#108: Writing Through Anxiety

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Hi,

I used to want to be a writer very badly. It was my childhood dream and my direction in life, etc etc. I never wrote as much as I felt I should have for the ‘title’ of writer, but I wrote poetry, short stories and started terrible novels.

During my time at university, I gave a few stories to a guy I was hoping would become a mentor, or at least some kind of writing peer. He basically ignored them, and after seeing me on campus one time after that said he assumed we would never run into each other again.

My confidence was severely knocked by this, and I decided to basically just concentrate on poetry. I struggled a lot with worrying my poetry was hackneyed, ‘too American’ as one of the people in my uni’s poetry society would have said (she assumed that certain ways of writing poetry, like in more of a slam style, was always affected, as we are British and it’s not our tradition or something?), and just generally not as good as I would have liked. I quickly shelved that too. I’ve lost the majority of my writing from that period, so I have little to check to see if I still feel it’s all terrible.

I realise reading this back I have issues with negative criticism. I had received more positive (or neutral to be honest) feedback than bad about my work up until the points I stopped writing, I just discounted it. Usually my reader wasn’t a writer/editor, or I assumed they were being kind.

I’ve recently begun writing again, trying to do five hundred words a day in a low pressure, write-whatever-feels-good kind of way. I’m writing non-fiction pieces about my life, some article style, some more memoir, and it feels good to write again. The idea of writing a story or poem though makes me feel panicked and like I’m “not ready”, and that everything I write is going to be awful.

I know that writing the terrible words is the only way to get to the good ones intellectually. Translating that into action and pushing through the emotional discomfort is proving really difficult.

How can I get comfortable – or at least not doubled over in emotional pain – with writing creatively again? Is this something I should expect to be able to do again or is this just me discovering I should write non-fiction? And also, how do I stop being so hampered by negative criticism?

Thanks so much for reading this, I really appreciate this blog!

—Writing Again (they/them)

Dear Writing Again,

Your letter reminds me a lot of #106, Writing Through Depression, except that it sounds like what you’re dealing with is a pile of anxiety (perhaps in addition to depression). It’s both undermined your ability to gauge the quality of your own work and made it very difficult for you to accept quality judgments from others: any compliment is minimized and any critique is magnified. Even the absence of meaningful communication, as with the guy who gave your stories to who then blew you off, is interpreted in the worst possible way. And you already assume that any words you write are going to be “terrible” and “awful”.

If you have access to mental health care, I encourage you to pursue that. Anxiety and lack of confidence in creative work are very common problems and there are lots of good folks out there who can help you with them.

It sounds like you’ve already found your own way to that by writing nonfiction; since it doesn’t carry the weight of your childhood dreams or the history of interacting with other people around your fiction and poetry writing, it’s easier for you to think of it in terms of your own enjoyment, rather than commercial potential or writing quality. That’s a really vital first step, so well done! You’ve paved the way for writing fiction and poetry the same way: just for yourself, in the present moment, for the feeling of writing and not for the end result of having written.

Do sit with that feeling of not being ready, and gently question it: not ready for what? What would being ready look like or feel like? Is your concept of readiness actually achievable? How can you work toward being ready?

You may not yet be emotionally and psychologically ready to start writing fiction and poetry again, and if you’re not, that’s fine. Give yourself time and keep writing nonfiction, which feels good and will help you build useful habits. Some kinds of writer’s block simply need time, and pushing against them will only make them worse. However, if your thoughts about not being ready are more about not being sufficiently skilled to be permitted to write, that’s when it’s useful to remember that everyone is allowed to write, and the only way to build skills is through practice (a phrasing that may be easier on you than the usual formulations about “a million words of crap” and the like).

Also, distinguish “ready to write” from “ready to share your writing”. It’s fine to write just for yourself for a while.

It sounds like a big component of your anxiety is social anxiety, in the form of the belief that anyone who compliments your work is lying, overly generous, or wrong, and anyone who critiques your work is an authority and correct. A few things that might help with this:

  • Practice writing playfully, for yourself, without worrying about how the work will be received.
  • Start by writing a single word.
  • Consider sharing works online under a pseudonym, or in anonymous spaces. That removes the idea that positive comments are someone doing you a personal favor. (But if the idea of this stresses you, don’t do it!)

I encourage you to cultivate a little bit of emotional distance from your anxious thoughts. Whenever you start doom-thinking (“No one will like this”, “Everything I write will be awful”), practice prefacing it with an acknowledgement that this is a fear or worry of yours. “I’m worried that no one will like this.” “I’m feeling anxious that everything I write will be awful.” Take that moment to understand that this is how you feel, and isn’t necessarily a reflection of reality. Remind yourself that you can’t predict the future. (This is very similar to the advice I gave LW #106, and I encourage you to read that post in full.) Then pair that feeling with an appropriate action that addresses the feeling: “To help myself feel less worried, I’m going to reread positive comments from people I respect.” “Since I feel anxious, I’m going to drink a soothing cup of tea that will help me relax.” Understand that the anxiety itself is what needs to be treated. Avoiding writing won’t make you less anxious about writing; it just kicks the can down the road. If you acknowledge the anxiety and address it, with love and compassion for yourself, you can then come back to writing and see whether it feels a little easier.

I love your question about dealing with negative critique in the future because it contains the belief that you will write again, and write things you want to show to other people. Deep down inside your subconscious, you believe in yourself, and that’s awesome. See what you can do to bring that confidence to the forefront!

Once you know you want to try writing things that others will see, start with a quick practice project that you don’t have a deep emotional attachment to. I like writing 500-word or 1000-word fanfic stories for this. If someone likes it, great! If not, eh, on to the next one.

Seek out critique partners whom you trust with your heart and your words, ones who will be both gentle and honest. There’s nothing at all wrong with a kind critique; crits don’t have to hurt in order to be worthwhile. A good critique partner is your collaborator in making the work better. Their critiques should make you nod and say “Yes, that thing, that was the thing that I knew wasn’t quite right!” and immediately want to get started on revisions. Their critiques should not be critiques of you as a person, or even of you as a writer. They should be critiques of your work. Anyone who misses the mark on that should not be your critique partner.

Remember that you are not your work. Remember that every writer leaves things unfinished, or writes things that aren’t good, or starts projects and then realizes they need to wait until they’ve leveled up their skills. A negative assessment of one work is not a referendum on your career or abilities. Remember that your writing is enough. Remember that you get to reject invalid critiques and can choose who’s allowed to critique your work. Remember that ultimately, the work is yours, and any critique is a suggestion that you can accept or decline.

There will still be times when a crit hits hard, no matter how gently it’s worded or how true you know it to be. At those times, take care of yourself, reach out to supportive friends who aren’t your beta readers. and try to take that little step back from “I’m so bad at this” to “I feel like I’m so bad at this” and from “Everyone hates my work” to “I’m scared that everyone will hate my work”. Those anxious, unhappy moments are hard, but you can get through them.

You certainly don’t need to give up on writing the things you want to write. A beautiful future full of writing is waiting for you, and you’ll get there, one step at a time. Don’t give up!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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