Performance Anxiety

I’ve been arguing for something I call the “the writing moment”, which is supposed to emphasize the absolute superiority of the writer over the reader. After all, in that moment the writer spends 27 minutes designing a 1-minute experience for the reader–“the reading moment,” if you will. The writer composes a paragraph (of at least six sentences and most 200 words) that says one thing and supports, elaborates, or defends it. Lately, I’ve become aware of a barrier to this message that I have perhaps been too glib about.

Students and teachers alike do not like the idea of sitting down to write something they know in a well-defined writing moment. This, I suspect, is because it puts them face to face with their competence as writers. By asking them to decide what to write the day before and to specify when they will write as well I am not leaving them any excuses for writing badly. Their performance will reflect their competence to evoke pictures of the facts. Their ability to tell the truth.

Even though this performance is an entirely private one, observed by no one until they themselves choose to show the result to someone, the prospect of experiencing themselves writing in complete freedom to succeed or fail according their abilities is abhorrent to them. All through their education, I guess, they had been cultivating the illusion that writing is a completely magical and mysterious process–an experience akin to demonic possession–that “channels” the truth into prose whether they understand it or not. What I am proposing, by contrast, makes them inexorably responsible for their words. It is daunting.

I do not wish to trivialize this resistance to my advice. In fact, I empathize. But I hope that putting it this way makes clear why facing our fears here, overcoming our performance anxiety, is important. We simply have to tell each other what we think. Or we will be trapped in our own personal, subjective point of view. We will have lost our basis in fact. We will have abdicated our objectivity.

One thought on “Performance Anxiety

  1. I had never thought about this form of “resistance” before, and I have used lots of other excuses avoid writing “in the moment”: deadlines, it-is-just-a conference-paper, nobody- will-read-it-anyway,…

    But isolation in our social world is hard — even on an introvert — and the consequence of performing alone when it will matter at the end of the requisite writing moments does sound plausible. I would add this to my excuses to not follow your advice, save for the fact that following your advice has tripled my productivity and those quiet 27-minute performances are now a positive element in my week.

    I have noticed that my particular introversion has “inverted” part of the process. I don’t work back from a plan, say, of 3 paragraphs x 27 minutes to create the thinking/composing period the day before. I toil for four to six hours in a day or perhaps longer making my argument to myself. Then when I sit down to write (still solo), the paragraphs will complete my argument (3?6?8?), or almost do so.

    One question has come to me in recent weeks. If the document being prepared is not the normal academic article, say a monograph or book, do your students find the writing more or less hard, more or less comfortable?


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