The pen is mightier than the fear: Writing with anxiety

Off the Beat

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I love writing.

As a kid, I filled journals at a rapid pace, to the point where my collection of literature was rivaled by my collection of notebooks. When I was 12, my mother bought me a digital typewriter for Christmas — its memory was at capacity before the new year. I wrote stories, songs, poems, diary entries and fictionalized accounts of my comparatively dreary day-to-day life. I wrote all the damn time, and I wrote about everything.

I’ve never not loved writing. Research papers in high school were no easy task (little did I know that most research papers are not, in fact, under five pages), but I wrote them joyfully. I was excited by the opportunity to dig for facts and report back my interpretations.

When I was 16, my English class was assigned to write a 20-page short story based on “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. My story followed a man whose enlarged yellow eyes mystified doctors and prompted teasing from his peers as a child. As the story progresses, the reader realizes that his eyes were replaced with his mother’s after she died during his infancy. It was 88 pages. It wasn’t particularly innovative, but I loved writing it.

Writing makes my heart race. My fingers just can’t type fast enough.

And since I’ve come to college, that limitation — the idea that I can never possibly capture all of the thoughts that run through my head — has become a reason for me not to write.

It’s not that I think I’ve attained some unrealistic level of brilliance; I have no such illusions about my intellect or creativity. Instead, coming to college triggered an anxiety that had mostly laid dormant when I was a child.

As a kid, I compulsively bit my cheeks to the point of scarring, and I scratched my unblemished skin until it bled. I’ve always been a tooth-grinder (ask my dentist — my “canines” aren’t pointy enough to be called “canines”), which I now know to be a classic sign of anxiety. Growing up, I thought everyone had nervous tics like these. I knew anxiety existed, but it wasn’t the word I’d use to describe my experiences. It wasn’t until I came to college that I developed the vocabulary to describe and understand mental health. It was validating to learn that there’s a word for my compulsions, self-scrutiny and ever-present guilt. That word is “anxiety.”

It’s pretty common for students to feel anxious about writing in college. The grading scale that applies to accurately solved equations and correctly defined terms is overly simplistic when it comes to essays, complex rhetorical arguments and hundreds of pages worth of research.

No wonder we’re overcome with agitation over our ability — or inability — to both write articulately and offer ideas that are innovative or entirely new. It’s a lot of pressure, and at the end of it, all of that stress and contemplation yields only a number — a piece of helpful feedback, at best.

In college, it often feels like we’re writing into the void. We’re given weekly writing assignments for which we’re expected to, at a minimum, be succinct and, at a maximum, be groundbreaking.

We’re constantly asked to think critically, but all too often, those thoughts feel as though they go nowhere — through the hands of a grader who may or may not be able to put a face to our name or student ID number. The opportunity to exchange original ideas in discussion with other students — to defend our points against counterarguments or engage deeply with another writer — is rare at a large public research university.

And so, writing makes me anxious.

But my anxiety doesn’t make me a bad writer; in fact, I think it makes me a better one. My brain doesn’t allow me to arrive at this conclusion without internal reflection. It’s an uphill battle every time I write — and it starts before I pick up the pen.

I don’t always think I’m a “good” writer (in fact, that’s rarely the case). A voice in my head tells me that there’s no possible way that my thoughts are original, that I have anything to offer or that anyone would actually read what I wrote. My heart races, my chest feels hot and my fingers tingle. The voice in my head is me — or rather, it’s my anxiety telling me that I can’t and shouldn’t write.

But I love writing.

So, to combat that voice and calm the fear, I write constantly. I make lists, I take notes furiously, and I try to journal daily. Each time I sit down to write, my teeth grind and my fingers shake. Anyone who’s read the first draft of anything I’ve written knows that I often skip words, and my handwriting is so desperately messy that it’s impossible to distinguish between real words and gibberish. I underline and highlight my notes and circle ideas that might be worth writing about.

I create deadlines for myself far in advance of the actual due dates so that I can return to the piece before anyone else reads it. I have to face my fear of writing every time I start an article, an essay or even a journal entry. Most of what I write is only read by me, and all of it is imperfect in some way. The way I cope with that is by thinking of everything I write as unfinished, as something I can always come back to.

But I sit down and write anyway. I write until passion takes over. And the passion wins every time.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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