Writer’s Anxiety – Admitting it is Half the Battle

In a recent Inside Higher Ed essay, Nate Kreuter discusses conquering writing anxiety.  I found this article posted on the WPA listserv and was immediately motivated to read it.  Why?  Because I have writer’s anxiety.  There, I’ve said it.  And admitting is half the battle (at least, I sure hope it is).

Kreuter discusses student anxiety, and he divides this anxiety into three types: fear of judgement, fear of success, and fear of process (I have all three).  Deanna Mascle also recently wrote about student self-doubt and “breaking the cycle of defeat” (a cycle out of which I am most certainly now attempting to break).   Mascle explains that some students “lack positive beliefs to support their positive engagement in the writing process.”

There has always been lots of talk out there of the writing teacher as counselor, therapist, coach – a number of metaphors are used in writing center theory and in composition studies in general.  But what about us – those of us teachers who serve as the counselors, therapists, coaches?  What happens when we need coaching?

Can we turn to our colleagues?  Aren’t they also struggling, therefore not mentally available to give support to others?  Or perhaps they’re flourishing in their publications and therefore aren’t exactly empathetic?  Our non-writing friends – can they truly understand what it means to feel paralyzed with fear about putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard (don’t you teach that stuff, they think)?  Our non-academic partners who might prefer we not write; after all, the more time I spend writing, the less time I spend with my husband (poor guy – I do feel badly!).  Who can we turn to?  I suggest our students.

I have never been nervous about publishing my creative work (mostly poems, mostly published before I began my PhD).  That type of work spills out of me in a shape that feels almost beyond my control; therefore, I take very little ownership over it even if I’ve worked on it incredibly hard.  I’ve always been praised for my creative writing, so I never had the self-doubt that Mascle discusses.

And, I was often praised for my academic work throughout graduate school, but despite that praise, I do still have a lot of anxiety about publishing my academic work.   Even now in my fourth year as a full-time professor (and my twelfth year as a teacher), I am almost relieved when I receive a rejection letter from a journal.  Good – that means no one out there, particularly these impressive scholars whom I probably cite incorrectly, will ever see this article I’ve written, and I won’t be a laughing stock in my field.  I often feel my ideas are obvious – who wouldn’t have thought of this already? – and this sometimes stops me from writing anything at all (for instance, at this moment, I am certain someone has already written about professional writing anxiety, and used the same metaphors that I have and the same anecdote I’m about to provide).

In thinking about how get over my own anxiety, I’ve realized that I have a resource right in front of me that I’ve never really thought to utilize.  I have 65 student writers whom I see three times a week.  What better models for overcoming writing anxiety than the budding writers, almost all of them brand new to college, who put their writing out there in class through very little choice of their own (at least I have a choice, right?)?

I try to follow the process I preach to them – start slowly.  Through various workshops throughout the semester, the students ease into sharing their writing with others.  They start by sharing with one peer who reads to him or herself.  Then they might read their own paper aloud.  Then their peer might read it aloud to them.  Then they exchange with a larger group who has a discussion about the paper.  They might come to my office and share with me or go to the Writing Center for some advice from a tutor. Then, perhaps some sharing in front of the whole class.

Some of these students are terrified on the first day of class when they hear we’ll be doing this.  But they understand the stakes – it’s part of their grade – and that motivates them.  And as we ease into it, they begin to understand its worth as well.  They write to me in reflections about how much they’ve learned through the process, despite how scary it might have been in the beginning.

This is a model I’ve begun to consider for myself.  My stakes are different of course (tenure and promotion), but they motivate me nonetheless.  So I’m easing into the public sphere in my field first by joining Twitter and mostly re-tweeting posts I find to be interesting.  Occasionally I tweet an original idea.  Sometimes I tweet an idea and include the name of a person or organization in my field, hoping they’ll see it and respond.  I ‘met’ Muriel Harris this way, and now we’re friends on Facebook!   Or I include a common hashtag, like #dayonwriting; I was re-tweeted by NCTE.  As my confidence has begun to build, I’ve also been posting some queries to various listservs in my field.  This is also something that I’ve been scared to do, but now that I’m responsible for a very large program at a state university, I’m motivated to ask questions to people who know the answers, even if it’s scary to admit I need some help.

More than just getting over my anxiety, I’m discovering the value in sharing my writing, just like my students have.  I learn a lot about what I want to say as I prepare it for an audience.  I learn from the audience’s reception.  And I learn from critical feedback, just as my students do.

I’m thankful to my students for allowing me to observe their own processes in negotiating writer’s anxiety.  I’m sure I’ll say this on a regular basis now that I’m blogging about teaching writing, but I say it here for the first time: I only hope they learn as much from me as I do from them.

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