Blog Post

Don't Fear Writing. Just Write.

(This post is cross posted on my website: Rhetorical Rumination)

"I've never renounced anything I've written because I've been afraid of certain consequences. Nothing intimidates me when I write. I say what I think must be said."--Jacques Derrida

Writing is action. It is something that we engage in for many reasons: to satisfy a test, to tweet, to blog, to answer assignment prompts, to publish, etc. While there are many reasons to write, there is often only one reason we don't write: fear.

I doubt that when we fail to write, we consider the exigency of that failure to be fear-based. However, fear is at the root of most decisions we make in our lives in some way, so why not writing? It's not as strange as you may think. When we sit down to write, we enter into a process of discovery, and there are times we do not like what we discover. We discover things about our lives, our friends, our research, our teaching, and our notions of truths. It can be hard to accept something when it challenges our understanding of the world.

That's what writing does best: challenges us. Writing challenges us to consider our realities from different perspectives, which we may or may not like. Often, we fear being misunderstood or misread because readers bring their own interpretation to our writing, and it is quite possible that our reader's interpretation will trump the interpretation put forth in our writing. Why is this frustrating, and why does it produce fear? Well, we know what we want to say, and how we want to say it. We know because we wrote it; however, given that our reader's often haven't had the same experiences we draw on in our writing, it makes sense that they would bring a different interpretation to what we wrote.

I've written some pretty academically polarizing stuff. I've written about abolishing for-profit schoolsuniversity oppressionthe arbitrariness of grades, and sports and learning. I've been accused of less than complex thinking, of being blunt when I should be nuanced, and kicking the hornet's nest. I've written pieces on teaching that have gotten me dismissed from writing gigs, and I've written things that have gotten me lots of writing gigs. You know what? I regret nothing. I don't regret one single thing. Despite all the mostly vapid criticism, I ultimately write for myself. I see things I don't like, so I write about them. But, I won't stop writing polarizing work and pieces that challenge the status quo just because some people don't like it, though I know some who have.

It's disturbing to know that some have forgone writing polarizing pieces, especially in the form of public discourse, because of the critiques of the mob (i.e. the public). As a writer and writing teacher, I find the critiques of the mob useful, even if often colored by slight ignorance. Indeed, the mob is no more ignorant than some academics attacking what they do not understand. In response to some things I've written, I've received hate mail (in the form of emails and tweets) from academics and non-academics alike.

Did I stop writing? No.

Did I stop writing even when I was being attacked from all directions by academics and non-academics? No.

Did I stop writing even when I was being attacked by those who I thought would be most open to enlightened discussion (i.e. academics and some colleagues)? No.

I kept writing, and I will never stop writing. Am I afraid to write some things? Occasionally, yes, though never pieces criticizing my profession. I can understand how people would be afraid. I talk to my students often about overcoming the fear of writing and the perceived inadequacy of their own writing. In my case, I'm not so much afraid to write something, as I am aware that what I write may be unpopular with the antiquated and tradition-steeped academy.

I most certainly do not want this post to turn into a "pity me" post, but I wanted to use examples from my own interactions with people, the same interactions that often reinforce the fear of writing in others, to show that fear of writing is real and, often, warranted. It's perfectly normal to be afraid of writing. Writing is a deeply personal act. It's more personal than people realize. When someone writes, they are creating something that is often somewhat unique to the particular context through which it arose.

Depending on what you're writing and where you're writing, the discourse created will have different implications. Jacques Derrida was most certainly correct in his famous assertion: "il n'y a pas de hors-texte," or there's nothing outside of context (see Of Grammatology, p. 163)). The fear of writing is always contextually based. There are times we fear to write to our loved ones, but we don't fear to write something criticizing our profession (and vice versa).

We shouldn't be afraid to write. Often, it is in the middle of a swamp of discourse that we are most in control of things. We decide what to write, where to take that writing, when to release it on the world, and whether or not it should be deleted and never revisited once we've finished it. That's the power of writing (and all discourse): It serves at the pleasure of humanity. Unfortunately, this is a two-sided coin in that by deleting a piece of writing, deleting something so personal to us, we may delete part of ourselves.

Indeed, fear may be an integral part of the writing process. That fear heightens our awareness, and it drives us to articulate exactly what we want to say. In my process, that fear is a fear of misinterpretation, so when I do experience fear of writing, it actually isn't until after I've written what I wanted to write. No matter where the fear creeps into our processes, the main point is that we shouldn't be afraid to engage in an act that is so personal and integral to understanding the world around us.

Write to yourself. Write to your loved ones. Write to your teachers. Write to your friends. Write to your colleagues. Write in loud cafes. Write in secluded bathroom stalls. Write in the corners of buses. Write in your bedroom. Write in places where you see no writing.

We should not let the fear of writing dictate what and where we should write. We should write what we believe must be written.

We must write, though our world perishes.

