Tag Archives: Anxiety

Writing Right Now

Earlier this week, I participated in a tweetchat with #VirtualNotViral, a great initiative from Anuja Cabraal and Pat Thomson. On their site, you can find out more about their resources for doing doctoral work during a pandemic, including information on upcoming tweetchats. I was invited to discuss academic writing during these challenging times. I found it helpful to process what I’ve been thinking about writing right now, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here.

The key for me during these extraordinary times is that each person ought to be given space to reevaluate what they are able to do. Thinking that you should be able to carry on as usual or, worse, be more productive is to underestimate the effect of everything going on around you. If you need a break from academic work because your caregiving responsibilities have changed, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your financial situation has worsened, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your research plans just fell apart or because the incredibly difficult academic job market just got more dire, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because you are finding the state of the world traumatic, of course you should take that break. If you need more than a break and need support to cope through this time, I hope that support is forthcoming. Each of you is responding to a unique set of personal circumstances, geographic factors, and institutional policies, but nobody should be pressured to be productive during this time. I think this bears repeating: events beyond your control have dramatically altered the conditions under which you are working, and you shouldn’t be required to act as though that weren’t happening.

I’ve now said as many ways as I can that you shouldn’t feel pressured to write right now. But some of you may want to write. Writing may lend normalcy to your otherwise upended routine. Writing may make you feel better about not being able to pursue other elements of a research agenda derailed by self-isolation. Writing may keep you in touch with an important part of your identity that may be threatened by the current disruption of your life. Writing now may actually feel better than dreading the implications of not having written later. Whatever your reasons for wanting to write during this time, I do think it can be a valid choice.

While some of you may be choosing to push ahead with writing right now, I don’t have any great new advice. The new part is that you shouldn’t be pressured to do so. With that caveat in place, I think good writing advice now is pretty much the same as it ever was. Writing support should be, it goes without saying, supportive. Should recognize the full embodied person that is doing the writing. Should recognize that caregiving work is crucial and not always conducive to a consistent writing practice. Should recognize that such caregiving work is often gendered. Should recognize that writing in English is often obligatory, placing additional burdens on those for whom English is a subsequent language. Should recognize how the persistent whiteness of the academy complicates the writing identity of racialized people. Should recognize that academic writing is a source of anxiety for so many. This list could go on, but my point is that anything that I might put on this list now was already there two months ago. On academic Twitter, you are seeing a lot of thoughts that start with the phrase ‘now is not the time’: Now is not the time to be berating people, questioning their commitment, presuming that they are using the crisis to cheat or slack off in some way. But I’ve yet to see something that we shouldn’t be doing now that we should be doing the rest of time.

Now, as always, we should be talking about academic writing productivity as a matter of process. This shift away from a model of pressuring writers to produce and towards one of supporting writers in finding a productive process has two main elements: first, writers need to be exposed to a range of options to see what writing practices will work for them and, second, writers need access to writing instruction because expertise is crucial to productivity. Both of these interventions can move us away from a moralizing treatment of productivity that lays blame on the individual for what they aren’t getting done. If you were a better person, would that solve all your writing woes? That would only make sense if your writing woes were in fact the result of a deficient character. If, instead, your writing woes come from the fact that academic writing is hard and lonely work with high stakes and a pernicious lack of community, you’ll need productivity advice that recognizes those inevitable challenges.

One thing that may be unique to writing in this moment is the variability of your reaction to everything that is going on. At some points, everything may feel close to normal; at other points, you may feel genuine panic about these profound disruptions to the life you know and to the plans you had for the immediate future. In addition to this daily yo-yo, you may also have found that your reactions have shifted as these weeks go by. You may have felt energized through the initial rush of reorganizing your life but now feel a sense of lethargy. You may have been somewhat paralyzed by the shock of everything changing so quickly but have now adjusted to a manageable new routine. If your reactions are shifting, so likely are those of the people that you are responsible for. Parenting may present very different challenges one day than the next. Managing your relationship to loved ones who are now physically distant can shift over time. All of which is to say, as you think about academic writing during this time, expect that you will need to be flexible and gentle with yourself: what might make some sense one day may seem impossible the next.

So I have no particular “how to write now” advice because there is no singular experience of now and because I hope you are already following advice that tells you to be mindful of who you are and what you need. Be kind to yourself; write if you want to; write if you have to; temper your expectations of yourself; if others aren’t tempering their expectations of you, try extra hard to be kind to yourself. And reach out for support. I always tell my students, graduate writing may be done by you alone, but it needn’t be done by you alone. Now, of course, we are all more alone than usual, but I hope you’re finding the virtual writing community that you need.

Here are ten pieces on working through this time that I’ve found helpful:

Aisha S. Ahmad, Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditions

Pat Thomson, Getting By and Getting On

Inger Mewburn, Should You Quit (Go Part Time or Pause) Your PhD During COVID-19?

