On Writing Anxiety

cover art for Anne Lamott's Bird by BirdCommenters Notemily and Mightydougla both brought up the issue of writing anxiety and difficulty starting/completing writing projects.  I can sympathize, as being compelled to take something of a left turn in my current dissertation chapter has led to a rather nagging bout of writers block.  I know (basically) what I need to write, but I’m not yet sure how I want to structure this next section and recent attempts to just plow ahead have produced little more than meandering dreck and pages and pages of disorganized notes.

So yeah, it happens to the best of us, though that knowledge isn’t really all that helpful.  I am not, however, convinced that making the usual pronouncements about just sitting down and starting the damn project are all that helpful either.  As a rule, I tend to avoid the writing advice columns on the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed like the plague.  They tend to compound my anxiety by confirming what I already suspect:  I’m not productive enough, I’m not disciplined enough, my writing process is pathological.  I know that the schedules, journaling strategies, etc. probably work for some people, but they fill me with shame and make me feel like there are all these other things I’m supposed to be doing before I can even write.

This is why I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, because with incomparable grace and humor, she dispenses the most fundamental and essential wisdoms about writing–break the large project into smaller tasks, don’t be afraid to write shitty first drafts that no one is ever going to see, combat your inner critic, and just sit down and make yourself start somewhere already–while acknowledging that writing is a psychologically fraught activity.  We meet our best and worst selves in the midst of writing.  The chapter on the process that took one of Lamott’s novel’s from first draft to print is also a narrative about depression and a self destructive bender in New York City.  You don’t have to have perfect mental health in order to be a decent writer, but I do think that good writing requires a degree of self understanding as well as the willingness to look at oneself with compassion and a sense of humor.

If there is one overarching theme to that book, it is that believing we must be brilliant every time we sit down to begin a writing project is self-defeating.  It stops us before we even start.  Honestly, the best piece of advice I have ever heard about writing a dissertation is the following:  give yourself permission to write the trashiest dissertation ever floated under the nose of an unsuspecting committee.  Or, as one of my own committee members recently said, “a dissertation is a piece of paper with five signatures on it.”  In other words, the point is to finish, to produce something passable, not to write the next Of Grammatology.  If you’re faced with a class project, the point is to turn something in.  C’s are better than zeroes, after all.

And once you actually have something on paper, then you can use any extra time you have to make it good.  That’s why, when students come to me to talk about the early stages of a project, I usually insist that they bring something, anything in–an introductory paragraph, a page of notes, an outline, whatever.  You are always much better off if you have a document–even a really execrable one–to work with.  And within reason, I encourage students to bring me those execrable documents so that we can begin rehabilitating them (usually they aren’t as bad as the writers think).  If I don’t have time, I send them to the writing center.

So yeah, that’s my first big piece of advice:  lower your standards.  Lower them so that you can begin raising them again.  My second is:  know thyself.  Usually what we’re waiting for in the process of brainstorming, outlining, researching, and writing execrable drafts is the moment of inspiration, the epiphany that unlocks the whole project or even just a little piece of it.  Notorious Ph.D, in a wonderful blog post, recently called it the moment of Grace:

These moments are rare, and you can’t make them happen. That moment of inspiration is out of your hands. My job is simply to be there, doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing, so it knows where to find me when it arrives.

Part of becoming a productive writer is knowing what makes those moments happen and trying to create the conditions for it, or, at the very least, ensuring that you’re ready when it happens.  If it usually strikes once the deadline is upon you, make sure you have material to build around it.  If you require particular atmospheric conditions–music or silence, long uninterrupted periods of time–try to give that to yourself.  I have noticed recently that moments of inspiration often come when I give into instinct and let myself read that book that isn’t quite but sort of is tangentially related to this writing project but that sometimes sheds a whole new light on the problem or provides a bit of context that had previously been hidden from me or illuminated a way to bring conversations in two different fields together.

But do remember that creating these conditions takes some time, discipline, and planning.  At some point in college, I realized that I needed about a month of short daily sessions to produce decent final papers.  By short daily sessions, I mean that on writing days, I would focus on completing a single paragraph and not really worry about its quality or whether it would even be staying in the final draft.  I don’t always write final copy on the days I do dissertation work.  Sometimes, my little assignment is to read and take notes on 100 pages from a book and transcribe potential quotes (transcribing those quotes is really satisfying, because you can think of them as actually contributing to the final bulk of the chapter).  The whole point is just to end the day with something, anything on paper, and I can rest in the assurance that no one even has to see it unless I want them to.

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5 thoughts on “On Writing Anxiety

  1. First: My compliments on your blog. Insightful, interesting, instructive. Thanks for writing.

    I like the advice about allowing yourself to write a trash–the trashiest, even!–dissertation. And not just because it makes me feel better about what I have crapped out over the last few months. It’s a liberating approach, which is exactly what we need to write well: the freedom to do so.

    As for the moment of inspiration while writing, I’ve often thought about this, and I keep a couple of quotes from Eric Hoffer on my wall:

    “What counts most is holding on.  The growth of a train of thought is not a direct forward flow.  There is a succession of spurts separated by intervals of stagnation, frustration, and discouragement.  If you hold on, there is bound to come a certain clarification.  The unessential components drop off and a coherent, lucid whole begins to take shape.”

    “Originality is not something continuous but something intermittent–a flash of the briefest duration.  One must have the time and be watchful (be attuned) to catch the flash and fix it.  One most know how to catch and preserve those scant flakes of gold sluiced out of the sand and rocks of everyday life. Originality does not come nugget-size.”

    1. I am sitting here, very early Sunday morning unable to sleep – exactly because I have hit a thousand foot high stone wall in writing my candidacy research proposal. Yes, not even the thesis yet. But stymied nontheless.
      These threads of thought have given me some inspiration, but I wonder how does one know or decide when it is too good to leave, too bad to stay?

      1. Only you can really decide whether or not it’s worthwhile to continue. All I can tell you is that writing my prospectus way about 40 times harder than writing the actual thesis, just as writing the first chapter was about 40 times harder than writing the fourth chapter. A research proposal is a weird document and a difficult one to write precisely because it is so provisional. It’s an outline of a project that has barely begun to take shape. My prospectus is now so irrelevant to the thesis I’m actually producing that it sort of makes me laugh.

        Your goal with the proposal is to write something defensible and move on to the real work.

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