Another “Small” Success

I often work with people struggling to write, the way I did as a student in college. They may have lots to say, but the minute they sit down to put those words on the page—or even think about sitting down—they feel demoralized. What they have to say isn’t any good, people will say its wrong, they don’t know enough to write intelligently about their topic, they don’t know how to punctuate, they chose the wrong topic. It’s always gratifying when these writers begin to work through their inhibitions–by learning to be kinder to themselves, understanding that writing is a process, or emptying their heads of all the critics they normally invite into their writing space. But every once in a while, witnessing a client breaking free from a block is especially thrilling.

Over the holidays, a college student who had been struggling to write an important paper contacted me. While he always put off writing his term papers until the night before they were due, he had been postponing this paper all semester. And if he didn’t complete it by the end of break, he would receive an F for the class. The prospect of an F would dismay any one. But this was an A student, active on campus, and hoping to attend graduate school.

Meeting on Zoom, I explored with the student some of the reasons behind his block: because he had wanted to impress his advisor with this particular paper, it had felt more stressful than most; he had thought of an innovative way to write the paper, which put even more pressure on him, and as the months had ticked by, the pressure had grown, until just thinking about the paper made him feel like he would explode.

When I asked about pressure from home, he mentioned that he had received an important scholarship to attend his college, and he was worried about losing it. His parents could afford to keep him in school, but it would be a tremendous strain on them. In fact, as we talked, he realized that while he had been thrilled about the scholarship when he received it, he had felt the pressure of performing well the minute he set foot on campus. It made sense that now, his senior year, when he was almost finished, the pressure he’d felt all along would intensify.

As we talked, I realized that this student, by wanting so much to please his advisor and come up with an innovative way to explore his topic, had transformed this paper into something much larger than necessary. He would certainly benefit from bringing the paper down to its proper size. “You need to learn to think small,” I told him.

“Think small?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You’ve made this into something much larger, more important and challenging than it needs to be. So let’s begin bringing it down to size. Tell me what this paper is about.”

After he had outlined the gist of the paper, I asked, “What is the first thing you need to write about?”

Once I had asked a few more questions and understood what he was trying to write, I told him to forget about everything but the first topic he needed to discuss. “Then, I want you to spend one hour tonight writing about this topic, continuing to forget about everything else.”

He agreed and we said goodbye. Later that evening, he sent me an email: “I spoke with my advisor and without the paper, he’ll give me a C- for the class. I’m going to take that grade and forget about the paper.”

Upset, both because the work we had done together didn’t seem to have paid off and because his decision was hurtful to his own wellbeing, I thought about how to respond. About half an hour later, it came to me: I understand your decision and the pain you are in. Why don’t you sleep on it and let me know your final decision in the morning. Once you’ve decided, all you have to write is either, “No.” or “I’m going forward.”

The next morning, I received the following email: “I’m going forward!”

Reading those words, I felt a surge of joy travel through me, creating a tingling from toe to head. He’s going forward, I told myself—again and again. He’s going forward!

That was a week ago. By now, he is back at school and has nearly completed the paper. And I have returned again and again to those words, “I’m going forward.”

Small, to the rescue once again.

French Key Hole

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