#108: Writing Through Anxiety

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

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”.

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#60: Starting Small

Dear Story Nurse,

I took a really long break from writing partially due to mental illness and chronic fatigue and partially because I was looking at it as something I *had* to do, and I’d forgotten why I actually love writing. So I’m trying to figure that out, and I’m only really writing fanfic right now because it’s easier for me, but I seem to have run into the same problem I run into with my original fiction.

I really want to write longer works, but as soon as I decide that’s something I want to do, I basically lose all interest on whatever I’ve been working on. I pretty much never finish anything that I want to be longer than 5,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally make something a little longer, but I get kind of antsy about that too, even things I’m initially really excited about writing. I’m not sure how to fix this.

—Briar (they/them)

Dear Briar,

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time coming back to writing after so long away. That’s something a lot of people struggle with (see my posts on returning to writing after a long hiatus and when creation feels like a chore), especially if you took the break on purpose and for good reasons. Having filed not-writing under mental health self-care for so long, it can be challenging to now believe that writing will be not only safe but actively beneficial.

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#44: Self-Promoter’s Block

Dear Story Nurse,

After years of producing first drafts and immediately hiding my work away, never to be seen again, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and put a piece of serial fiction up on my blog. I’m almost five months into the project and I’m slowly chipping away at my fear of editing my work and letting people read it.

My day job’s in marketing, and I love it. I volunteer to promote my friends’ work all the time. There’s just one problem: I’m awful at being my own hype woman. I know exactly what I should be doing to build an audience, but all too often, I find myself stuck in a shame spiral about how I’ll be imposing or annoying if I ever mention my own writing to anybody. I’ve got all these great ideas about how to get my work in front of people who might enjoy it, and then I just… never follow through.

I’ve never been good at seeking out attention. As a young woman, I was socialized to be humble and self-effacing. I know it’s ridiculous to spend so much time worrying about whether people will be annoyed when I offer them a free thing, but I don’t know how to turn that insecurity off! You’re totally awesome at putting your work out there without appearing to break a sweat. How do I achieve that level of badassery?

—World’s Tiniest Megaphone (she/her)

Dear World’s Tiniest Megaphone,

Thanks for your letter, which gave me a good laugh; I am in fact terrible at self-promotion! But, like you, it’s not because I don’t understand the mechanisms of it. It’s more like I have self-promoter’s block: as with writer’s block, what’s getting in the way is not practical but psychological.

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#24: Semicolon Surgery

Dear Story Nurse,

I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.

I use too many semicolons.

I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.

Here are some from the last story I wrote:
  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?

Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)

—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)

Dear Independent Clause,

This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.

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#22: Passion Projects and Practice Projects

Dear Story Nurse,

In post #2, “Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself”, you said:

“I’m working on two novels at once right now; one involves putting characters I’m very invested in through some difficult experiences with strong echoes in my own life, and the other is much more of a technical exercise.”

I’d like to know more about the latter one. What is it like? How is it a technical exercise? I would be interested in trying this approach myself, so any details would be much appreciated. Thank you very much!

Best,
Jenna (she/her)

Dear Jenna,

Thanks for asking about this; working on a practice project alongside a passion project is something I’ve alluded to in a few posts, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to go into more detail.

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#21: Stopping and Starting

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently living at my parents’ house and working part-time. I’ve been trying to work on my fantasy novel more since I have more free time, but I keep hitting a wall. The first time I tried to write it, it was a disaster. I had no plan, nothing about it was pleasurable. I started again, it went better this time, but eventually it stopped working. Instead of pressing on, I started over again. I started at the point I was most excited about, instead of trying to do back story or following a formula.

I wonder if this stop and restart habit came from my Creative Writing degree. I revised many short stories, so starting over might have become habit.

Now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to ask next. How do I stop myself from stopping and starting over again? My novel is never going to get finished if I keep doing this! I want to have this first draft finished by the end of the year.

