By Roxanne Donovan - Writing
COMPLETE WELLACADEMIC BLOG POST. This to-do stood out among the others. Its silent recrimination ringing loudly—Why haven’t you gotten to me yet?
The answer boiled down to one word: Fear.
Fear and I go way back. Her presence inexplicably comforts me even though she can wreak havoc on my life, reminding me of a self more imagined than real.
Fear is best at derailing my writing. Her whispers—you’re not good enough, you have nothing important to say, you’re more lucky than skilled—made writing excruciating. Every. Single. Moment.
It is excruciating still. Sometimes. And the distance between always and sometimes is a huge win.
The journey to this point has not been easy. Fear is a worthy adversary, even for a psychologist trained in ways to cope with emotions. And I’m not alone. Many writers struggle with Fear in what appears to be a losing battle. And that’s not okay. Because Fear is vulnerable, wins are possible.
It’s worth repeating: wins are possible. Here are a few ways I use science to help me (and my clients) triumph over Fear.
Pull Fear from Darkness to Light
I thought I could hide from Fear. Crouched in shadows, I held my breath and waited for her to recede. But the dark is no place to face Fear. Avoidance feeds fear, helps her seem larger than life, uncontrollable.
Pulling Fear into the light makes her more tangible. The more visible Fear is—her contours and angles—the easier to deal with her.
So I named her and her goal. This is Fear, a.k.a. Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety. She tries hard to keep me from writing.
This small step makes Fear easier to recognize. Hello, Fear. I see you’re back.
Acknowledging Fear before she does damage opens the space to bring her—and myself—out of the shadows. In the light, I’ve discovered that…
Fear has preferences
Fear loves to, prefers to, show up when I’m writing something new (like this blog post) or writing in a new(ish) voice (e.g., autobiographic) or writing with others I admire. It sucks when all these things intersect, which is happening more and more.
Fear has stamina problems
Fear is strongest early in the writing process. She knows if she keeps me from starting or stops me from finding my rhythm, she wins. Her strength, though, wanes over time. Knowing she can be beat means it’s vital I write through Fear.
Fear has selective memory
Fear is amazing at recalling harsh critiques. Gentle critiques? No worries, Fear can sharpen them until their points penetrate any armor.
Positive feedback? In those rare moments of recall, Fear is adept at distorting the message or messenger. She only said she liked it; it must be crap if she didn’t love it. He’s too nice to tell me the truth.
Recognizing that Fear’s whispers aren’t my full truth is an ongoing struggle; Fear’s voice sounds deceptively like mine. But I’ve found effective interventions. One is creating a gentle counter-narrative that challenges Fear’s penchant for the negative. My writing is good enough. I chant this mantra each time Fear starts her whispers. I initially repeat it without conviction knowing that writing as if I believe still works.
Compiling positive feedback into an easily accessible document is another way I challenge Fear’s whispers. Savoring the positive emotions that come up while reading the feedback dials down Fear’s volume, which makes hearing my counter-narrative easier.
Shame is Fear’s superpower
Fear thrives on shame, a feeling of unworthiness. The result: a pull to hide Fear, to perform (or fake!) a competence and ease in writing that I don’t truly feel. This inauthenticity only amplifies my shame which in turn amplifies my desire to perform.
Vulnerability is Fear’s kryptonite
Breaking out of the shame-performance cycle requires vulnerability. By vulnerability, I mean taking the risk to speak my writing truth to other writers, repeatedly. Why? Sharing Fear with empathic others makes her burden easier to bear. Equally important, it reminds me I’m not alone...and neither are you. Fear is a part of our lives, even those academics who make writing look easy.
Caveat: For women of color, hiding Fear can be an adaptive way to cope with daily indignities and systemic oppression. So be gentle with yourself if enacting vulnerability takes time. A trusting network of confidantes is something that must be nurtured to grow. Organizing a writing sister circle whose expressed goal is to provide compassionate accountability is one place to start.
