“The Dizziness of Freedom”: Addressing Writing-Induced Anxiety

By Osha Smith-Gittelman


Writing is anxiety-inducing. While placing words on the page can be an enjoyable act of self-affirmation for some, it can also lead to profound feelings of doubt, uncertainty, and fear. And this is for professional writers; those of us, who against our better judgement, have sought to eke out a living through this rather self-destructive process. If writing borders on the traumatic for those who have chosen to do it professionally, imagine how much more terrifying and difficult the process must be for the vast majority of our students, who have the process foisted upon them as a central pillar of their education. In this post I want to take the anxiety of writing seriously. Without doing so, we risk merely providing a list of best-practices that fails to attend to the more nuanced relationship between the output-oriented expectations we place upon our students and their emotional inner life.


It seems to me that the anxiety of writing is associated, somewhat paradoxically, with writing’s more emancipatory potential. Kierkegaard describes anxiety as the “dizziness of freedom.” Writing, I would suggest, requires students to confront a particular form of freedom. Unlike many other kinds of assignments or assessment, written work rarely entails a right answer, a single pathway, or a clearly delineated process. For those (and here I would include myself) who do not possess either the confidence that our inner thoughts will be worthwhile to others, or the lack of awareness to question the worthiness of our thoughts in the first place, the mere sight of a blinking cursor on the blank page of a document is enough to induce paralysis and panic. In that moment, the page is a void and staring into it produces the distinct feeling of vertigo, or having “lost one’s way in the infinite” to return to Kierkegaard. Whatever the task at hand, the mere fact that it must be written forces one to face a problem of vertiginous choice; there are many paths one could take – none particularly clear and all potentially perilous.


Faced with the vertigo of choosing, we are also then forced to confront the existential questions that always lurk in the background: How did I get here? From where do I derive the authority to choose? And, even if there is no right way forward, what if I take the wrong path? For those prone to anxiety, the relatively simple task of completing (or as I suggest, beginning) a written assignment, can evoke a complicated host of feelings about worthiness and belonging. The blank page may induce a state of Verstiegenheit – a state the existential psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger described as the feeling of having “climbed too high” and having “lost one’s way” (Perkins 1987: 205). David Foster Wallace (1996: 994) described the term Verstiegenheit as “low-Bavarian for something like ‘wandering alone in blasted disorienting territory beyond all charted limits and orienting markers,’ supposedly.” If this seems like a rather bleak and perhaps even paranoid characterization of writing, then you should consider yourself among the lucky and gifted ones. For many of us, and especially for those who are unfamiliar with or uncomfortable in the milieu of higher education in the US (especially first-generation and international students), the simple act of writing can be an onerous and intimidating experience.


Are there things that we as educators can do to mitigate writing-induced anxiety? I would like to suggest that there are, and that these steps must be grounded in the nature of the anxiety – specifically, in its relationship to freedom. The most flexible assignments, may, without the proper guidance and support, end up being the most anxiety-inducing. For example, the assignment that simply reads: “write a 15 page research paper on a topic of your choosing by the end of the term,” will, for many well-intentioned students, produce semester-long avoidance, followed by crushing guilt (which often leads to more avoidance). This cycle eventually leads to sheer panic that might result in a) a hastily crafted data dump written over the course of one or more all-nighters, b) inaction, resulting in a late or missing assignment and much hand-wringing on the part of both the student and the instructor, or c) a strong paper in need of substantial revision, brought miraculously into being through force-of-will, dangerously high cortisol levels, and probably a marginally shortened life expectancy. I jest, only somewhat. These types of patterns are profoundly unhealthy — academically, physically, and psychologically.


The anxiety of choice means that the most open and “free” assignments can often be the ones that feel most paralyzing. Well-structured assignments that incorporate WAC-informed ideas like scaffolding and informal assignments can do much to alleviate some of this anxiety. However, we must be transparent and honest with our students in acknowledging the emotional labor that goes into writing. Careful syllabus design and thoughtfully constructed assignments should go hand-in-hand with explicit discussions of why these strategies are necessary and useful in the first place.


There are a wealth of possibilities for how to navigate the issue of writing-induced anxiety. For now, I will flag a few ideas that have helped me to think about confronting that anxiety in my own scholarship.


1. Acknowledge the fear that lies at the root of the anxiety. Only by acknowledging that fear does it become possible to work through it. Here I can only cite Frank Herbert (1965: 8): “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Practically, I take this to mean that we should discuss and accept the difficulty of writing, and the fear it often evokes. When we make writing something that occurs outside the classroom, something our students must accomplish on their own, we are essentially shirking our responsibility to help students confront that which is difficult.  

2. Shift the focus from results to process. Rather than emphasizing the final draft, prioritize the steps that will lead to that draft (both in time allotted and in grading). On this point, I would echo the words of Thomas Merton (1985: 294): “Do not depend on the hope of results…. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” We should not pretend that the work of writing is results-oriented, especially for our undergraduate students. The final copy of their papers, in all but the rarest instances, does not in itself serve any further end. However, when we make the writing process the central focus and the central value of writing, we are both being intellectually honest and providing a perspective that may reduce the anxiety of the blank page.

3. Embrace what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” One of the major obstacles to overcoming writing-induced anxiety is perfectionism. As Lamott (1994: 27-28) suggests: “Perfectionism means you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.” The more we encourage truly shitty first drafts, the more students will feel comfortable putting their thoughts on paper, and the more possible it becomes to carry out substantive revision. Rough drafts, blog posts, and other informal writing can lessen the psychological barriers presented by the blank page.

4. Make written assignments the subject of daily (or at least regular) reflection. Recurrent reflection is a necessary aspect of becoming familiar with new material. The facility to write about something is not an innate characteristic, but a muscle that must be flexed and stretched. An insight attributed to the Buddha suggests: “whatever a person frequently thinks and reflects on, that will become the inclination of their mind” (quoted in Kornfield 2008: 291). There is something crucial about repetition, recurrence, and returning again and again to the subject matter at hand. If anxiety can be thought of as an “inclination of mind” crafting assignments and structuring courses to encourage small but frequent victories will go a long way towards cultivating healthy writing habits. Every time words are placed on the page – even if they are subsequently erased, rewritten, revised, and reconfigured – is a step towards building the sense of confidence that writing demands.  

Success in higher education is built on a complex political economy of suffering, and much of the anxiety experienced by students and faculty alike is rooted in pernicious structural changes wrought by fiscal austerity, a desiccated conception of the public sphere, and a commodification of value in education. In voicing these thoughts, my intent is not to suggest that “best practices,” however thoughtful or well-intentioned, will resolve the various crises that afflict our educational institutions. Nor do I mean to responsibilize faculty for issues that are beyond their control. Nonetheless, technical or pedagogical “fixes” that do not directly address the underlying emotional challenges our students face are band-aids at best, and may contribute to the very struggles they are intended to address. WAC-inspired strategies like scaffolding, informal writing, and revision can, in my view, be part of the solution. (A wealth of helpful information and inspired ideas have been published by others on this blog, and I encourage you to revisit them.) In adopting such strategies, we should be transparent with our students about our reasoning, embrace the emotional aspects of this pedagogy, and seek to build classroom environments that foster process, agency, and hope.


Works Cited:

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Berkeley Medallion Books, 1965.

Kornfield, Jack. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. Bantam Books, 2008.

Lamott, Anne. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1994.

Perkins, Robert L. ed. International Kierkegaard Commentary: The Sickness Unto Death. Mercer University Press, 1987.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Back Bay Books, 1996.

William, Shannon ed. The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985.

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