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.


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