Erin Wunker, Shifting Strategies

Christine Tulley, Resetting Your Research Agenda

Cally Guerin, The Year of Wonders: Doctoral Writing in the Time of COVID-19

Nadirah Farah Foley, Don’t Forget About Graduate Students

Chris Smith, Five Strategies for Writing in Turbulent Times

Fay Lin, What Not To Say to Grad Students During a Pandemic

Anuja Cabraal, When I Write, I Write for Myself

 

Write Your Way Out

I recently had a request to give a talk to graduate students about writer’s block. This term is frequently mentioned in the context of graduate writing, presumably because of the general sense that something is inhibiting the writing processes of students at this level. While I was explaining why I didn’t want to give a talk on writer’s block, I realized that I spend quite a lot of time telling various people that I’m sceptical about the concept of academic writer’s block. Having recently read two interesting takes on writer’s block in academia in the past year (from Helen Kara and Julia Molinari), I decided that my own disinclination to use this concept might be worth exploring here on the blog.

In general, I am resistant to identifying common graduate writing difficulties as writer’s block. Most graduate writers who are struggling with their writing are actually struggling with their thinking. That isn’t just a semantic quibble: it matters that we grasp exactly what is inhibiting our writing processes. When we diagnose ourselves as having writer’s block, we can start to believe that we aren’t currently able to write. If you find yourself with a sore leg, it may well be that avoiding walking is a sound strategy. If you find yourself unable to write, might it be a sound strategy to avoid writing? The answer to that question is almost always no. Not writing has little-to-no curative power, in my experience. I’m not saying that we don’t need to take breaks; there are many things that we can do away from our desks to clear our minds and loosen up our ideas. But when we are committed to working, the act of writing is often the most immediate way to tackle the problems in our thinking. The risk of identifying inevitable writing challenges as writer’s block is that doing so can lessen the chance that we will use writing to move our ideas forward.

The idea of writer’s block can thus be seen as having the potential to detach writing from its broader intellectual context. When we treat writing challenges as psychological rather than intellectual, we run the risk of minimizing the conceptual work involved in graduate writing. I have, of course, encountered graduate writers who appear to have a disposition towards writing that is so fraught that they may need some sort of psychological shift in order to develop an effective writing routine. But for most graduate writers, writing is being hampered primarily by the challenge of sorting out what they think (or what they think they should think or what others think or what their supervisor thinks about what they think). In other words, they don’t have a psychological block; they simply have the intellectual confusions endemic to the process of communicating sophisticated research. Those intellectual confusions are real, and they can have deleterious consequences for writing. But when we treat these problems as conceptual problems in our thinking, we create the space to use writing as a strategy to solve those problems. Writing can move from being the problematic thing to being a means to solve the problem.

To use writing in this way, I suggest introducing a new font that will signal that you are writing in an exploratory vein for your own benefit. The variant font will remind you that your eventual reader need never see these ruminations, thus lessening your own reticence. Using this new font, try writing something like this: “I’m worried that what I’m saying here …”

“… is inconsistent with what I said on p. 37.”

“… might be confusing the cause with the effect.”

“… may lead the reader to think that my research is less significant than I’ve claimed.”

“… is the sort of thing that annoys my supervisor.”

Staying in this provisional, for-your-own-eyes-only font, try writing a follow-up sentence or passage: “To figure this out, I need to …”

“… re-read the sections on and around p. 37 and decide which formulation works best. Does this shift represent an actual shift in my thinking or just a different way of expressing things?”

“… satisfy myself about the direction of causality in my argument and think of a way to flag all the places where this may have become confused.”

“… revisit my initial claims for significance to see if they are affected by the current line of reasoning.”

“… decide how I feel about that potential reaction, whether that annoyance is something I want to withstand or something that should guide me in a different direction.”

The key, for me, is that this writing is just that: writing. We can’t, arguably, have writer’s block when we are actively writing. Instead, we may have unresolved issues that are making us want to avoid writing. Using writing as the means of addressing these issues  gives us a strategy for inevitable conceptual hurdles. Even in those cases in which writing-about-writing highlights serious problems, we have still made progress by identifying what is wrong. In the end, my concern is simply that the writer’s block label may be further alienating us from our own writing. While it may not be possible to write our way out of all problems, I’m convinced that it is near-impossible to solve writing problems without using writing as our central strategy.

Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing

Last week I gave a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. Since the presentation, which I’ll embed below, was relatively short, I thought I would use this post to point to the places on the blog where I elaborate on its key points.

