High Anxiety

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“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Soren Kierkegaard

There is no sheet of paper (or computer screen) so blank as when you start to prepare a lesson or a speech. Now, I’m sure a novelist would say the same thing about the blank sheet that starts a new book, but this is the teacher’s and speaker’s reality. Every lesson, every speech, begins in nothingness. At first, there’s an idea, a spark that prompts us to pull out the legal pad or boot up the computer. But until we start to give the idea some form or blow some life into the spark, the page before us is frighteningly bare.

Yet, even when we know our general objective, questions abound.

What lesson, truly, am I setting out to teach? What do I want my learners to be able to do or what do I want them to think or feel when we’re done? How will I structure this lesson? What stories to tell? How much of myself will I reveal, if anything at all? What challenge will I issue before closing and relinquishing the stage?

What to do?

There’s a tender balance between freedom and structure. Some amount of structure is needed in every lesson, every speech. And yet right up until the last minute, some measure of freedom to revise and refine is essential to success. How to find that balance?

The balance between freedom and structure is shifted by choices that we make along the way. With each choice, the fulcrum moves. For myself, what seems to help the most is to impose a big-picture structure on the speech or lesson very early in the process. One lesson might be best taught through a Socratic discovery method while another may require some clear explanations from me before the learners will be ready to discuss much at all.

Beyond this large-scale choice, I might force on myself only a few other constraints not already baked into the situation. Available time and setting are usually already part of the recipe. To make my creative process work most smoothly, I usually have to start with a very clear statement of my objectives. From there, I need deadlines and forced preparation time. Coffee helps, too, if I’m working between 8 am and midnight. Sometimes I’ll force myself to organize my first draft of the plan with a certain structure. For example, maybe I’ll insist that the first draft follow a strict sequence of point, illustrative story, memorable quote for however many sub-points are necessary. Once that draft is complete, though, a more natural organization might reveal itself. But sometimes I can’t get to that point without a forced first draft.

How about you?


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