Shout out to my sister circle: Joycelyn, Nichole, Griselda, Karen, and Jackie (my biological sister who is also an academic). I am grateful beyond measure that you welcome and encourage my authentic self, enabling me to face Fear, practice self-compassion, and get back on the writing path when I diverge. As I did with this post.
In peace and solidarity,
Stop, right now, before you advance another step through your early semester research plans.
Remember: writing anxiety blinds. It blocks your view of files you’ve repeatedly drafted for your Most Significant Project Yet.
Survey your research folders – have you mislabeled an indispensable file? Is one folded into the obscure corner of a rarely consulted folder-within-a-folder, a document incomprehensibly unrelated?
It’s time now to scour your laptop for any duplicates of a daunting manuscript you’ve produced once - OK, twice - before. As I often say to my coaching clients, leave no pyrite unturned in your search for jewels you’ve unwittingly buried.
I found buried treasure on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At an Inkwell retreat last July, my alumni buddy C and I were sitting across from one another on the last retreat afternoon, angled toward a pristine view of spectacular foothills and contentedly fashioning introductions to our respective books. Progressing this far had been both my ideal retreat goal and hers: We each wanted to leave with a fully outlined introduction.
We’d been extraordinarily productive, finally thinking through resources we’d wanted to read sooner, dumping chunks of new information into the intro doc, unpacking long theoretical paragraphs, and the rest. We knew we’d made notes “toward” an introduction in the past, but they were nothing as good as what the retreat coaxed out of us and never anything as thorough as what we’d accomplished.
Still, C and I searched our Dropboxes for words like intro and introduction and a few project keywords. We got results of all lengths in conferences papers, PowerPoints, and grant proposals. In course prep files and mandated annual review dossiers. Deep satisfaction.
Until. Gradually, we got clearer and clearer: we hadn’t never drafted our respective introductions, as we’d thought; in fact, we’d actually written “the” intro to our book projects many times over. I mean, in my own standout folder labeled “CHAAA” (for A History of African American Autobiography for Cambridge University Press), among the dozens of subfolders, I had gone looking for variants of the CHAAA intro. I stopped counting at number five, as in Five Forgotten Documents.
Ironically, when I was editor of African American Review years ago, we implemented a forum we called “Forgotten Mss.” Here’s how I described it back in 2005: “Editor's Note: AAR is pleased to present [this] new feature column. Because so much of African American literary, print, and cultural production remains unknown and/or ignored, and so much scholarly attention (even within these very pages) is yet devoted to the most canonical texts and topics of black literary and cultural heritage, AAR will occasionally publish short complete or excerpted texts, long neglected but noteworthy.” In other words, I designed the column to showcase print documents that had fallen out of literary flavor (and just favor) and into the archives, where it was there, too, relegated to those special collections of the neglected. Right now, though, my innovation seems like a bad joke I played on myself.
C and I attracted a lot of attention as we faced what we’d neglected. In the residence’s luxurious living room, we pulled back in dread from the quiet corner where we’d sat. We probably started shrieking a few seconds before we heard ourselves. Our respective searches turned up one file after another, each created in our own inimitable Times New Roman, endless files of “new” introductions. Other retreaters came to check out the fuss, then left, shaking their heads as if such oversight would never happen to them.
But it does, and more times than anyone wants to think about: anxiety blinding us to our multiple re-dos of a high-stakes writing project. (Even trying to write this blog in ways charming and useful to you has jacked up my blood pressure.) C and I felt we were writing some of the most critical books of our lives. Emphasis on felt, as in emotions. Intimidation and fear and conviction that any particular manuscript we had jolted into being had not been good enough to remember. In our minds, then, each iteration just. kinda. vanished.
So, we simply started over – and over – and over and.
