to all of us. Usually, eventually, after some false beginnings, perhaps some free writing or some brainstorming, the words begin to flow. At first, there aren’t many, and then the pace picks up. And then you are writing. I call this writing-your-way-into-writing – sitting down and working at what needs to be said till what has to be written becomes clear and possible.

Nope. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about those times when you can’t actually even bear to start. When the project you were working on is stalled. It’s dead on the screen. Inert. Static. Going nowhere.

These are times when it might be useful to recognise your own resistance and try to figure out what’s going on. Rather than self-diagnose a block or some other writing syndrome, why not just work with the feelings of not-doing-it? Ask yourself – what is the logicbehind this inactivity, this resistance? Why can’t you, and won’t you, just write?

David Sternberg had a solution for this kind of stuckness. Sternberg wrote one of the first books about doing a doctoral thesis – How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation (1981). He suggested that thesis writers keep a ventilation file for those moments when they are bogged down.

The ventilation file is a place to write down every negative, angry, frustrated and  self-sabotaging thought that you have about the writing that won’t happen. The ventilation file is a place to say why you think this particular piece of writing is pointless, dull, useless, downright tedious, yawn-making, irritating and going nowhere. The ventilation file is a place to say why this piece of writing is scary, could cause you to be ridiculed by your colleagues, get you into all kinds of trouble with your supervisor and examiner, and make you a laughing stock if you don’t get it right.

Actually, Sternberg had a file for just about every aspect of the doctorate. He believed that one of the primary problems that dissertation writers face is organisation. Getting better organised ahead of time significantly increased the odds of completion, he argued. He advocated keeping a timetable file, a meetings with supervisor file, a contacts and arrangements for fieldwork file, a troubleshooting file, an inspiration file, a random serendipity ideas and thoughts file, a devil’s advocate anticipating thesis objections file, a “how am I doing” self-assessment file, a dissertation support group file and a master review of progress and audit reports file.

Among this panoply of files, the ventilation file had a particular purpose. According to Sternberg, venting about the writing you don’t want to do – or any other doctoral issue you can’t face – acknowledges the problem that you’ve got. You don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, you don’t shovel it under the carpet – that pretence usually fails.  Sternberg says:

Whenever a strong dissertation emotion comes upon you— be it impatience with an adviser who is holding you up by reading your chapters at a maddeningly slow pace, anger with your husband (sic) who isn’t keeping up his commitment to take over the children and household chores to give you your full time in your office, outrage over how one of your fieldwork samples was treated by a superordinate that day, frustration with inability to find a satisfactory analytic statistic for a key section of your data— get it down. (p 68)

Venting helps you to come to terms with what’s not happening. You face up to life, the universe and/or writing. Writing about the troublesome chapter, or talking about it into a recorder (another one of Sternberg’s ventilation strategies), can be a way to work out what the problem actually is. Writing about the not-writing makes it seem more manageable because it is now tangible, Sternberg says, it’s something able to be written/talked about. Writing about the emotions attached to the not-writing may be a way of putting the resistance into perspective, making the feelings of anger, despair and anxiety seem less scary and utterly impossible to control. The problem has been domesticated, tamed. It’s now named.

Sternberg notes that there is no come-back from anyone if you let off steam or moan about your writing stuckness – no one is there to sanction or censor you. You are your only reader.

And because writing about doctoral stuck points and traumas can also lead to problem-solving, this means that it is possible to review your ventilation file or recordings if and when the next writing problem comes along. You can see that you got over it. You can examine what worked last time. Ventilation is a kind of self-help.

I suspect that Sternberg’s ventilation files won’t work for everyone. And I’m sure that they have limited use. They won’t work all of the time. They aren’t a magic bullet. But I also reckon that they might be one strategy to try out, one way to come to terms with some of the logics underpinning writing resistance. There are often pretty sound reasons for actions that first appear to be negative and self-defeating. Venting can help these surface.

So what’s not to like about the ventiliation file? What is there to lose but a few moments trying it out? If you have a piece of writing that you just can’t get going on, why not have a play with writing-talking-venting to see if it will help you get to grips with what’s really going on.