Overcoming Genre Struggles and Associated Performance Anxiety

In one of my last undergraduate classes, I had to bring into class a piece of nonacademic writing and read it out loud. It could have been any writing – a poem, a short story, an excerpt from a play, a memoir – that wasn’t constrained by academic conventions or the anxieties of professorial evaluation. Most of the other students in the class seemed unconcerned and knew which piece of their writing they were going to bring in. I had nothing. I had not written a piece of nonacademic writing since I was about eleven years old, and those forlorn journal entries are no longer extant.

I really struggled over figuring out what I going to write about and in which genre. Taking a first stab at fictional/imaginative writing seemed too ambitious, especially since I would be sharing this with others. After a few days, I finally decided that I would write about an experience I had while visiting Pompeii, Italy. Writing about a travel experience seemed not only manageable in scope and focus but also appropriate since it would not be overly personal. Once I decided on this approach, I then had to figure out exactly which aspect of the experience I was going to focus on. Following the advice of Peter Elbow, I took out my photo albums in search of ideas and details.

Flipping through the pages, I stopped at a photo of myself in a room with one of the Pompeii victims encased in glass. The frozen expression on my face reminded me of the uncomfortable ambivalence I felt at that exact moment: excitement about being at such a historically and culturally significant site, tinged with the guilt of feeling like a voyeur of the deceased (I did not yet realize that they were actually plaster casts of victims’ impressions). Having recalled this moment, I went to my computer and started writing … finishing in about 20 minutes. For me, that is lightning speed.

When I went to read what I wrote, I fully expected that I would have to rewrite most of it, as I usually have to do with my academic writing. To my surprise, I was actually pretty happy with what I wrote. I tweaked it a bit here and there, but, overall, I was satisfied and quite shocked to find that I could write that quickly. I was under no delusion that I had written a masterpiece, but I was proud that I had successfully overcome my genre anxiety and even learned more about myself as a writer. I learned not only that I am capable of nonacademic writing, but also that my writing can be much more focused and fluid when I have a clearer idea of my purpose, audience, and (self-imposed) evaluation criteria. But my struggle was not yet over since I still had to face reading this writing out loud to my class.

Even though the classroom was a safe space for sharing writing, I still had all the painful symptoms of performance anxiety: heart palpitations, dry mouth, sweaty palms. I survived the reading without passing out and received lots of encouraging feedback from my peers, several of whom said they felt like they were at the place I described. Hearing that my writing could have that impact made me feel as though all the anxiety I felt up to that point was worth it.

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  • Vanessa says:

    You describe the anxiety of speaking/reading aloud in class perfectly! Occasionally I feel like I get stuck in a genre rut; presumably, after doing something for two years (like write academic papers) it should get easier– but that doesn’t always hold true, and I’ll find myself struggling to write something that should be a breeze. Sometimes I need to write something creative or even just in another field (like switching from writing about literature to writing studies) to renew my vigor and love for writing.

  • Heather says:

    I agree with Vanessa! It’s funny how we think we can’t write in certain genres anymore, but it is a lot like riding a bike. It might be a little scary to get back on–no one wants to fall, right?–but I think we all have those moments and quickly find that we were just psyching ourselves out.


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