The redundancy felt both painful and wasteful. Reassuring, too, yes, but depressing. I admit I took pride in the writing already done—hey, those pieces weren’t all bad! The retreat had both exposed and abated our writing tremors. We’d forgotten our duplicate manuscripts partly out of self-condemnation - they weren’t good enough, we weren’t - but perhaps what’s more awesome was the insight into the intricacies of diverse academic writing processes: beauty, community, and sincerity enable clear-eyed production.
Until next time,
Many of my coaching clients are tenure-track women faculty who revere me as “senior scholar.” They think, by now, I’m implacable in the face of writing assignments. For some reason, they ascribe to the myth (founded by 1950s era white boy academics) that writing anxiety manifests as an individual malady one overcomes the longer one stays in the game.
These colleagues seem to need to believe there comes an end to worrying over word counts and due dates. The fallacy seems to drive them toward professional longevity; it inspires them to stay in the game until they, too, one day magically turn the corner and their fingers whisk rhapsodically over keyboards, turning out pages of stunning prose.
The lie of the mythical Unflappable Senior Scholar, at least as embodied in our humble narrator, lay exposed last month at the July 2017 Inkwell residential retreat, founded by the intrepid Michelle Boyd. In the days before the retreat I fretted aloud to my Baby that I wouldn’t know any of the other participants in the retreat. I worried about the size of my goal for the week, which on alternate days seemed too big, then too small.
We’d been warned (some said reassured) that the internet service at the retreat site would be spotty. Would I be able to lug every book and printout I was sure I needed? I went out to buy a portable printer, just in case, but there was none to be had at the local Office Max on the night before my departure.
Suffice it to say, I had a case of nerves, about both my own writing acumen and my embarrassing introversion (which most colleagues who’ve witnessed my public deportment disdain until they catch me hugging the walls at the conference cash bar).
Tucked immediately into the warmth of two other Inkwell retreat alums, I earned their trust on the first morning, in part by baring my soul about my writing jitters and even more by listening to the wisdom of the most accomplished of the trio of us. Quite literally, she turned my writing conundrum upside down and illumined what turned out to be the most intelligent approach imaginable to set me up for the week. The other reassured me by acknowledging her own goal as similar to mine, by happenstance.
At lunch on the second day, two other retreaters remarked my steady and intense work, and admired aloud how easily I stepped into “the zone.” I couldn’t deny I had slid easily into my work. The two aforementioned gifts had worked their magic: a seasoned sister’s perception and a buddy with a similar need and a similar drive.
Which is to say, I had jitters but—maybe here’s what feeds the myth of One Day You, Too:-- I also had long years of experience to trust my gifts and my conviction. That is, I found conviction after many years of persisting through writing anxiety.
And I trusted my conviction, borne of numerous challenges to it, that routinely surfing the urge to run from the laptop, and scrupulously working the details of my outline, would keep me in the proverbial zone. Opening to an outline I promised myself I could revise “as needed” had further sustained my confidence.
On the last afternoon of the retreat, my buddy stunned me with her variation of the much-needed One Day, I Too myth. I had begged to sit next to her, for security, and my elbow was literally touching hers as we worked up our individual plans for next steps once the retreat ended. I had begged her, and she’d been merciful. We were head and nose down, fingers flying, when she sat back and announced something like, “You are so cool as you write! It’s great to see you never have writing anxiety.” Seriously?! Did I say begged?
I stood up. Hold up! “What do you mean I never have writing anxiety?! I have it on the regular. By the hour. In fact, where’s my watch?! Is it time to panic yet?!”
Behold the myth, yet never believe the hype.
Until next time,
*Shout out to JA, MB, BF, CS, and IW.
Looking at a list of writing goals held over from last semester? Feeling miserable that it’s your umpteenth year of resolving to finish that article, to write that paper before you’re sitting on a plane to the conference, to wind up that book proposal to share with colleagues?
Go ahead, it’s a new year: give yourself a break and any necessary permission to reset with a clean slate. And as you ease into self-forgiveness, consider implementing these steps I recommend after my long career of sputtering to jumpstart not just one writing project but a veritable swarm of them.
