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Fear and Loathing in Academia
April 5, 2011 - 9:15pm

This month’s question regarding life balance—how we deal with writer’s block—started me thinking about how I feel about writing. It’s always been an important part of my life, but in my career as an academic, writing has become my biggest source of anxiety.

I wrote my first short story in a writing class in the third grade. I loved creating that story. From then on I wrote short stories constantly, on every subject I could imagine. I sent them to teen magazines in the hopes they’d be published (my first taste of publishing rejection). At fourteen, I spent the summer vacation writing a novel. It was overly serious, trite in some ways, and full of inaccuracies (having set it in place I’d never been, in circumstances I’d never actually encountered). But I loved every minute of sitting down and thinking about the story, no matter how fanciful. It was a joyful experience.

College saw me writing still, although mainly deep, reflective journal writings. I wrote about the Gulf War, my love affairs, my professors…volumes of stuff.

So when did my love affair with writing end? When did it become an insurmountable peak rather than an enjoyable journey?

Graduate school.

Graduate school does two things: it prepares you for your professional life in the discipline. And it disciplines you. It tells you what’s appropriate and what’s not. It tells you, this far in your thinking is acceptable, and no more. I remember thinking that I would revel in pushing the boundaries of the discipline through my writing.

But time and again, I was told differently; indeed, a well-known political theorist once told me, in response to an essay I had written on Burke, “Ms. Horn, graduate school is not the time to be creative.” I believed him. I was disciplined into fearing my writing rather than loving it. I feared that I would write something that would be unacceptable to the “gatekeepers:” my professors, my peers and others out there who would judge me.

And that fear continues, although it’s getting better. It’s the constant judgment—whether real or imaginary-- that makes it so terrifying, of course. It’s the fear of writing the wrong thing, the bad thing, the thing that is not well considered, the thing that doesn’t meet academic standards, the thing that will never be taken seriously. It’s the fear of failing to express ideas that are important. It’s also the fear of never writing enough when you are too afraid to write at all.

Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Denise Horn ( is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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