Tips for anxious writers: Philosophy, a labor of love
If you struggle with writing anxiety, I want to assure you that it is possible to learn to love writing. Such love is the foundation and motivation for a healthy practice. Saying that it’s important to love your work and calling it “a labor of love” might suggest that I’m getting distracted by woo-woo new-age goals, so I want to be clear that my goal is to help anxious writers write more productively, any emotional benefits are secondary. It just so happens, however, that people often manifest high-level performance because they love what they’re doing and consequently spend a lot of time and effort on it. I imagine that anyone in academia has met at least one scholar who did good work and was truly, genuinely excited by and interested in the ideas they were pursuing. For athletes, musicians, and artists, this kind of motivation—the labor of love—is commonly assumed. In academia, too many become cynical (with some reason, admittedly).
If you struggle with writing anxiety, and you’re trying to create a healthy practice and virtuous cycles in which your behavior supports and promotes your practice, then finding the spark of interest or enthusiasm is invaluable. It provides a positive source of motivation, as opposed to external motivations like “I need to publish or I’ll never get tenure.” In any practice, frustrations and difficulties will arise. If you are motivated by interest and excitement—love—you can meet those frustrations with better perspective, greater motivation, and less anxiety.
Work is not easy, but…
If we want a healthy and productive long-term practice, we have to make realistic plans with realistic expectations. If we say “I’m going to love writing and it will always be fun,” or “Find a job you like, and you’ll never work a day in your life” (attributed variously on the internet to such sources as Confucius and Mark Twain), then we are destined for some disappointment, because things we love aren’t so simple. Empirical research by M. Csikszentmihalyi shows that the moments that people report as best in their lives are when they are involved in difficult challenges where they have not always succeeded, where their abilities are tested, and where they approach or achieve success (cf. Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow). The best moments only come with effort.
A realistic view of writing includes all the moments of frustration and struggle—all the moments when we can’t find the right word, phrase, or sentence; all the days when we’re obliged to pursue some tedious task (like checking style guidelines or fixing a reference list) because we need to finish a project; all the times when we have to deal with negative feedback. Writing is hard; research is hard; teaching is hard. But a realistic view will not overstate the difficulties, and, more importantly, it will also recognize the benefits.
Academia is not as bad as all the worst horror stories make it out to be. To be sure, in addition to the difficulties and frustrations of writing and research, one must deal with the competition and politics of academia. There is a larger social context in which academia itself is under attack from powerful political forces, both directly and explicitly, and through the constant reduction of public educational budgets. Within academia, there are egotistical monsters in scholarly robes who terrorize those around; there are small-minded people who tightly hold to their own ideas and attack anyone who doesn’t agree; there are people who would do or say anything to gain a personal advantage. But looking at all those problems and difficulties takes attention away from all the good things possible in academia (and also takes attention away from the fact that many or most of the problems in academia—competition, politics, egotistical fools—are also found elsewhere).
A labor of love
If the best moments in people’s lives come when they’re engaged in challenging and rewarding activities, it makes some sense that people adopted and continue using the Greek word “philosophy”—love (philo-) of wisdom (sophos-)—for the search for knowledge. If all the worst visions of academia were true, surely people would have chosen the word “misosophy”—hatred (miso-) of wisdom. Knowing that this work can be exhilarating and enjoyable (and not merely tedious and torturous) will shape your approach to and experience of writing, potentially reducing anxiety and increasing productivity.
In the face of cynicism about academia, it can be useful to think about all the scholars who truly are excited about the ideas that they pursue and teach. For all the egotistical fools I’ve met, I’ve met more who were honestly excited and enthusiastic about their research. They studied subjects that felt important to them, enjoyed many of the practical dimensions of research, and also enjoyed teaching others about the knowledge they had gained through their own work. Enjoyment of learning is part of human experience, from the infant repeating some new action to gamers learning to overcome some game obstacle to high-level professionals who learn to succeed in some difficult and challenging activity.
If you are interested in improving your productivity and reducing your anxiety as a writer, then developing a writing practice centered around this love of learning and enjoyment of learning is invaluable. In the long run, if you can find enthusiasm for your work, or you can direct your work to where you are enthusiastic, then you will have much more motivation and more positive motivation, which can help reduce anxiety, and that typically leads to more work getting done, which can also help reduce anxiety. Additionally, the more that you pursue your interests and enthusiasms, the easier it is to remain focused on your work, and greater focus on your work—the ideas you want to learn and teach—means less focus on anxiety-inducing concerns like “I need to publish more,” or “I’m not making enough progress,” and that, too, translates into a productivity boost. Every second spent thinking something like “I’m not making enough progress” or “I’m not publishing enough,” is a second that could have been spent thinking about some cool idea, and, in the long run, it’s the seconds spent thinking about cool ideas that add up to original scholarly work. I’m not suggesting that you never need to think about your publication record or your progress towards a deadline, only that those are secondary. If you pursue your interests with scholarly rigor, writing will be produced in that process.
I want to be careful not to present an overly sunny picture here. You may, at times, be called upon to work on projects that don’t necessarily interest you. But most academics have a good deal of choice in which projects they pick up, and, to the extent possible, that choice is your chance to pursue things that seem important to you.
Remembering that you have a choice is important in itself, especially with respect to developing appreciation for what you are doing. When you are forced into some work—when you didn’t have any choice—it’s easy to feel resentment, which saps motivation and increases mental resistance and even anxiety. If you don’t want to work on a project, that can often lead to an anxiety-inducing focus on the negative dimensions of the work, and it’s much harder to like something that has been forced upon you than something freely chosen.
Make your choice
If you are feeling trapped, and that feeling is mixed with anxiety, it is useful to stop for a moment and remember the choices you do have. What other projects or careers could you pursue? Ask yourself seriously whether academia is better for you or worse than those alternatives. If you’ve been overly focusing on the negatives in academia, some comparison to alternatives will often redirect your focus to the aspects of academia that are more positive.
Be realistic in assessing your choices. In particular, don’t assume that problems that you face in academia will go away if you pursue a different career: as mentioned earlier, many of the problems in academia will follow you into any career that involves other people, because people are people, and some people are problematic.
In part, both the battle against anxiety and the pursuit of improved writing performance is a matter of where you turn your attention. At any moment, there are different things on which you could focus, and your focus on will impact your emotional state. You can think about the ideas that interest you and that you want to communicate (which, hopefully, boosts your mood), or you could think about how people will respond to those ideas or how much work you have to do or how little progress you have made (which can cause anxiety). You can think about ideas to pursue or you can think about the state of your career. Often, it is when we think about things other than our actual project that the anxiety starts to hit. If you pursue a labor of love—something care about and believe in—it’s much easier to stay focused on the project rather than on anxiety-inducing externals.
Practice focusing on the stuff that interests you. I’m going to assume that such stuff exists—that you didn’t choose a career in academia just because you wanted to tell people you were a professor. did you choose academia for job security and good pay? Or because you were interested in ideas and/or believe your research can help improve the world? The more you can focus your attention on your interests, or on the way in which you want to improve the world, the easier it is to remember the positive motivations for your work, and easier to envision the work as a labor of love. The clearer your connection with your positive motivations, the easier it is to work with purpose and with less anxiety. No labor of love is free of anxiety—we can always fear that the love can somehow go awry. But when writing becomes a labor of love, some anxieties may fall away (anxieties that the work isn’t important, for example), and the positive motivations help mitigate the impact of the anxieties that remain.
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: 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