Dear Story Nurse,
I have recently realized that the major thing holding me back in my writing is a debilitating fear of failure masquerading as “no ideas.” I have tons of ideas! They’re very cool and interesting ideas! And then I go to write them and I’m staring at a blank page and suddenly all my shining ideas seem boring and cliche and I feel so utterly small and stupid that I abandon the whole endeavor and tell myself I’ll write once I discover a good idea.
Unfortunately, there is no idea on Earth good enough, and if there is a legitimately good idea, I tell myself I’m not good enough to write it.
I love writing! I love coming up with stories in my head! I have dozens of characters all ready and raring to go! I love playing with words and descriptions! I don’t want all of this to be ruined because I’m too scared to do anything with it.
My question is this: How do I breathe through my paralyzing anxiety and actually start to get words on the page?
—Fear, the Mind-Killer (she/her)
This is a very, very common fear among writers and would-be writers. So first, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Lots of people have found ways to work through, over, around, or past this, and you will too.
Second, take pride in having written to me. I bet that was really hard. You may have heard that same voice telling you that you aren’t worthy to write in, or that I would never answer such an inane question, or any number of other discouraging things. But you wrote in anyway. You wrote in. You had an idea for a thing to write, and you wrote it, and you submitted it. In the very act of telling me that you are struggling to do this, you did it. I don’t say this to poke fun or to suggest that it’s all easy. I am saying: you did the thing, and you have thereby proved that you are capable of doing the thing again. When you’re wrestling with the blank page, you can tell yourself, “I wrote to the Story Nurse, even though it was very hard; I can do this too, even though it is very hard.” You can also think about what made it possible for you to write to me, and see whether it can be applied in some way to your fiction writing.
(And see, your question was not inane, and I am taking it seriously and giving it a complete and thorough answer, like any other question—because I believe in you, dear writer, and you deserve as much of my time and attention as anyone else who writes in.)
If anxiety like this comes up in other parts of your life, that’s a thing that’s probably worth talking with a therapist about, because getting support from someone with a clue is pretty essential to getting out from under anxiety like that. I hope you have good people around you who can help you find the resources you need.
With regard to writing specifically, here are some facts:
- There are many writers who are terrible people. I don’t think you’re a terrible person, because you worry about whether you’re a terrible person, and in my experience, most genuinely terrible people don’t worry about that at all. But on the off chance that you are a terrible person, that doesn’t disqualify you from writing.
- You cannot ruin your ideas. To prove this, write the idea down somewhere. Then, in a separate file or on a separate piece of paper, write the worst 200-word story you can think of based on that idea. The worst! Make it awful and boring and trite. Open it with a run-on sentence about a character waking up; end it with rocks falling out of a clear blue sky and killing everyone. Put in extra misspellings and homophones. Then go back to where you wrote down your idea. You will find it untouched and just as ready to be turned into a much better story if you decide that’s what you want to do with it. Or you can just enjoy the idea being a lovely little idea—that’s fine too. All writers have extra ideas kicking around that will never be written.
- The only way to fail at writing is to fail to write. Your fear of failure is keeping you paradoxically trapped in this state where you write nothing and therefore are failing by definition. But don’t waste time beating yourself up over that; write anything at all, and you will have achieved a measure of success. (If you have a fear of success, this may be its own challenge. It’s also worth thinking about how you define success.)
- Every story and book you’ve ever read started out as a much rougher draft. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your first drafts with other people’s finished work. Not only does your draft not have to be polished, it’s actually better for you in the long run if it’s not. I’ve been a professional editor on and off for over 20 years, and my first drafts always look extremely polished—which means their inevitable flaws in areas like pacing, characterization, and plotting are hidden and harder to find. So if your drafts are rough and let all their issues hang out, that’s great! You’ll know exactly what you need to work on as you put your work through the revision process that every gleaming, beautiful book has gone through.
- You are not your work.
- Playing is wonderful, not a waste of time. You say you love to play, so go ahead and play! Make a list of words that sound nice when you say them, and then read it out loud, savoring the way the words feel in your mouth. Write poetry. Write letters to friends. Write children’s stories. Write terrible puns. Have fun! Remember that you want to write because it’s fun. Rediscover writing with a playful heart.
As for your question of how to start:
- Write down one word. Good. Now, a second. Maybe a third? Work up to more if you need to. But surely you can write one word, even if it’s “The” or “If” or “A”. And if you’ve written one word, surely you can write another.
- You say you love writing stories in your head, so write a story in your head and then write down the story that is in your head. It may help to dictate it first and then transcribe the recording. In this way the initial creative action all happens in your head, where it’s safe, and the part that involves typing or writing becomes a little less emotionally fraught, not really any different from transcribing a podcast or a TV episode or something else that you heard somewhere and want to have in written form.
- Start by writing something based on an idea that you care less about, so the stakes are lower. Give yourself practice projects where you feel more at ease and able to fool around and try new things.
- If that still feels too fraught, make a practice of regularly doing other kinds of writing—blogging, journaling, news stories, Twitter threads—and periodically come back to fiction to see whether you can transfer the skills you’ve developed.
- “Yes, and” your inner voice. The “yes” defuses the tension, moving away from argument rather than toward it; the “and” lets you go right on doing what you want to do.
- “You’re a terrible person!” “Yes, and I’m going to go be a terrible person who writes things.”
- “This story is crap!” “Yes, and once I finish it I’ll be able to revise it into being less crap. But I can’t do that until I finish it, so I’m going to keep going.”
- “This is really hard and stressful!” “Yes, and it’s also worth doing because…” [you’re having fun, you’re writing something that matters a lot to you, whatever makes you want to come back to writing even when it’s hard]
- “You should just give up!” “Yes, and I’m going to take a break as soon as I get to the end of this paragraph. That way I won’t burn myself out and can come back to it tomorrow.”
- If you’re a social person, do shared writing sprints with other writers. If you don’t know many other writers, you can do mutual accountability with anyone: “Every time you go to the gym, I’ll do a writing sprint.”
- Try setting time goals rather than word goals; “do as much as you can in 20 minutes” gently makes room for there to be times when you can’t do very much, while encouraging you to build the habit of setting aside time for writing.
- Redefine the writing process as a revision process. Use Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method or something similar to minimize the part that feels like making something out of nothing. The “creation” part of the snowflake method, the thing that turns the blank page into the page with writing on it, is writing just one short sentence. Everything after that is adaptation, development, revision—you can call it any number of things that aren’t “writing” and thereby route around the part of your brain that gets anxious about writing. Ingermanson calls his method a tool for “managing your creativity” and it sounds like that might be a useful thing for you to do if your creativity is feeling wild and uncontrollable and scary right now.
- Or, go the other direction and be WILD and UNCONTROLLABLE and SCARY. Yell your stories out into an empty room. Scrawl all over the page with a crayon, like a child, and then crumple it up and throw it. Write melodrama full of characters who have deep and powerful emotions, who hate one another and love one another and agonize over incredibly difficult decisions, and make yourself weep over their passionate feelings. Become the thing you most fear, and realize that it’s actually not so bad.
You don’t have to be good enough or controlled enough or cautious enough or smart enough or anything enough to write. You already are enough. There is no standard to meet, no test to pass; we encourage tiny children to make up stories, and if they get to do it, so do you.