Tips for anxious writers: Gentle persistence
The first key to developing a healthy writing practice despite writing anxiety is gentle persistence. Every writer needs to maintain a consistent practice over time, which takes persistence and self-discipline. But persistence and self-discipline must be applied judiciously. As discussed in the series introduction, “try harder” and “be more disciplined” are not particularly good advice for someone struggling with writing anxiety because trying harder can lead to destructive practices. If you are suffering and you “try harder” to “be more disciplined,” you are likely to reinforce the negative experiences that contribute to writing anxiety. In a healthy practice, persistence is carefully balanced to approach your limits without pushing past them. You need the persistence to push against your limits and face challenges, and you need the gentle sensitivity to step back and care for yourself.
Be kind to yourself
A healthy writing practice supports your entire life. It does not produce excellent work at the cost of sacrificing your health or family. If you struggle with writing anxiety, one of the very first steps to changing your relationship to writing is to be both kind to yourself and realistic about your situation. Being realistic about your situation starts with being realistic about what you are capable of and what you ask from yourself. Being kind to yourself means that you recognize and acknowledge your own experiences, abilities, and limits and take actions that respect those experiences, abilities, and limits. Being kind to yourself does not mean avoiding all difficulties or discomfort but being kind to yourself does mean careful judgement of which difficulties and discomforts you choose.
A healthy writing practice—one that can lead to good writing experiences as well as success and publication—does not grow out of anger and dislike and self-torture. Those ingredients have certainly contributed to some successful writing practices, but they are not necessary ingredients. I imagine that most of us have met scholars/professors/academics who work hard and are genuinely enthusiastic and positive about their work. Such people make progress through their own enthusiasm and interest—they pursue something that they think both important and interesting. Despite occasional difficulties and frustrations, their work isn’t an ordeal, but rather a combination of tasks, some interesting, even exciting, and more monotonous, like proofreading. Finding interest and enthusiasm, however, requires that you step back from a rigid “I need to try harder” mindset, and instead ask yourself: “What interests and motivates me in this work?”
One of the big problems with the “be disciplined; try harder” writing advice is that it presumes that the problem is lack of discipline. Although it is, of course, necessary to have discipline to write, failure to write does not necessarily prove lack of discipline. I’ve met professors who were struggling to write, but I have yet to meet a professor who lacked self-discipline. I’ve met some graduate students who would benefit from more self-discipline, but even they were generally disciplined and hardworking enough to get into good graduate programs. On the whole, you don’t advance in academia without self-discipline. A doctoral candidate struggling with a dissertation, for example, has necessarily shown significant self-discipline to graduate college and advance to the point of beginning a dissertation. Pretty much every professor has demonstrated enough self-discipline to earn a PhD and publish, not to mention the self-discipline to succeed in an academic job search.
Thinking diagnostically, I would ask this: if someone generally shows self-discipline in their life, but struggles to write, do we want to explain that in terms of a lack of self-discipline? Might it not make sense to ask whether some other factor is creating a significant barrier to writing? If we recognize the role that anxiety can play in interfering with the intellectual processes necessary for scholarship, and the way that anxiety can lead to negative feedback loops, it seems appropriate for a writer struggling with anxiety to consider whether the anxiety is the problem, not any lack of self-discipline.
One of the first steps in building a healthy writing practice, is to trust the talents and abilities that have gotten you to where you are, and to look for ways to build on them. Instead of doubting yourself, and just “trying harder,” try trusting your abilities and your practice: find activities and behaviors that let you take advantage of all of the good qualities that have brought you up to this point, while skirting the anxiety that causes problems.
Step back, take a break, ad re-evaluate before re-engaging
If you have been struggling with writing anxiety, it’s important to take a moment to step back and, as much as possible, step away from the anxiety. If you’ve been facing a severe writing block that has prevented progress, you lose nothing by taking a break: if you’re making no progress, it doesn’t matter if you work hard to achieve nothing or you achieve nothing through inactivity.
Give yourself permission to step away from your project for the sake of your health. Think about why you have chosen to pursue writing in the first place, and why you have a career that calls for writing. Put aside “I have to” and “I should” for a moment to look at the things that you hope to accomplish with those perceived imperatives (both personally, and as a scholar and teacher contributing to the academic community). Think about the positive things that could grow out of writing, rather than your sense that you have not been productive enough or that writing is just too painful.
Restart slowly and gently
After a break—whether a day or a week, or whenever you feel more clear about some positive goals—restart gently and with positive motivation. As best you can, focus on the good things that you hope to achieve, and try to take small steps toward those goals.
And, when you begin, listen for the anxiety. When it comes (if it comes), be gentle. Don’t force yourself to suffer. Be willing to sacrifice today’s painful progress as an investment in tomorrow’s increased productivity. You need to be gentle with yourself if you want to teach yourself that writing is not always painful torment. Do not berate yourself for your lack of progress, instead evaluate your emotional health. Focus on finding ways to engage with your scholarship where you’re focused on the ideas and issues that motivate you. Invest effort in developing a better relationship with writing, so that in the long run, your writing is more productive and less painful. Then try to take a step forward. Gently.
Do not give up. Taking a break to reduce anxiety is not giving up, it’s a reasonable step in a larger plan of action aimed at reducing an emotional state that interferes with your brain’s operation. However many times you step away, keep returning—not because you have to, but because you feel a good reason to. Don’t work on your writing because you have to write. Persist because you think writing will help you accomplish something that you want to accomplish. Persist in writing because it seems like the right thing to do—not just to advance your career, but because you have knowledge that can help people. If you want to keep trying just because you don’t want to give up—well, that’s not the motivation I would recommend, but if it works for you, you can pursue that, too. Just so long as when you persist, you are gentle with yourself.
Building a healthy practice takes time. Emotional patterns that have built up over years don’t immediately dissipate. Underlying any healthy practice is gentle persistence that has the patience to keep working even when results seem to come slowly. If anxiety has been stopping you from writing, it won’t be the work of a few days to get a healthy practice going.
With gentle persistence—coming back day after day to work carefully along the edges of anxiety—you can start feeling better about writing, start producing more writing of various kinds, and maybe build a little comfort, one day at a time. Sometimes it takes only a small reduction in anxiety to start a virtuous cycle where you say “gentle persistence paid off—I wrote more today than yesterday,” and that gives you greater hope and motivation for the next writing session.
Read the other articles in this series:
Tips for anxious writers: Series introduction
Tips for anxious writers: Gentle persistence
Tips for anxious writers: Writing is only a tool
Tips for anxious writers: Use exploratory writing
Tips for anxious writers: Practice and performance
Tips for anxious writers: Philosophy, a labor of love
Tips for anxious writers: How to get moving
Tips for anxious writers: Write for the right audience
Tips for anxious writers: Accept uncertainty; trust your practice
Tips for anxious writers: You are not an imposter
Tips for anxious writers: Analyze feedback
Dave Harris, Ph.D., editor, writing coach, and dissertation coach, helps writers develop effective writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015), Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice (Routledge, 2020) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010).Dave can be found on the web at www.thoughtclearing.com