The Stress and Anxiety of Surviving Creativity

We've recently been discussing the benefit of the Canadian Historical Association for bringing together historians and ideas. Having attended this year's meeting in St. Catherines, Ontario, it's clear that the CHA remains a fruitful space for scholars to debate new directions and the boundaries of our profession. To close out our discussion of the CHA, it's worthwhile to raise the darker side of conferences and grad student life. It is a topic that is often discussed behind closed doors or at least discreet whispers: anxiety. For graduate students anxiety is a fact of life and most, if not all, of us suffer from it.

We are not the first to discuss anxiety, or depression, or other mental health issues related to the punishing experience of graduate work. Melonie Fullick has written about the topic at University Affairs several times, and another recent article by David Smith shows that the topic continues to be raised. Still, the topic of anxiety, stress, and sometimes breakdowns, are a taboo topic for most graduate students. Partly because of the stigma attached to mental health in general, but also that within the incredibly competitive world of graduate school where jobs are few and far between, admitting weakness or the possibility of failure is a mortal sin. Only the best rise to the top, and the best are always confident, assured, and successful. No one wants to be the grad student who admits to being unsure about their abilities, their research, or their writing. What if that follows you to the hiring committee? What will people say about you? What will happen to your reputation?

Should we even be complaining? After all, graduate students have a pretty easy life. Our work usually consists of reading, writing, and talking to other grad students. We don't get paid amazingly well, but we get paid a reasonable wage considering we are (ideally) doing something that we love. If you want to start working at 11am, or stop working at 2pm, or take a whole day off, there's no one to stop you. Let's be honest: our 'jobs' are not hard. Unless your supervisor stands behind you 8 hours a day (they have more important things to do), you are your own boss, with your own hours, and you choose your vacations. We should be thankful we have so much freedom.

If all that was absolutely true though, why do so many grad students have problems with anxiety? We think that it's apple to oranges trying to compare graduate work to a normal 9-5 job. A “real” job has clear expectations, usually has restricted work hours, has definable tasks, and a direct supervisor. When you leave work, you no longer have to think about work. When enduring a several years long thesis on the other hand, you are always uncertain about whether you're writing something correct or worthwhile. You never stop thinking about work – there is always another book to read, an idea to contemplate, and edits to do. A thesis takes roughly four years, and believe us that there is a point where you realize every minute you are not working on it is one less minute you have to finish on time. How long are your chapters? What will go in each chapter? How many chapters will you have to rewrite? Will you have time to include all the great sources you know are out there? Should you even try? These questions swirl in your mind as you lie in bed at night and contemplate the sheer enormity of a four year project and how easy it would be to fail or walk away.

It's important to remember though that graduate work is content driven. It is different from other jobs. We've raised the idea here at Clio's Current that historians are content producers. We take a huge mass of information and distill it onto a blank page as something concise and relevant. We construct a smaller story from history into an article or book or lecture. The nature of such work is that it is driven by our own personal creativity and expression. It must be personal. Much like any artist, our writing only existed in our minds before we put it on public display. We created it from ourselves.

Now this might seem a bit emotional or exaggerated – again the constant refrain of how can we even complain about this? - but it really is an exhausting and draining process. As we've raised over the last few weeks, critical responses to our work is vital for history if it is to be dynamic and up-to-date. Part of our “job” is submitting our work to public and anonymous review, either by our supervisors, in the publication process or at conferences. Not only are we constantly creating something, we are also receiving criticism about it. It is difficult to separate criticism of your work from criticism of yourself. The fear of failure or rejection is very real and costly on our mental health. How could it not be? This is not unique to grad students, as many jobs exist by virtue of such public display.

For instance, in light of recently attending the CHA, presenting a paper at a conference can be a frightening experience. Pretend you're a grad student who has read and researched your topic for several years, but in the audience there are historians who have read about it for 20, 30 or even 40 years. They have published works on the subject and they may even be the peer-reviewers who tore apart your last submitted publication. They might disagree. They might be nice about it, or they might be mean. It's a roll of the dice, as historians' personalities are as varied as any group of people. Maybe they won't even say anything, but instead privately dismiss you to other scholars. Maybe you won't even know that the other historians of your topic think you're wrong. What if your success is all delusional and your work is not as good as you think it is?