Draft an exhaustive list of all your pie in the sky writing goals.
Set a timer for 30 minutes. Grab a soothing drink. Turn on your Zen music. Sit down with your favorite tools for recording essential ideas. Mine are paper and pen; I feel more creative when I write by hand.
Draft a thorough list of unfinished writing goals. Don’t hold back. Large and small. Academic, professional, personal: a blog about a research find, the tedious bibliography keeping you from submitting an overdue article manuscript, the book review you’ll write once you finish reading that book. Try to breathe through the inevitable worry that making an exhaustive list will leave you too exhausted for forward movement. Throw up those writing projects like a cat tossing up hairballs—get it all out of your gut, head, heart, wherever it lies, and onto paper.
Take a break.
Organize your list by due date.
Gather up your Chihuahua, spaniel, pound mutt, formerly feral friend, your stuffed animal, your meditation pillow cuz this step is gonna hurt.
Strike out everything that doesn’t have an external due date attached to it. Then—deep breath--pledge not to add a single writing project to your list this year.
I speak from shameful experience when it comes to setting goals making commitments I simply should not have made. Umm, as I drafted my list to share with you (below), I cringed seeing how my unfinished list reveals my idiocy. (How not to break the “No More!” pledge should be my next blog.)
Like me, long list, short list, I’m betting you’ve got zero space for another goal. Oh, yes, those shiny new opportunities will pop up in the coming term. As I’ve done way too many times, you’ll swear this project is exactly what you’ve always wanted to do. You ignore the voices warning of a similar list of incompletes this time next year.
Maybe you’re approaching your list with zeal, sure you are just gonna settle down and write, and soon be ticking off one fulfilled goal after another. Uh-huh. Even if you are a fantastic organizer, you are probably reading this blog because you’re painfully overcommitted.
After you’ve separated out your time-specific goals, create categories for any remaining tasks. Put every single item on your list into one specific category. My top two tend to be writing for publication and writing for presentation.
Stop here for the day. Dangle the fishing pole for your kitty. Meditate a while. Schedule an appointment. Walk outside. Call a friend. Leave your list for now.
Delete, delete, delegate, and barter.
To write this blog, I sat down with my own exhaustive list of writing projects. Note my list doesn’t include my personal plans to move house before spring break. Not the annual faculty report. Not my classroom teaching or the three graduate degree theses committees I’m on. Nor my work for the annual African American Studies Spring Symposium, or for the summer pipeline program I direct. And on and…
Here’s what my list looked like in the last week of 2016:
Now that I’ve recovered from a panic attack, I’ll continue. Here’s my revised list:
Hell or high water
Last and least, with survival strategies
Maybe One Day
I got real with myself by considering what my list could cost my body and my mental health. Since I want to work joyfully, I brainstormed ways to minimize my obligations while also stretching my intellect and preserving my health. I reconceptualized each project for value added to my edition introduction. A bonus: African American autobiography is also the topic of my spring undergraduate seminar.
I crazily overcommitted myself last term—and I’m still overcommitted. I ought not to have agreed to write so many letters (for all my desire to support colleagues) or to give as many presentations (though I’m eager to support local libraries). I should have declined a couple of other projects, too, that I haven’t even shared here. I could be using that time on my latest civilian pastime: testing dairy-free, gluten-free recipes for my squeeze.
So, with you as my witness, going forward, I pledge three new behaviors: I’ll glue my new writing commitments list to my forehead (okay…maybe next to my computer or on my cell phone’s homepage). I’ll mindfully consult it on the regular. And I’ll resist any impulse not to consult it before adding to it.
Then in turn, I’ll allow myself some guilt-free celebrations for accomplishing my writing commitments, first up the manicure I’ve long delayed, and then whenever I want: ditching school for a date with a novel, a weeknight movie party for one, and the best, a Sunday drive to the Texas coast with a home-cooked picnic for two.
Until next time,