A few years ago, I wrote a post about writer’s block. More accurately, I wrote a post about the limitations of that particular framing in the sphere of academic writing. For most academic writers, writing is the solution rather than the problem; more writing is often the best way to work through our writing troubles. I’m not disputing, of course, that people feel ‘blocked’ when they try to write; I am simply arguing that those inhibitions are often connected to tangled thinking rather than an inability to write. To respond to these snarls in our thinking, most of us need to use writing. An early version of that post had another section on the psychological issues associated with committing to our own ideas and then sharing them with the world; however, since the post was getting too long, I abandoned the second part. Since I’m currently unsettled by the prospect of completing and sharing my book project, it seems like a good opportunity to revisit that topic and reflect on this aspect of writing anxiety.
As I move from a first to a second draft of my manuscript, my experience of writing is sharply divided. On the one hand, I’m really excited about this project, and that excitement has manifested itself as a pretty enjoyable drafting process. On the other, I’m increasingly paralyzed by the thought of a future in which others actually read the book. As long as I’m writing, things feel good. Once I contemplate being finished with writing, I start to lose my nerve. Being done means that I won’t ever be able to make the book as good on the page as it is in my head. And I can vividly imagine all the ways in which people will be critical of my imperfect efforts. As a result, I’m resisting the move from the open-ended drafting process to the decision-making revision process, to the moment when I say, ‘this is good (enough)’.
To move myself forward, I’ve been trying to think about the sorts of things I say to other writers in these moments:
Recognize the paradox at the heart of writing. Getting writing done is good because it moves you closer to being done; however, getting writing done can feel bad because it moves you closer to being read by others. When this paradox goes unrecognized, you may imagine your anxiety is caused simply by deficiencies in your text. Some of those deficiencies may be real, but addressing them alone may not resolve your anxiety. To work through the anxiety, it’s crucial to understand the underlying psychological dynamic.
Picture your audience as full of people who need to learn from you. In other words, don’t write for people who have nothing better to do than to criticize you. Instead, try the more natural act of writing for people who don’t already know your subject. Writing is easier when you imagine being read by an eager beginner rather than by a jaded expert. Of course, graduate students often do write for an audience of people with extraordinary expertise in their field; as a pragmatic matter, those readers may have to be catered to in one way or another. Despite this unavoidable circumstance, it’s still an excellent idea to picture an ideal reader who will be edified by your expertise.
Embrace your expertise but acknowledge your inexperience. Despite your undeniable subject matter expertise, you are more than likely undertaking a task that is novel for you as a writer. Maybe it’s a master’s thesis when the longest thing you’ve ever written is an undergraduate capstone project or maybe it’s a doctoral thesis when the most demanding thing you’ve ever written is a master’s thesis. Or maybe it’s your first national grant competition, research article, or book manuscript. Academic writing projects have a frustrating tendency to increase in degree of difficulty as you go along. Acknowledging the growing pains as you learn to write in new ways will help you to remember the importance of self-compassion.
Focus on what you need to feel finished. Given that perfection is unattainable, your project will inevitably have to be wrapped up before you are entirely satisfied with it. The key here is to distinguish between the things that you know have to happen in order for the project to be successful and the things about the project that just make you nervous; focusing on the former can help you resist the general anxiety associated with the latter. To help yourself focus on what you need to ‘feel finished’, try creating a list with two columns: in one column, put all the things that need to get done; in the other column, put all the things that make you generally uneasy about your project. Items may move between columns as you evaluate and re-evaluate what absolutely has to happen before you allow your writing out into the world. The important thing is to have the two categories, so you won’t come undone at the thought of trying to fix everything all at once.
Perhaps all this well-meaning advice can give me a list of helpful reminders: remember that making progress can paradoxically make me more anxious; remember that I truly believe the book will be helpful to lots of graduate student writers, even if my own peers may disagree with things that I say; remember that I’ve never written a book before and thus naturally lack confidence in my own ability to do so; and remember to focus my energy on the long list of concrete things that actually need to get done for this book to be all that I want it to be.
What about you? What do you do when the fear of the future gets in the way of your writing?
This post is the seventh in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts is to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.
Status Update: At this point, I have a first draft that I’m pretty happy with, but my revision process has stalled. In addition to my fear of the future, I have also struggled with the cumulative weight and pressure of the lockdown and inevitable fatigue with online teaching. I’ve been taking stock of my progress over my vacation, and I’m excited to dive back in. I also got a formal extension to my due date, which is soothing to my soul. As I engage with the revisions in the coming months, I’m sure I’ll have reflections to share here. Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to express enthusiasm about the book.