The other side of content producing is our open work schedule. No doubt some students have a rigorous schedule that they stick to, working from 8-5 on academia every day, and maybe long into the night. But that's probably a small minority. In the internet age, we are as vulnerable as any to the temptation of instant gratification. We check emails, Facebook, browse Reddit, or watch a “quick episode” on Netflix which turns into a 6 hour marathon of a show you only kinda like, we write blog posts for our side project. Anything that is more gratifying than facing page 18 of chapter 5 out of 9 chapters and the long road towards completion. This is a not a problem unique to grad students, but it does take on a different nature. We are our own boss – so who do you think punishes us when we don't do our work? We can't get fired, we can't lose our pay, we can't get written up. We motivate ourselves by feeling good when we accomplish something. When we don't, we hand out disappointment, shame and regret to ourselves.

We don't know what percentage of grad students (and professors!) deal with this anxiety or to what levels. But those who do often feel as if they cannot discuss their stress, as if admitting problems or weakness only opens yourself up to further attacks. You already devalue yourself in your own mind, having others do it too is difficult to endure. Even writing this biweekly blog for almost a year does not solve the problems of self-doubt about presenting your work to the public. It helps to constantly expose yourself to your fears, but it does not resolve.

You can try to combat the voice in the back of your mind that says, you're not good enough, with another voice that says, well let's see how far I can get. We can remind ourselves that feedback is vital and worthwhile. That the only way to succeed is to risk failing. That failing, and picking yourself up again, is the only way you succeed. There are many platitudes about the value of determination and persistence. You tell yourselves these little phrases and you try to get through one more day of work on your thesis that probably won't get you a job, let alone a career. You waste a whole day because you just can't get yourself to write or read, and the whole time you berate yourself for not doing the work you have to do. Then you get angry that you have such an easy “job” while other people are working a job they hate for less pay than you get for browsing Reddit for four hours. They do their jobs, why can't you do yours?

All of this is a constant, worrisome toll on our mental health. When you have no one to blame but yourself, you find yourself carrying a lot of responsibility. It's no wonder that for some it leads to depression, which only intensifies this cycle. Some break down. Some leave the programs and work they love and never come back.

These issues raise many questions, for both individuals and academia. At most institutions in Canada we are expected to research and write our thesis, attend conferences, establish a publication record of original research, and TA for the experience and to earn a reasonable wage, all within four years. This was not always the case. A doctoral degree in history used to be a long project, sometimes taking six, eight, or ten years to complete. Once there were only a few types of history to write. You didn't have to struggle over which field to place your work within, as everything was political, military or economic history. Of course, it's far better that we have diversified, but the variety of methodologies, directions, and historiographical debates is still daunting. You didn't have to worry about scholarships and grants. Or maybe it just seems harder when you're living through it.

Surely some of the ones who do succeed do so because they are better equipped or even more talented. Perhaps that means the system is working. It weeds out those who can't make it. If the pressure cooker of academia is more difficult than decades past (or so it seems to a young scholar's perspective), maybe we are producing better academics as a result. Or are some of us just too lazy to succeed? Are we just not as good as grad students in the past? Or maybe our anxiety reflect new behaviours and attitude of a generation mesmerized by the digital age of instant gratification. Should the system adapt or should its students?

How many, we wonder, don't succeed or the quality of their work suffers? How many worthwhile contributions are lost? How many get to the end, but are sick of their topic, of their profession, and of the craft of history? Are we making better historians? Are we making better teachers?

One thing is clear, many graduate students are not faring well through graduate school. The toll of our creative process is often misunderstood, even by ourselves, and our results lacking. As one group of artists recently phrased it, how do you survive creativity?

Some choose to denigrate others to reassure themselves that they, at least, are not as bad as that other person. Some surround themselves with positive people who help carry the burden. Some enjoy the challenge even with its high costs. Some probably don't think it's a challenge at all (but careful, it's easily hidden from view). We've seen all sorts of coping mechanisms. Some must work.

But like so many who have written before us, we don't have the answers. Maybe they can only be answered by you. We hope this post will help you better understand some of your process and you can find your own path to surviving creativity. You should know you're not alone. Lots of people sweat out conferences, wringing their hands under the table while waiting to present, and try to hide the quaver in their voice. Or their stomachs drop when they read peer-review comments or talk to their supervisor.

If we could leave you with one platitude, it would be that creativity is always personal. Making it, displaying it, and commenting on it in others. Making something out of nothing is incredible in itself – few truly creative people ever stop creating, they just create new and different things. Creating something can be a selfish act, but it is much better to share your work with others. Remember that criticism is also part of the creative process, but critics who do not offer a part of themselves along with it offer nothing at all. All creativity is about sharing part of yourself – if you want to survive it, keep creating, keep sharing, and embrace those who have figured that out.