Writing, Stress and Anxiety

Nobody said dissertating was easy, but I figured it would be easier than this.

Writer’s block is real, and made worse when you expect words to flow seamlessly from your mind to the page. Nothing is so crippling as the expectation of perfection on draft number one. I am writing my dissertation, and have gone through nearly ten revisions on at least three different chapters. I can assure you that they are still nowhere near perfect.

For me at least, empty pages and clunky prose have historically been cause for quick rushes of anxiety. When I started writing my dissertation, I would often find myself either staring nervously into the white void of a blank Word document, or fiddling with a single paragraph (sometimes even, a single sentence) for hours, changing a word here, or a comma there. I was either completely impotent or editing my edits. This routine got me nowhere.

What I soon learned was that despite my lack of progress, I didn’t actually have a “writing” problem. This may sound counter-intuitive. I was falling behind on the schedule that I had laid out for myself and struggled with my writing daily. Of course, I thought, I had a writing problem. I now recognize that I had a “thinking about writing” problem. That is to say, the ideas that I had about what writing was and what it should be, were skewed. I considered writing to be about expressing my ideas, about committing the thoughts in my head to paper.

In fact, the process of writing is often much closer to exploration than it is to the expression of ideas. The difference is of course subtle, and made worse by the alliterative insistence of the previous sentence. But what I mean to say is that writing doesn’t simply communicate a priorithoughts. Rather, writing stimulates, organizes and develops them. As John Bean has argued, “writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking” (Bean 2011, 4). Although I fully intend to finish my dissertation and look forward (more than almost anything, to be sure) to the day that I submit a final “product” to my committee, that will come at the end. To get there, and in order to actually move forward, I need to move from thinking about writing to writing to think.

This post is only tangentially about writing as process. My colleagues have already made those connections clear. Instead, this post is about the affective outcomes of writing as process. The connections here are thus between writing, stress and anxiety. When writing is understood as an integral component of thinking, some of that anxiety and stress of expectation starts to melt away. The blank page transforms from a test of knowledge into an opportunity to think, and the stakes are in turn lowered. Now I begin each chapter, each page, with an admission that I don’t yet understand – at least fully – the implications of what I am about to write. But I know that writing will get me there.

I wouldn’t be able to tell you with any more detail than you might receive from a 60 second elevator pitch what my dissertation is about. That’s because despite what I think I might know about my research, it still exists in my head as a rhizomatic web of ideas and connections, rather than as a linear narrative. But traditional dissertations – in their final form, we might hope – are linear expressions of research, products that demonstrate years of work and thought. Worry not. To get to that point, from a web of ideas to a coherent narrative, we will have to first think some more, and then of course, write some more to help us think.


One Reply to “Writing, Stress and Anxiety”

  1. Sam, thanks for this post. I relate to so much of what you’re saying. Expecting perfection on a first draft, spending hours on a paragraph or a single sentence, obsessively trying to make it all fit and make sense—all that rang painfully (but comfortingly!) true for me. I have a very hard time writing anything before I can see my whole argument from start to finish, see it as a “linear narrative.” I have difficulty moving on to the next sentence or paragraph when I feel I haven’t articulated the first one cogently enough or made a transition. I tend to inch my way through papers, crafting them sentence by sentence, rewriting as I go, right up to the deadline (sometimes days or even weeks past it).

    This approach worked well enough for me through college and course work at the Grad Center. I hit a wall when I began writing chapters, one or two of which I might send out for publication. To write authoritatively, to avoid broad generalizations and fudging, to situate my intervention confidently within a critical conversation without getting too caught up in picking fights or piggy-backing—these imperatives weighed much heavier on me once I imagined myself actually making a contribution to the field rather than completing exercise. Besides obsessing over my prose, I did lot of obsessive reading. Tracking down a key passage would turn into the rest of the afternoon, following one reference to the next, like clicking through Wikipedia links. Or I would get it in my head that I couldn’t continue until I had at least skimmed a monograph that touched on my argument in some way, which might lead to another primary text I hadn’t been aware of and take up the rest of the week. I knew none of this was helping me, but at times, I really felt like I had no choice.

    Oddly, I didn’t tend to think of these behaviors as forms of procrastination or writer’s block. To me, those words mean, essentially, doing nothing. I felt I was always doing something. I was always “fiddling with a single paragraph (sometime even a single sentence)” or feverishly reading. Only recently have I begun to think of these busy “activities” as cunning disguises for procrastination and writer’s block. I’m still not sure what exactly most people mean when they talk about writer’s block…but I do feel blocked. I feel I’ve hit a wall or a limit to what I can do while operating in this way.

    I really like Sam’s idea of moving away from “thinking about writing” toward “writing to think.” Sitting down to my computer need not be a “test” of my fitness for academic work, but simply an “opportunity to think” and question, perhaps even to play. Early on last semester, when I was still properly in the reading and planning phase of the chapter I was working on, I started keeping a reading log—a exercise for scaffolding formal assignments I pulled right out of the Bean book. At the end of the day, I would list the texts I’d covered and scan my notes. Then I’d set a timer for ten minutes or so and jot down what I’d noticed, whatever vague connections occurred to me, observations that seemed promising but still tricky or puzzling. In this context, I actually did feel free to write clunky sentences and jump from thought to thought. It was kind of fun. When it came time to put together some sort of roadmap for my argument, I really did have the sense that I had already begun, in fact, that my argument was all there, though still in “rhysomatic” form. It was incredible. The doubts and anxieties sunk in pretty quickly once I moved on to stringing together paragraphs. This latter part of my process, the drafting phase, is still very dysfunctional. But with the reading log, I learned something about scaffolding the earlier stages. I think the trick to scaffolding the drafting stage will be to find a way to allow myself to stay in mood of thinking, puzzling, and experimenting—and playing!—for longer. Thanks for the nudge, Sam!

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