Editor’s Note: In this article, instructor Dennis Foley gives his best tips and perspectives on overcoming writing anxiety. His advice is geared toward novelists, but is equally valuable for any form of creative writing. We’ve all been there.
Yep, at some point in the process of writing a novel, you will suddenly be gripped by an overwhelming sense of worry if you can even pull it all off. It happens to all of us.
The first instinct is to run. Bailout. Find something else to write. It’s all a bad idea. It won’t work. What was I thinking? I can’t do this. My story is weak, contrived, and populated by phony characters even I don’t believe. I am a fraud. I’m sure to embarrass myself.
If you feel like this, you are in the club, and you are on course. You can read private letters from writers like Steinbeck, who had the very same feeling with each bestselling novel. In spite of this sense of dread, he stuck with it, weathered the anxieties, and turned out novels that have been enjoyed by generations of readers.
This is not a whale you have to eat all at once.
There is a little trick that works every time we feel overwhelmed by the pressures of having all the answers and the skill to write a novel. It is simply one small bite at a time. No matter what the collective anxieties offered by your internal critic, you can always count on making progress a minute at a time. Stop worrying about doing it right and completely as one comprehensive action. Break everything down to as little as a minute’s effort. Set everything else aside and focus for a minute on what immediate decision or problem faces you. Just a minute. It makes no difference whether you are deciding on what dialogue to pull out of a character’s mouth or what diabolical act your antagonist commits against your protagonist — just focus on the smallest decision, one at a time. Make a decision and move on.
What if I make the wrong decision?
You can count on making many wrong decisions. It is all part of the process of finding the right decision. You can’t know if it is right or wrong until you commit to something and then evaluate it in context on another day.
What if it was the wrong choice?
Not a problem. We have the luxury of being able to pluck and replace words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire scenes that don’t seem to work at first. This is the truth about novel writing: We don’t write novels, we rewrite them.
There is a lot of trial and error in our novel writing. We need to get used to filling a blank spot with a word, sentence or paragraph and moving on. Only after we have finished a first draft and see what we have can we start making decisions on what to add, what to cut, what to change and what to move.
We were poorly served in school.
We all spent years in school and college, and even our work lives being expected to get it right the first try and to do so with time pressure. This trained us to shoot for the perfect answer on a test, a term paper or a business report the very first time we try. We were never given a chance to revise and rewrite anything in school. The answers we gave on tests were final, no do-overs, no improvements or fixes allowed.
So how does this make us anxious?
We still write novels like we took tests or finished book reports in school — as if whatever we write has to be right the first time. We need to change our approach when writing novels. In an age where the change of a word, paragraph or scene can be done with a few clicks of a keyboard, we are relieved of having to handwrite whole new versions of our manuscripts with a quill pen to accommodate changes (improvement) in our drafts. We no longer have the time pressure we had in school. No one cares how long it took us to write a novel. They only care if they like our stories or not.
Strange brain process occurs.
When we take a moment to focus on a single decision, we put our subconscious in motion. Regardless of what preliminary decision we make, our brain keeps percolating and searching to improve on that decision. Wait for it. Embrace it. Expect an improvement to drop into your conscious mind (idea, answer or solution) at some time in the future. It will happen. Then your option is to accept and incorporate the new idea or stick with your preliminary one. Whatever you chose, don’t feel pressured to do it right the first time. You can improve a crappy draft of a line or paragraph or scene. You can’t improve a blank page on your computer screen. So don’t wait for perfect. Go with your best shot first and improve on it later.
Relax, breathe, lower your preliminary standards and expectations.
Watch what happens when you do this. Suddenly you find yourself writing without that anxiety that haunted you all the way through school and your work years. You don’t have to get it right the first time. You just have to get it down to later make it better. Make this fun. Make it an engaging challenge for your imagination and not a “Produce on-demand, now.” endeavor.
Bottom line: You can do this.
Dennis's Upcoming Classes
Writing the First Novel
April 29th, 2020
A novel writing preparatory course for the first-time novelist.