overcoming writing anxiety

Creative Writing Anxiety: What It Is and How to Overcome It

Editor’s Note: In this interview on writing anxiety, instructor Giulietta Nardone describes what creative writing anxiety is, what causes it, and—most importantly—how to get over writing anxiety.

What is writing anxiety?

There are many people who would like to start writing, or to take a writing class, but they never get started because the critical voice that lives in their head—which we all have—tells them they’re not good enough to write, that no one wants to hear what they want to say. So they don’t bother.

People with writing anxiety might even get physical symptoms if they try to write, or to over-edit: perspiring, trembling, shortness of breath, pacing, and so on.

What is the opposite of writing anxiety?

I would say enthusiasm, excitement, exploration: knowing you want to dive in, and feeling free about that. A good feeling.

What causes writing anxiety?

I believe these things start when we’re quite young, and I would trace it to in our educational system, where things are right or wrong. I once taught a tween, and we did a creative writing exercise. After it was done, she wanted to know if she had the right answer.

That’s kind of the opposite thing from what you need to be a writer. You need to explore, and you don’t know what the right answer is when you start, because the right answer is the right answer for you.

I believe these things start when we’re quite young, and I would trace it to in our educational system, where things are right or wrong. That’s kind of the opposite from what you need to be a writer.

Creative writing is about exploring: going through the different layers of your life, of your memory, coming up with something that you want said. And if you’re suffering from perfectionism, which is very common, it can be difficult. I’ve worked with people who would never finish a project, because they had to be perfect. Most of my stories, even the ones I’ve had published, I don’t think were perfect.

I think too, people are afraid to fail, what they label as failure. There isn’t really such thing—again, it’s just about exploration. It’s getting things off your chest, learning about yourself. Sometimes people heal through writing. There are so many reasons to start writing. You’ve got to give yourself permission to start.

What experiences have you had with writing anxiety in your own writing?

For myself, an example is not writing but public speaking. When I was in college, I kept changing majors, because I was terrified to give a presentation. If I’d walk into a class and if giving a presentation was on the syllabus, I’d leave.

I knew I had to get over it by taking a speech class.

I was terrified. It took me a while to sign up for it—“I don’t want to do this.” Then I did sign up for it. The thing I feared in my life ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. I keep saying, “What would have happened if I didn’t sign up?” Many years later, I wrote an essay about taking the class, and sold it to the college where I took the class. I got a lot of good feedback from people with similar fears.

There’s a continuum of fear when it comes to writing. Maybe you start, and then there’s a fear to finish, or a fear to send it out.

I work privately with writers, and a lot of writers are afraid to finish their stories and then send them out. There’s a continuum of fear when it comes to writing. Maybe you start, and then there’s a fear to finish, or a fear to send it out.

On that topic: my first essay in the Boston Globe was something I wanted for a long time. They accepted my essay, I went and got the Sunday paper, opened and read it, and thought, “This is horrible. No one can read this.” It was way too personal. I wanted to drive around and grab every Globe and shred it. Then one of my friends caught me and said, “I saw your essay. It was great.” So writing anxiety happens with writers who are getting published too.

How do you recommend writers work with writing anxiety?

Write. It may sound contrarian, but you have to do the thing you’re afraid of.

Write. You have to do the thing you’re afraid of. You’ve got to start—that’s the tough part.

That’s always hard for me. I was afraid to hike into a canyon, so I went to Bryce Canyon with my husband and I took little baby steps the whole way down. I made it down and it was really beautiful, and I was glad I did it. I think I could do the Grand Canyon.

So just write. Hopefully take a class, with some guidance. You’ve got to start. The tough part is to start.

What can you tell us about your new course, Overcome Writing Anxiety: Boost Your Storytelling Confidence in Four Short Weeks!?

This is a supportive, gentle program to get folks writing. They want to learn to trust each other, and most importantly trust themselves. We’re going to start short, with poetry, and then go a little longer with some flash fiction, and then creative nonfiction, maybe a short memoir. But we’re not going to write these long missives, so that no one gets frightened or overwhelmed.

We’ll be building up people’s courage every week. It’ll be fun and functional. I put it together influenced a little bit by a talk by Dr. Seuss. I love Dr. Seuss’s books, so I set it up with a Dr. Seuss lilt. I wanted it to be fun like Dr. Seuss. He was also very brave with his writing and his illustrations.

Overcome Writing Anxiety: Boost Your Storytelling Confidence in Four Short Weeks!

I see it as an inspirational program where you can build up your writing courage, and leave with some stories you may want to share with your family and friends. People will leave much more brave. And this is writing, but you can apply what you learned to other things: painting or singing or dance, whatever. I make myself do that all the time, and I’m always glad I do: I’ve done some great things just jumping right in.

I would like people who are feeling reluctant about writing to take a chance and join us. In my experience, it’s the risks we don’t take that can make us feel incomplete. It’s about getting comfortable taking risks, so you can do a lot of the things in life that you want to do, but you’re kind of keeping yourself from doing.

Looking for more practical guidance on tackling writing anxiety? See instructor Dennis Foley‘s advice on the topic.

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