Thank you for your help,
Third Time’s Hopefully the Charm (she/her)

Dear Third Time,

Novels are definitely a different animal from short stories, and it’s hard to make the jump. It sounds like you’re accustomed to writing short fiction off the top of your head and then revising as needed, but that approach isn’t working for your longer project. And when you’re doing something different from what you’ve done before, nothing gets in your way more than a creative writing degree and a lot of practice doing other kinds of writing, both of which fill your head with all sorts of ideas about what writing should be like—how you should experience the act of writing, what sort of work you should be producing, how long it should take you, and so on.

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NaNoWriMo: Reassuring Your Inner Critic

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe November’s almost over, and NaNoWriMo with it. By now you’ve ideally got somewhere around 40,000 words under your belt. Take a moment to feel really good about whatever you’ve accomplished writing-wise so far this month. Those words exist because you brought them into existence. That’s amazing! Congratulations.

NaNo is specifically and deliberately about quantity over quality, but as the quantity stacks up, it’s hard not to look back at it and start to fret about the quality. If you’re feeling the urge to go back and fix (or despair over) what you’ve written already, and if it’s getting in the way of powering on toward your goal and your deadline, this post is for you.

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#13: “Should I Just Give Up on Writing?”

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m not sure if it’s beyond your remit but I long for help on the subject of fear of writing. You see, I’d love to write again. I’ve written a couple of books and had them published within the lesfic genre but then I lost confidence. There was a mixture of external feedback, mainly positive, some less so, but nothing as damning as my own machinations.

I think about how much I want to write and try to progress a career in this area but my inner voice shouts me down. The arguments involve how many other people want the same thing, how I lack the talent and how even my best efforts so far have disappointed me. In the face of massive competition, I feel like I would always be a poor wannabe.

I’ve stopped writing because I can’t bear to have something that means so much to me thrown under the train of self-criticism traveling with this much momentum. Now I find myself unsure of my path. Part of me is tempted to stop now while there is still the hope that I could be good enough rather than persist and prove beyond all doubt that I am not. Still, to give up on a dream I have nurtured since childhood feels wrong at the most fundamental level.

Am I alone in feeling this way? Should I just take the hint and retire quietly into obscurity? Is there any way I can reclaim the pleasure of writing for myself without this contamination of self-recrimination?

Whether you answer or not, thank you for reading and for your website.

—Self-Critically Stumped (she/her)

Dear Self-Critically Stumped,

That crash-and-tinkle sound just now was my heart breaking. I’m so sorry you’re having such a hard time. Self-criticism is incredibly painful, because we know where all our own weak spots are. But by that same logic, we can also be our own best allies, cheerleaders, and friends.

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#9: You Are Your Own Muse

Dear Story Nurse,

So, I have no problem writing anything that can be done in one sitting (once I’ve chased the brain weasels off and started typing, that is). I can do some good work in micro and flash fiction and I’m trying to stretch things out. You said some really good things earlier about tying pieces together with plot threads and those were really helpful, but I have a somewhat different problem: If I have to stop, I find it really hard to pick the thing back up again. (My writing time is necessarily fragmented, with job/commute/parenting. I write when I can.)

It seems that I don’t know how to pick up the mood/action of the story and carry those words further out. Note that this only seems to happen with fiction writing: class assignments were easy to pick back up, and most essays are easy to pick the thread back up and carry on with my work.

I have a good idea for a story, I can make decent headway, but once I stop, I’m doomed. How do I restart the engine?

Please Story Nurse, you’re my only hope!

—talkendo (they/them)

Dear talkendo,

Thanks for bringing up this problem, which I think is a pretty common one. It can have a few different causes, but the one I see most often is a sort of writerly centipede’s dilemma. Something about the process of sitting down to add more words to a half-written work makes you very aware that you are writing, and then you get self-conscious and either feel blocked from writing at all or dislike everything you try to write.

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