I began the presentation by discussing the key dilemma of academic writing: although writing can be the decisive factor in professional academic success, we often lack both training in the act of writing and time to complete the necessary writing tasks. As a result, we often dislike our own writing or find the process of creating acceptable writing unduly onerous. To make matters worse, these problems are often compounded by the sense that our difficulties are illegitimate, that we should already know how to write. Since we often aren’t expert writers, especially early in our academic careers, we tend to think of ourselves as bad writers. People are generally quick to call themselves bad writers, but they may not be so willing to embrace the broader category of academic writer, with all that entails. To identify yourself as a bad writer without making the commitment to being a writer seems a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The overarching theme of this presentation was that the challenges are real; we all struggle with our writing technique and with managing our writing time. Unfortunately, even though everyone has these struggles, many people think of themselves as alone in their writing challenges. One of the reasons that we remain convinced that these challenges are ours alone is that we engage in a lot of unfair comparisons. Instead of assuming that others must be struggling in much the same way that we are, we compare our insides with their outsides and thus conclude that we are uniquely inept.

How then to confront the anxiety that this negativity and isolation creates in academic writers? It can be helpful to begin by distinguishing between intellectual difficulties with writing—figuring out how to do it—and practical difficulties with writing—simply finding time to do it. Most of us struggle with both, but it is still helpful to tackle them separately. It’s also crucial to tackle them with novel strategies. New strategies are key because otherwise we are left with no avenue for improvement except renewed effort. And renewed effort only works if a lack of effort was the original problem. We all have days, of course, when a lack of effort is definitely the problem. But overall a lack of effort is generally a symptom of some other underlying difficulty. Simply put, trying harder won’t solve most writing problems and when it fails we end up feeling even worse about the whole thing.

One way to tackle our intellectual difficulties with writing is to try to think differently about the whole enterprise. Sticking with an approach, whatever it may be, that has caused us difficulty in the past isn’t likely to give us dramatically new results. As regular readers know, my approach relies on three principles that I’ve borrowed from Joseph Williams: using writing to clarify thinking; committing to extensive revision; and understanding the needs of the reader. These sentiments are all easily found in Williams’s excellent formulation: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.” This quote has the potential to change the way we conceive of the activity of writing; in my view, that reconceptualization can be a necessary first step in shaking free of writing anxiety.

Such a  reconceptualization is potentially very valuable but also needs to be connected to concrete strategies. If we are going to write to clarify thinking, we will need to be aware of the challenges of exploratory writing. And we will need strategies to keep our texts manageable. If we are going to commit to extensive revision, we are going to need to improve our basic understanding of the editing process. How can we make revision part of our regular writing routine? How can we make sure that we are engaging in structural edits and not just tinkering around the edges? How can we prepare ourselves to let go of the material in our writing that is no longer serving us well? Finally, if we are going to be more aware of our readers’ needs, we will have to grasp the differences between the reader and the writer. How do we understand the breakdown of responsibilities between reader and writer? What guidance do we give our readers as they make their way through our texts? Are we constructing our paragraphs in a way that acknowledges their importance to our readers?

After this discussion of avenues for improving the act of writing, I turned to a discussion of productivity. Most anxious writers find that the time available for academic writing is never sufficient. Since finding more time is like trying to get blood from a stone, most of us need to find strategies to use our existing time better. There’s a world of productivity advice to be found, and it’s crucial that we expose ourselves to that world. We just need to do so with an understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. Be wary of advice, even as you seek it out. Even if you do find a helpful source of advice, remain attuned to your own style of working and respect your own intuitions about what will make you more effective.

I ended the presentation with a polemical question: What don’t you know about writing? If writing is, for you, laden with anxiety, it will be helpful to confront the gaps in your knowledge. You are generally expected to have picked up enough about writing along the way to get the job done, but few people thrive as writers without systematically addressing themselves to improving their technique and to finding effective productivity strategies. At the end of the presentation, I was asked to comment on a familiar dilemma: writing may be really important, but so is everything else and there just isn’t enough time to focus on writing. I’m not at all unsympathetic to this sentiment, but I’m also pretty sure that time spent on writing is time well spent. I think that is true for all of us, but it is particularly true for those who are anxious about writing. Anxiety is itself very time-consuming and inefficient. Tackling the source of that anxiety—by becoming a more proficient and productive writer—is likely to be a valuable investment of time, even when that time is in short supply.

Putting this post together reminded me of an important part of any good productivity strategy: taking the time to look back at and appreciate past accomplishments. Being able to assemble this collection of posts—with all their flaws—was a useful reminder of what I have accomplished thus far with the blog. For many of us, the next few weeks will be a time of reflection. As we look towards the new year and perhaps think about all the writing that has inevitably gone undone this year and about our plans to remedy this state of affairs, we should also spend some time thinking about all we have done. Those accomplishments are what we have to build upon, and they should not be neglected. I wish you all a very happy and productive winter break!

Thank you to the Text and Academic Authors Association for allowing me to share this presentation here: