Writer’s Dread

Tell me if you know that one: You wake up to a beautiful morning. Your schedule is clear. The people you love are busy at a convenient distance. You’ve had a bit of breakfast. You have even done a bit of cleaning. You’ve made yourself a beverage. Your desk is tidy and sunbathed. It beckons you to work. There is nothing standing between you and a glorious day of thesis work. Nothing. You could just write all day. Finish that chapter. You know exactly what you need to do.

She works in beauty. My office.

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So you hit the social networks for a bit. You read that article about the “value of the humanities”, or about the plight of early career academics, or that bit of Eagleton polemics about how higher education is being shatnered by neocapitalism. You tell yourself that this is basically work because these things are about academia and you are an academic. Reading this is basically your job. Then you start looking at your friends’ facebook pictures. Also the friends of your friends.

All of a sudden you catch yourself looking at your neighbour’s cousin’s beerpong pictures from 2012 and find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that it’s 11:27 and you are still not working.

For a minute you tell yourself that you’re suffering from writer’s block… that today is not the right day to do your work because you’re just not inspired. But a little voice inside your head tells you that you cannot claim to have writer’s block if you haven’t even opened the document.

So you tell yourself to just open the document. After a new bout of procrastination – thank God for that obliging fool who, in the meantime, posted another academia related article on facebook, also, who knew that Nigerian cooking shows were so damn fascinating – you realise that you still haven’t opened the document.

Because you do not want to open the document. Because the idea of opening the document – not even writing in it – just opening it, fills you with an unnamed dread. Not full-blown panic, just a profound sense of discomfort. Quickly your brain goes through all the possible reasons why you don’t want to open the document. Are you tired? Sad? Hungry? Do you have to go to the loo? Are the fingerprints on the windows keeping you from working?

And it’s none of these things… though if you ask yourself whether you are sad, tired, or hungry for long enough, you are bound to become so. But the truth is, you are not afraid of your document because the conditions are bad but because they are excellent. If you fail today, when you are rested, relaxed and well-fed. When you have a beautiful plan of what you need to write next, when nobody is about to interrupt you, when everything is just as you always want it to be, you’ll really have failed. You’re afraid of opening the document because if you fail now, it won’t be because of the conditions; it will be because of you. And now it’s 12pm and you have waisted the best hours of the day. And then you wonder: Why do I do that? Do other people do that? (Seriously, I wonder, do you do that too?)

Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. What matters is that sometimes you do (and by you, obviously, I mean I) and you can recognise this dread, not as a character flaw but as a silly habit. And habits can be broken. So acknowledge the habit and  forgive yourself. And then open the document. (I just did; it felt surprisingly doable).


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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5 Responses to Writer’s Dread

  1. Daedalus Lex says:

    Hahaha. So familiar! It was even worse when I had a stack of papers to grade. My response (post-academia) to that habit was to become a pathological anti-procrastinator, charging through at all times and leaving nothing on the table for later. (Hence, e.g., my new book — check my blog.) And from that high horse, I say to you: “Get to work!”


    • oxforddphile says:

      the thing is that I am a pathological anti-procrastinator with any task that is foreseeably completable. The thesis is not such a task. I miss instant gratification. How you manage to finish writing books is beyond me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My solution: always leave the document open. Then tell myself I am going to look at it for ‘five minutes’, and I don’t have to write anything if I don’t want to. I never actually stop after 5 minutes, it’s a good trick 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • oxforddphile says:

      you really should have pointed out that if you are going to leave the document open you have still have to save it. I blame my current predicament on you. (may I please, the alternative is hitting my head against the wall until I have to repaint it).


  3. Pingback: Resolutions in Bits and Pieces: Two Ways of Getting Shit Done | Oxford Dphile

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