Throwback Thursday: When Your Brain is an Empty Space

This post by Dr Anaise Irvine first appeared on Thesislink in April 2017. It has since been updated.

In the years I spent writing my Masters and PhD theses, I never felt like I experienced writer’s block.

Oh, I got stuck, for sure. But the term ‘writer’s block’ wasn’t quite right for what I felt. ‘Writer’s block’ implies that the writer has lots of words – they’re just blocked off. Like there’s some kind of metaphorical brick wall, or fence, or force field between the writer and her words. When I got stuck, I felt like there were no words whatsoever. My brain was just a cavernous space, and there was nothing in it at all. No paragraphs, no sentences, not even a lone tumbleweed.

I didn’t have writer’s block; I had writer’s vacuum.

Theoretically, in a vacuum (like that found in outer space), there is nothing present. There are no particles, and there is no energy. There isn’t even any air. Strange things happen in a vacuum. Famously, you can drop a hammer and a feather in a vacuum and they will fall at the same rate.

In my most desperate writing moments, that’s exactly what my brain felt like. Any ideas I tried to form in my brain would drop dead there, and my mind was so empty that any words I tried to form were strangled immediately. There was just blankness and nothingness.

Fortunately, any physicist will tell you that there is no such thing as a perfect vacuum. Even seemingly empty space contains something – perhaps just a few atoms knocking about, but that’s more than nothing.

Similarly, even an empty brain contains something. Perhaps you can’t start writing up your methodology, but you do know that you’re out of milk.

Write that.

I’m serious. Write the words: I’m out of milk into your thesis draft. You’ll erase them later, but right now you just need words on the page. Many times when I felt like I couldn’t write, I got going again by writing something totally useless. The following are actual pieces of writing that appeared in drafts of my thesis:

  1. Remind landlord about sink.
  2. I’ve had four cups of coffee. Why do I drink so much coffee? I should switch to tea. I hate tea. Maybe I’ll force myself to become a tea person. NY resolution?
  3. Eggs. Olive oil. Baked beans. Pasta. Garlic. Capsicums.
  5. All the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, now put your hands up!

Usually, once my fingers are moving, I can get them moving about something semi-relevant to what I’m meant to be writing about. Baked beans give way to brainstorms. From trivialities emerge truths.

I write (very roughly, and just for my own eyes) about whatever problem I’m facing. This often takes the shape of paragraphs in which I narrate, analyze, and workshop my own barriers to writing. Then, with the benefit of some text in front of me, I start to feel less intimidated and quality words start to emerge.

The vacuum fills with matter, and the empty space on the page gives way to text.

This technique does require a bit of clean-up afterwards – I didn’t want my supervisor to know the depths of my Beyoncé fandom – but if you’re desperate, it’s a viable option to get your brain working again.

Try it, and let us know what works for you!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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