Writing Through the Fear

Course Writing Associate, Sean Lambert ’17, argues for cultivating a familiarity with writing guilt.

It almost goes without saying that most of the time we spend “working on a paper” we are not writing. If a deadline is two weeks away, we are likely to spend 8-12 hours of that 336-hour period writing our paper. And yet, for many of us—even and especially those of us who “work on” writing assignments all the time—we live with a constant awareness of our remaining time ticking away. As the worry looms over us, all we can think is: the paper is not done.  

This makes me wonder if anxiety about writing is built into the process itself. Is an existential component of writing academic papers a lurking dread about not finishing? That thought seems scary, and yet it seems to be the experience of many of my students, especially those with less experience with college writing. One of the symptoms of this fear seems, paradoxically, to be procrastination: a fear of finishing is transferred to a fear of starting altogether. To guard against procrastination, we at the Writing Center adopt the motto of starting early and working in manageable chunks, but this treats only the symptom (starting late) and not the cause, which is that writing is guilt. I would argue that to empower students to work through their anxiety about paper deadlines, we ought to stop talking about procrastination, and begin to respect, rather than police, the way that everybody deals with writing guilt.

It seems to me that the rhetoric Writing Associates use to fight procrastination contains some inherent ideological contradictions. When we recommend that students start “working on” their papers early, we are recommending that they give themselves enough time to thoroughly think through their papers and refine their ideas in their heads, even if they don’t sit down to write until later. We also want them to have enough time to adequately edit their papers. Surely, no one would dispute that brainstorming and editing are necessary parts of the writing process, and I affirm that any breakdown of the 8-12 hours that one ought to spend writing a paper would be incomplete without them. However, a conversation that I had recently with a student made me start to rethink the “start early, don’t procrastinate” rhetoric: he raised the question to me, how long is one supposed to spend working on an essay? Is the 8-12 hours, including time for brainstorming, drafting and editing, enough? Or is any loss of the 336 hours leading up to a deadline a “waste of time?” My student said he hates being told that he ought to “start to think” early, so that, in the course of an ordinary day, he can suddenly be struck by a thought about his paper, or have a sudden breakthrough. This makes him feel trapped, inscribed into the writing process at all times, never to be free or finished. This made sense to me. Anxiety about finishing a paper is built into deadline-based learning, but when we talk about procrastination and “starting early,” we also build shame into what it means to write: it becomes impossible not to feel like you’re procrastinating.

And yet, if everyone is a procrastinator, how can we call it a problem? When we talk about procrastination, perhaps we are talking about something intrinsic to the writing process. Consider the arithmetic: is there anyone who spends all 336 hours leading up to a deadline writing? Most of us split up our 8-12 hours of explicit writing in diverse ways, without compromising the “finished” paper. When we take a broad view of the writing process, the term “procrastination” doesn’t seem to describe a disordered time management, so much as attach stigma to the idea of time management itself. As long as we give space only for working and not working, writing itself will be procrastination, and it will be guilty.

I find the thought that we are always either writing or procrastinating disturbing, but I don’t know exactly how to fix it. On the one hand, I see the benefit in starting early and working steadily in small chunks, starting and stopping often in order to maximize the time spent thinking about the paper. On the other hand, something about that model seems exploitative, as if the paper-writing process must extract every minute of surplus value from the writer in order to realize itself. I recognize the way that the phrase “surplus value” politicizes this issue. The students who have the easiest time with the start early and then stop-and-start-often writing model are most likely neurotypical and middle-class. For some students, starting the paper the night before might not merely be laziness, it might be a way of coping with a paper-writing culture that creates intolerable—and politicized—stress.

In this short blog post, I won’t go so far as to rebrand what we call procrastination as a revolutionary act. In practice, I intend to continue to encourage my students to start early and work in manageable chunks, because that’s the best model for succeeding in what is, invariably, the competitive, elite, corporate environment of Oberlin College. However, out of respect for difference, I don’t think I am going to talk about procrastination-as-such with my students anymore. After the conversation that I had with my student about writing anxiety, I see it now as something of a pejorative term, and as a mediocre motivator for paper-writing success (a success that itself seems to me less and less virtuous, as I’ve explored above). Managing writing anxiety is hard; it might even be baked into the writing process itself. However, moving forward, I hope to help my students feel okay spending time not writing. I want them to cultivate a familiarity with writing guilt so they aren’t always anxious about writing, and are willing to carve time out of the process when they feel like they are neither writing nor procrastinating. If we can’t preserve this important third time I can see the anxiety becoming insurmountable, and ultimately threatening the potential for writing at all.



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