Anxiety, Obedience & Writing Post-Academia

I am finding it so difficult to write. I started this website so that I would have a place to write away from the performative pressures of social media, academia, and commercial art. Having evolved beyond a mere highschool drop-out/amateur artist with a history of madness – as a university graduate, now – I assumed I would at least have what it takes to follow through, but anxiety has got the best of me yet again, and months have dragged on without any writing or publishing being done at all.

I thought that by going back to school, I would at least learn the kind of creative discipline I would need to finish the writing projects I started, even if I didn’t enjoy the whole process. Previously I was always starting projects and leaving them unfinished, not knowing exactly what went wrong, or why my motivation left me.

Instead I have found that what my education trained me to do really well is to doubt my own credibility, so that while I am constantly courting fascinating ideas, there is also a crippling fear that I could never be qualified to actually write about them. When I jumped from a bachelor’s degree directly into doctoral studies, I discovered I hadn’t really learned creative discipline at all. I had just learned obedience, and I wasn’t even very good at it.

Academia taught me that I must get permission to research this or that topic, consult the proper sources, review the guidelines of my assignment, make sure I use proper citations, obey the word count and formatting instructions. I must observe the appropriate formalities and climb the ivory tower of cross-referenced expertise and credibility to be a successful person. That’s what writing is, right?

All the art and urgency of it has been subjugated to academic careerism, sucking the meaning out of what I wanted to do with my education in the first place. I have to keep telling myself that I am a writer, that this is what I do and have always done – but academic writing has morphed this essential core of my identity into a neatly packaged and professionalized box, where I am afraid to write honestly and the creative muscles begin to atrophy.

In grade seven I had an English teacher who told me I had a natural talent at writing, and that it would be wise to hone that talent, to dedicate myself to it. My young, timid, and insecure heart burst with quiet hope at the prospect of a creative life. It felt like an opportunity to escape from the arbitrary drudgery which I sensed was steadily eating away at my future as I climbed the academic ladder.

While I took that advice to heart, I also found that education was itself the largest obstacle to a creative life that I faced. As a student, days are so highly regimented there is hardly any time to explore creative talents. I was always being told when or if I could write, what topics I could learn about, how to express myself to be favourably evaluated, which authors to read and how to analyze them. There was little room for wild curiosity, and I began to sense dimly that I had been set on a path – call it the Canadian dream – and that I really did not want whatever was waiting for me at the end of it, but that I would have to follow it all the way into adulthood anyway.

A year later I was (mis)diagnosed with childhood depression, but after beginning treatment on antidepressants, this quickly escalated into a severe and suicidal depression that would take years to overcome. All through that time and ever since I have continued writing – mostly awful journal entries, sad poems, and self-involved little songs – as a means of survival. To keep myself sane while the medical model failed to treat my madness, to declare ownership and responsibility over my own mind, I had to write, learn, and find myself in the history of the world.

I became a scholar because writing, reading, thinking, and discussing compelling ideas is what makes me feel alive – what makes life worth living. This is who I am, yet I have always felt that the role of education has been to shape me, not into a better writer, or even a better human being, but into a better worker. A more reliable, predictable, and standardized cog to fit into the national economic machine.

My madness emerged in part simply because it is against my nature to obey this kind of authority and placidly accept deliverance into the promised land of credibility, security, and success. It is, in my estimation, antithetical to good scholarship to so blindly obey a structure that is itself at the foundation of a flawed civilization on the brink of collapse.

And that’s why I started this website. To document the challenges inherent in being a mad scholar – someone who desperately wants to learn, but who also does not fit in with the modern education system, where students are treated as blank slates waiting to be molded to fit the latest economic forecast. I know there is a better way, and I’m determined to understand what that way is.

But with a university degree hanging on my wall, I’m finding it so damn hard to shake off the baggage of academia; every not-so-subtle message from professors, fellow students, and the policies that foreshadow our existence as scholars, saying that I am not enough. I have no authority. My experience is not knowledge. My perspective is not valuable. 

I have been waiting for the post-academia depression and anxiety to subside and for the inspiration to kick in, but as time stretches on and I look at this empty website, I have to concede that the only way I will ever get inspired and motivated, is if I just start doing the work. This lived experience of madness in academia is a kind of knowledge that I have to speak up about, even if it enjoys no credibility.

If I can be forthcoming about my own experiences with these conflicts, and push forward anyway, maybe some dear reader some day down the line will take inspiration from a vulnerable voice who was tired of staying silent.

Either way, I need to rediscover what it is like to write for my own sake, and not for someone else’s. To write because these narratives are what give our lives meaning. Because writing is at its best when it communicates truth and virtue to its reader, and does it with style. Because in the end, whether I’m ready or not, writing is the best part of myself that I can offer to the world.

I never wanted to write so that I could get good grades or pass exams. I wanted to write in order to breathe life into the world. I wanted to write so that I could discover and share with others a credible hope for a new day. I wanted to write because that is who I am, and this is what I do.

Time to get to work.

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