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The Anxiety of Organization: The Gritty Specifics of the Writing Process

posted: 4.11.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

All week I have been thinking about Aaron Kerley’s comment on my last post: “[what happens when students encounter] the anxiety about the act of writing itself as a meaning-making process?” I love this question because Aaron allows me to challenge my assumptions and return to the gritty specifics of process. was thinking of Aaron’s challenge as I prepared to travel to Atlanta for the Conference on College Composition and Communication. I woke up last week increasingly anxious about this trip—and all the chores I had to complete before boarding the airplane. In these situations, advice for time management sounds strikingly similar to advice for writers in developmental English. Make a list of tasks to complete, then prioritize those tasks. I made a list in my head:

  • Pack my suitcase
  • Write this post

Then my anxiety increased. What clothes to pack first? My thoughts wandered away from packing to existential concerns (What if the weather in Atlanta is hot and humid?  Should I pack summer clothes? But what if the hotel air conditioning is freezing cold? Do I need a heavy sweater? What if it rains?). So I reversed my priorities. I would write first—and I would write about the anxiety of organization. Then perhaps I could pack.

In the midst of anxiety, I often benefit from a messier approach to organization.  If I need to write on a particular theme (for example, “Beyond the Basics” ), I begin with writing generally, then whittle down the general to specifics.  From the specifics, I can discern more critically the process of making meaning. Often the finished post looks much different from the original idea—and the anxiety of organization has helped to motivate rather than block my writing. As a meaning-making process, my writing practice looks, approximately, as follows:

  • Write 3–5 pages, focusing on the theme rather than freewriting.
  • Reread the writing several times.
  • Find key words and interesting tangents.
  • Discern meaningful connections between key words and tangents.
  • Discover a synthesizing idea that links key words and tangents to create the main focus.
  • Develop more writing to support the focus.
  • Repeat as necessary.

I have suggested this process in and out of class for writers that struggle with more linear methods of composition. Perhaps I can use a similar method for packing a suitcase. Throw clothes I want to wear onto the bed. Sort the pieces into outfits that seem appropriate. Place the outfits into the suitcase. Add socks, underwear, and toiletries. Zip up the suitcase and smile.

If only writing always felt so easy! Still, some of us benefit from making messes first, and sorting them out later. In this way, anxiety becomes a compelling motivation for making meaning through organization, rather than yet another dead end to disorganization or—worse still—no writing at all.

[Photo: Ready for Travel Going North, South and West… by New York Public Library on Flickr]

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Categories: Planning, Writing Process
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3 Responses to “The Anxiety of Organization: The Gritty Specifics of the Writing Process”

  1. Mick Parsons Says:

    That’s pretty much the process I go through when I’m stuck or unsure what to write. It’s also the one I suggested to students (when I was teaching) when they were unsure where to begin. It’s a process that runs antithetical to the culture of education. It runs antithetical to contemporary American culture in general, which education has seen fit to parrot rather than try and improve upon.

    That question Kerley posed is an important question… because the moment he speaks of is the moment when a learning writer begins to see the little man behind the big green current, the framework buried in the smoke screen.

    It’s also the moment that an artist might emerge… which is, for the institutions of education and culture, is far more frightening.

  2. Holly Pappas. Bristol Comm. College Says:

    This reminds me of one of my storehouse of analogies: writing an essay is like cleaning a room. If you just take it one item at a time, it’s too easy to get sidetracked and leave the job half-(or less) done. When I was a little girl, my mother taught me instead to first dump everything that wasn’t in its place into the middle of the room. Paradoxically it becomes easier to manage when you have a heaping, messy pile in front of you that needs only to be sorted into piles that are easy to manage: dirty dishes for the sink, books for the bookcase, dirty clothes for the laundry, and (always) that pile of garbage for the trashcan.

  3. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    Mick, Your term “learning writer” is really striking– so much more descriptive than “basic,” “developmental,” or the dreaded “remedial.” A “learning writer” is always already in process– and always already has potential, as you suggest, to emerge as an artist, no matter how resistant the educational system may be.

    Holly, I *really* like your mother’s idea for cleaning a room– both as an analogy for writing, *and* as a strategy for cleaning! This approach sounds great for focusing attention on tasks that may seem initially too complicated or boring. Because of the focus on visual and kinesthetic activities, the cleaner/writer can remain mindful and involved. Thanks for sharing this!