Conquering Writing Anxiety
Among other things, I teach writing. Over time I’ve come to realize that with undergraduates, teaching writing is largely an act of counseling students about how to confront and overcome writing-related anxieties. By the time they reach me, usually as students enrolled in a required writing section, many students are already damaged goods, writing-wise.
Many students have been browbeaten by a series of punitive teachers. They’ve been subjected to a torturous medley of unsound and discredited pedagogical practices. They’ve been taught for years, in short, not to write, but to fear and even hate the act of writing. Their fear and contempt make the act of writing unduly burdensome, a psychological torment, which spawns more fear and contempt, and unless I can intervene successfully, their relationship with writing spirals further.
I’ve also come to realize that, for different reasons, the anxieties my undergraduate students face are the same anxieties that graduate students and junior scholars face. Fundamentally, they are the same anxieties that I sometimes face when confronted with a writing task. Many of us are damaged goods too, writing-wise, even if we have a more positive attitude toward writing than some of my students do, and even if we have a lot more writing experience, and hopefully at least some degree of past writing success to lean on. Even scholars with published books and reams of refereed articles can occasionally be frozen by a writing-related anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety can become so pronounced that it makes a meaningful cut into our productivity.
But, like all anxieties, writing-related anxieties live in the mind, and can be overcome.
Broadly, I think that the anxieties that sometimes plague both novice and experienced writers fit into three categories:
Fear of Judgment: I’m willing to make the anecdotally based claim that fear of judgment is the single largest anxiety that writers face, both across experience levels and disciplines. Our students fear the judgment that will be rained down upon them in the form of poor grades and disapproving instructors, fear being marked as "dumb." Graduate students may worry subconsciously about disappointing dissertation committee members and mentors. While those of us pursuing publications may worry about the reactions of anonymous, and sometimes even hostile, peer reviewers, or fear that our work will not be well-received by colleagues whom we respect.
Regardless of which specific judgment we fear, we must remember that harsh criticism of our writing is not criticism of our larger selves, even though many of us make the mistake of receiving it as exactly that. We must also remember that the judgments we fear during the process of writing are usually much worse, much more exaggerated, than the harshest judgments we are likely to actually face.
Fear of Success: Elite athletes and sports psychologists talk a lot about fear of success. When I was a serious, but never elite, athlete, I wrongly regarded fear of success as a garbage idea, as total bunk. Why would anyone fear success? Wasn’t winning the whole point? Why compete if you didn’t hunger, nay, starve, to win, and win everything? Because we sometimes fear what is to follow. What will you do next when the major project is done? Will you lose your hunger and drive? Or, worst of all, what if the thing that you’re striving for, that you have convinced yourself will be the overflowing cup of happiness, does not, in fact, make you happy? The people who are drawn to academe are often competitive by nature, perhaps most especially with themselves. A major writing task can sometimes become progressively more difficult as we approach its completion. Fear of success is a fear of entering into the next big phase of our professional lives, and of the unknown. Because we sometimes pin disproportionate expectations of relief and happiness and success on a major writing project, we may fear completing the project, for fear that those positive feelings will not deliver themselves to us when the project wraps.
A strategy to confront our fear of success is to admit that, yes, new challenges await us. Keeping our expectations in check can help as well. Completing your dissertation or book will not simultaneously fix all of your personal problems, but neither should we expect it to. The stresses of writing do not create problems in the rest of our lives, but only reveal them. Sometimes we have to work quite self-consciously to avoid self-sabotage — failing to complete your work is one way to avoid the unknown of your professional future, but it is not a good way.
Fear of Process: Writing is work. Even when it’s going well, writing is really, really hard work. If anything, we come to realize this even more with the more writing experience that we accumulate. Writing is often both mentally and physically draining. And compared to many other types of work, writing often is, or at least feels, like a profoundly inefficient process. Once completed, we enjoy the rewards of the work, such as publications and the esteem and professional advancement that successful scholarly publishing brings (hopefully). But sometimes we may begin to fear the act of sitting down at the computer, staring into the glow of the screen, and setting ourselves to the hard work.
One of the best methods for avoiding the fear of process is to write regularly. Don’t binge-write. Commit to a quota of daily writing, or writing on non-teaching days. Even if not all of the writing you produce is usable — and it won’t be — the more familiar the writing process is, and the more incorporated into your routine professional life, the less daunting the act of writing itself will be.
The first step in overcoming any writing anxiety is admitting that it exists, that it may sometimes exist in us individually, and that such anxieties are an entirely typical part of existence in our profession. For some people, those acknowledgments alone are enough to dispel and manage writing anxieties.
Looking back, I realize now that I experienced each of these anxieties in the process of writing my dissertation, and that, to a lesser extent, they still reoccur from time to time, depending upon what scholarship I’m working on and what else is going on in my professional life. Conquering an anxiety once does not necessarily mean conquering it forever. It is a running battle.
One of the most effective strategies for dealing with periods of anxiety is, I think, to continue writing, but writing something that you know from the start will not go into the finished product. It is "writing to not print." Write about what your worries are. Write about your fears. Write about the problem itself. Committing the fear to black and white can render it less overwhelming, or even silly, and by continuing to write you refuse to allow the anxiety to creep into the mechanical and cognitive motions of the act of writing itself. Write through or around the problem, in order to return to your real work.
If you realize that your own writing problems are related to an anxiety issue, you can confront the issue. However, even dealing with the issue, by examining your own worries and fears, or by engaging in a form of writing that will help you to work through the anxiety, could itself morph into a form of procrastination or avoidance. If you are constantly dealing with your writing anxiety, rather than writing, you’re still avoiding the real work, for whatever reason.
There is a balance to be struck here between being gentle and understanding with oneself, and whipping oneself into shape when an anxiety begins to hurt productivity. You can seek help for your problem, from a writing group, a mentor, a colleague, or even a trained therapist, but in any case vanquishing a writing anxiety begins with your own recognition of the problem and decision to deal with it.