Writing through deadlines

During the week a colleague put a call out for tips on how to advise students who are gripped with anxiety in the lead-up to deadlines for written assignments.

This post is pure hypocrisy, because this is something I still struggle with myself. But I can offer some suggestions based on what has worked for me.

There’s some suggestion that students today struggle more with this than past students. I’m not really surprised by this. I went to high school in the 90s, in the aftermath of three events: the introduction of HECS which created intense competition for scarce places at the ‘best’ universities; the intensification of assessment in new Victorian Certificate of Education, where your final mark rested on your performance on three assessment tasks; and the recession of the early 1990s, when youth unemployment was above 20%, making it seem like academic performance was no guarantee of a job at the end of it all.

The discourse on fragile young people tends to emphasise the emergence of the risk society, helicopter parenting, and ‘cotton-wool kids’, and no doubt there’s truth in those claims.But fragility also comes from the intensified expectations placed on moments of assessment — and the frankly terrible advice to ‘begin with the end in mind’, never losing sight of a goal that may be years down the track, rather than focusing on the ‘next action’.

There is a discourse of resilience that emphasises ‘grit’, which I think gets heard as being unemotional and unrelenting about setbacks, and that just becomes another expectation. The superego gets the upper hand over the ego and the id; rumination takes the place of action; and the end result is panic. Once panic sets in, it’s nearly impossible to write.

Panicked students make demands for emotional labour that, for subject coordinators, probably call to mind the advice to use a broomstick to assist a drowning person — because otherwise they will latch onto you and you’ll both sink and drown.

Similarly, the Lifeline operator training emphasises containment rather than soothing: managing panic not via reassurance that everything is going to be okay, but by asking the caller to pick the issue they want to focus on, and then addressing that specific issue. This isn’t a cold and unfeeling process — it can be warm and empathetic — but it seeks to avoid rewarding and reinforcing the demand for an outside source of emotional regulation.

I want to mention one last part of the background: the relationship between perfectionism, rumination and paralysis (or depression). In a perfectionist student, the superego is running the show. They’re a smart person for whom thinking has been the solution in the past, but the problem requires action (writing). The more they ruminate, the closer the deadline gets. And by this point, the unconscious mind — the body, where emotions are experienced — has gone from whispering to SHOUTING its anxiety in order to get the attention of the conscious mind. In that state, it is very hard to do the action that is required, because complex tasks benefit from lower arousal.

So these are the steps that have helped me:

  1. Stop trying to ignore how it feels: listen to those feelings instead. There’s a short guided meditation called RAIN that goes through four steps: Recognise, Allow, Inquire, Nourish (or the more Buddhist practice of Non-Identification — this is happening but it’s not me).  As soon as you have heard them, they will stop shouting.
  2. Re-establish your routines for bodily self-care. Go and do the grocery shopping. Cook yourself a meal. Go for a walk in the sunlight (or in the rain). Go to bed on time.
  3. ‘Throw away the stick.’ This is advice I got from the wonderful therapist Carol-Ann Allen in Melbourne. Stop using this piece of work to beat yourself up.
  4. COMMUNICATE. When I was in undergrad I had somehow picked up how annoying my lecturers found it to receive special consideration requests and the various demands for emotional labour that came with them. So when I got stuck, I stayed silent, I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t see a GP or a counsellor. It wasn’t until I got kicked out of uni that I finally learned how to seek help. For students, the thing to remember here is that your lecturers have worries of their own and they don’t give a damn if you need more time, so long as you’ve submitted the paperwork. You need to send a just-the-facts e-mail — this is happening, I’m seeing the counselling service about it, I will submit a request for special consideration, can I please have x additional days deadline.
  5. GET HELP. If you can get an appointment, a student counselling service is a better option than your GP. The GP is going to give you a note that postpones the deadline, but probably isn’t going to help much with the panic. A counsellor will still give you the letter, but also help you address the panic and come up with a plan to get it done. For subject coordinators: there is an issue here that universities are not addressing at all well, which is that students with social anxiety/social phobia often have enormous trouble with the first step — communicating that there’s a problem and they need help. At a bare minimum counselling services should take web bookings.
  6. Write the fucking essay. You know how to do this. You’ve done it before. What did you do the last time? Remember that, and restart the process. Sure, it may be a scramble and the end result may be scrappy, but you’ll get it done.
  7. Most important step: continue to seek counselling and to build your repertoire of self-care practices after the essay is submitted, or this is just going to happen again.

I want to close with a wonderful quote from an essay by Prof Elspeth Probyn in the Affect Theory Reader that I re-read whenever I’m going ten rounds with the cursor.

I lectured my body sternly, but it wouldn’t listen to reason. To my mind, it was just the pressure of a deadline that was making me ill… It dawned on me that I was experiencing the terror of not being equal to the interest of my subject. The idea that I would not interest readers triggered what seemed to be a mixture of fear and shame.

There is a shame in being highly interested in something and unable to convey it to others, to evoke the same degree of interest in them and to convince them that it is warranted. The risk of writing is always that you will fail to interest or engage readers, Disappointment in yourself looms large when you can’t quite get the words right or get the argument across. Simply put, it’s the challenge of making the writing equal to the subject being written about. (Probyn, 2010[2005])

Writing is fundamentally about vulnerability. Thus, another part of my writing routine is to re-watch this lovely TEDx talk by Brené Brown, from before she got all Oprahfied.