Photos by Flickr users epSos.de and Kelly Schott, respectively. Graphic by the author. // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

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8 comments

. . . I like this a lot.   I think we write because we believe others want to write back (even if they do not) and because we believe others are happy for an articulation (even if they decide not to write) and because we believe our ideas help and because we love to.    As Socrates said, writing is very susceptible to misinterpretation and, since I admire Derrida very much, I will say, simply, that's a good thing.  Struggling towards clarity is great and, sometimes, even the unclear can add clarity in a life.    Thanks for posting this, Trent. 

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Thanks, Cathy. I value your perspective immensely, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. I often find it disheartening, especially when I hear it from students, that people are afraid of writing. I've known many people who were afraid of venturing out into public discourse because of something they once experienced or something they might experience. 

I love Derrida. He is very close to my heart and, often, my work. So, I'm glad to find another Derridean Groupie (as it were). I have many thoughts about writing and the writing process. I might post more on HASTAC because it's important, given the roles we all inhabit on this site: public intellectuals, academics, essayists, scientists, technologists, etc. 

Finally, here is a video of Derrida talking about “fear of writing.” 

Enjoy!

 

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thank you for your post, Trent. 

I suffer some of this fear of writing, but I think where the writing is, plays a role. I have less fear of putting myself out there on Twitter, for instance, but blogging is quite another thing. as you may have noticed, I'm trying to be better about it. I think the difference lies in social vs professional - I have no porblem being myself and making mistakes about myself in public (I've done more than my share on Twitter) but in a blog, I'm putting myself out there in a different way... allowing scrutiny of myself and my work in a different space and a different way. a lot of this also has to do with the impostor syndrome... the fear of being found out as a "fraud". 

different people write for different needs... I'm trying to figure out what mine are. and I know that part of it is my trying to be more of what I want to be when I grow up. and that is hard because I'm not an "ambitious" or competitive person by nature. 

encouragement to write is always a good thing. and examples of writing despite criticism or hate inspire others to continue. 

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I think your fear and feelings are completely understandable, sava.

I've seen your competing contexts going head to head often via your Twitter feed, and I find both your tweets and blog posts wonderfully contemporary and insightful. Even though context is so very important, I wonder if there isn't another issue looming over your writing activities: trust.

What you've described seems to almost be colored not so much by fear of posting in different contexts but by not trusting yourself to post in different contexts. I think this is a fundamental issue of ethos (authority). I've read your blog entries, and they are excellent. I've read your tweets, and I think they are also excellent. Certainly, they both follow different conventions and are addressed to different audiences. But, I think the question you may have asked yourself before is, why do I have the right (authority) to say something? Well, you have the authority to say something, in whatever form, because you are an experienced, worldly, cultured, highly educated, PhD student who is interested in the things you're writing about.

You are fantastic on Twitter. I love your tweets and observations, and I would love to see you blog more because I think often you have smart tweets that may benefit from being drawn out a little more. I think you need to recognize that you have brilliance as a PhD student, academic writer, and, most importantly, person.

I believe in you, and I know you're not a fraud. Moreover, if you still struggle to figure out who you're writing for, then I would suggest you write for the most important audience that exists: yourself. The first audience for any writer is always the self-audience. We are our harshest audiences, critics, and we know when we've written something, and it's not exactly what we wanted. It sits there glaring at us, but we control it. We gave birth to the incarnation of that discourse, and we can delete it or hold onto if we want.

I'm generally not ambitious or competitive either. I write because there are things that need to be written, and I love it. I know not everyone does, but I think you're brilliant enough to change the world, sava. So, why not write about it?

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thank you, Trent. it means a lot to me to read that - I really appreciate it and you're helping me be more confident about putting myself out there as an academic and as... myself. 

<hug>

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I'm glad, sava. Anything I can do to help you is my pleasure. I know you can do it. :)

*hug*

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I wrote a brief follow up post to this one. I include a video of Derrida talking about fear of writing. 

I think it's worth a watch. Here's the post

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As I am spending this semester working on my MA capstone thesis, your post comes at a great time for me. I had a meeting with my advisor today after a frustrating and disappointing first draft, and after I was babbling on for several minutes about this research, she finally said, "Well it seems you know a lot more than what you've written here." Why did I not right it all down? I think it was fear and lack of confidence. What gets me is I was perfectly confident talking about it, but not writing it.

I find it interesting to think of how we are so often so afraid to write, but as teachers, we are never afraid of giving feedback. I teach a workshop titled "Responding to Student Writing: Encouraging Reflection and Revision," and my #1 take-away tip to my participants is to write fewer, more detailed comments rather than bleeding all over the students papers, repairing every minor grammatical error. It's often difficult to convince some of them that writing fewer and better comments is a more productive approach because they adamently beleive they are doing their students a "favor" by providing the most feedback possible. Based on my experience tutoring their students, they get highly frustrated, confused, and resort to low-stakes writing with the one goal of pleasing their instructor. So I wonder how I can actually instill some fear (or just restraint) in commenting in these TAs who attend my workshop?

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