Writing Anxiety

I am taking a Writing Assessment course this semester, and a few weeks ago I got to write a book review of Chris Gallagher’s Our Better Judgment. Even though I really enjoyed the book (probably more than anything else we’ve read for that class), I realized while writing the review that I was writing slowly. And I timed it. I was in fact writing twice as slowly as I did two years ago in my M.A. program. By the end of my M.A. program I was writing a page every 30 minutes. This is of course with heavy prep like reading and outlining having occurred for weeks or days leading up to the actual sitting down and writing.  Nowadays, I’m at more like an hour per page. I’m doing similar extensive prep work before sitting down to write, but for lots of reason the writing is much slower and more deliberate these days.

There are, I think, some positive aspects to the writing slow-down I’ve been experiencing.  I’m wrestling with big, complex, important ideas that I’m heavily invested in and want to represent well. I’m becoming more and more familiar with and cognizant of sources, authors, and connections in the fields I’m working in and more and more concerned about representing those accurately and well. Essentially, my writing slow down might be positively attributed to the more deliberate thinking I’ve been doing.

BUT, I also know that a major contributing factor to my writing slow down is anxiety about my writing.  Writing is difficult. Scholarly writing is at times painful for me. In the last year and a half, I’ve found that my old processes and approaches to research and writing have not sufficed. This is the point of the PhD., I suppose. To make me (and my peers) into researchers and scholarly writers, and I knew that. I did not know that I was going to resist this transformation so staunchly.

Why resist? Well, in the last few months one of my most effective coping mechanisms has been to tell myself and others “I don’t want to be a researcher. I want to be a theorist.” I think this simple switch says a lot about me and my previous experiences and approaches to academia. I like to think in big ideas, I care about the big picture (theory). In the last few months I’ve been made to construct manageable research projects, to take a slice of the phenomenon I care about and say something about that slice.  Sure, sounds reasonable enough. But I’m only just now learning to make the chain of connections between the big idea/big picture and the manageable slice. This means, that for months I’ve been walking around not invested in the slice and even resenting the slice. This slice seems so far removed from the things I care about and the kinds of big picture changes I want to see and help make and the massive systemic problems that so concern me… disengagement and corrosive self-doubt continue on ad nauseam.

So what changed? How have I begun to see and value the chain of connections from the big picture concerns to the manageable slice? Well. By talking to people. By talking to them about my interests and theirs. Not necessarily to even make connections between those interests, but to see and hear how other people have remained invested in their work and to see and hear how other people articulate and value the chain of connections between their manageable slice research projects and their big idea/big picture interests and concerns.

One especially wise advisor here articulates this phenomenon as chipping away. Knowing that the small slice research projects are helping to chip away at the big picture, systemic concerns you are hoping to make change in.  And as always, the most helpful examples to me in this research-writing anxiety jumble have been fellow grad students who talk openly and honestly about their work and their processes and their concerns and their anxieties and their chipping away.

So, I guess my only “lesson” for today would be…talk to people? Find a way to make the connections. Connections to other people, connections to the small slice and the big picture. Oh and faith. Have some faith that you can make those connections and remain invested in them.

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