#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”.

Continue reading

#90: Writing Inclusive Stories That Are Scary, Angry, Painful, or Sad

Dear Story Nurse,

This is partially applicable to my current WIP, but it’s really a problem I have across the board. I love stories with complex, morally grey characters that make mistakes and act selfishly or obey their own, peculiar moral codes. I like horror, disturbing stuff, and stories that aren’t a simple good/evil dichotomy.

Whenever I try to write that kind of stuff, things get complicated.

See, I was raised in a very strict household – think fundamentalist Christian values, even if that wasn’t technically my parents’ religion. Especially since I was raised as a girl, I was taught to be quiet and polite and Nice and never say anything too shocking. Anything I wrote deemed Morally Wrong in some way was ripped apart. I’m out of that situation now, but the training runs deep. From the very start, I have a hard time putting down the wonderfully weird and horrible stuff I want to.

It’s not helped that I also crave positive feedback, and that’s difficult to find for my id-pleasing work. One of the few sources of positive feedback I had quit reading one of my stories after declaring something I thought was relatively minor disturbed her too much, and although intellectually I know it’s more a matter of her personal taste… it set me back a while. Not to mention the general culture about stories featuring queer & otherwise marginalized characters, in (understandable) pushback against depressing Bury-the-Gays stories, is mainly ‘nobody wants anything difficult, we only want happy cute romance stories’. More power to them, but not my thing, and it makes me feel even more insecure about my work.

So the end result: I come up with ideas and characters I love, but struggle to execute them. I’m constantly plagued by thoughts of ‘Are people going to find this disturbing? Do I need to show more clearly this character isn’t supposed to be right? Maybe I should tone down his behavior.’ Etc, etc, until I tie myself into knots and everything comes out stilted. I struggle to write characters that are even mean, let alone the gloriously terrible sorts I like reading about and privately imagining.

I hesitated to write you because I feel like this might be a difficult problem to advise on, but I thought it might be worth a shot. I feel trapped between the queer/diverse writing community I feel won’t appreciate the strange, dark stories I want to tell, and the dark fiction I love that never seems to leave room for people like me. I want to combine them, but my fear of judgement keeps tripping me up, and I don’t know how to turn it off.

Thank you for your time.

—Strange and Unusual (he/him)

Dear Story Nurse,

In some ways, my question is a follow up question to #36, although I didn’t send in that letter.

I’m a minority in a few ways (disabled, genderqueer but only out to a few, mostly asexual, diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, attracted to women while being AFAB).

If I’m writing a fictional story, I tend to write disabled or chronically ill characters a lot, and also other body-related issues like dysphoria (both gender and body), eating disorders, having an atypical sexuality or wanting to have a “normal” positive sexual experience and struggling.

These are things I struggle with in my own life, but I tend to write fiction because it’s easier to process when the character dealing with these struggles is explicitly not me. They’re someone in a different context, sometimes a fantasy context or just a different sort of family than mine. In many ways, the characters I write feel the same way I do inside my head, but they aren’t me.

I’ve sold a few stories, mostly in the fantasy / horror genre, and often the struggles I deal with are things I metaphor-ize: a person haunted by a ghost, a person who is intangible, an alien disguised as a human, a person who is literally invisible and simultaneously blind. These stories have pretty much gotten completely positive feedback, and one has been anthologized.

The stories I write are not necessarily what I think of as disability stories, especially since they have other elements and themes in them. But, lately, I’ve been trying to write non-metaphor stories about characters with real-world disabilities who struggle with dysphoria or dealing with chronic pain, still in a s/f context. And I’ve been getting a lot of pushback from other disabled writers.

Basically, they think my writing is too dark or “negative.” They keep saying that by writing about disabled characters having body dysphoria, I’m feeding into a negative stereotype. Because the characters are fiction, the critics don’t know (probably) that I’m trying to write about my own experiences with dysphoria; I don’t want to ‘out’ myself. Nor to I really want to write memoir — plots and adventures are part of the fun of writing for me.

But it’s very hard to not take these critiques personally. I feel like I have revealed a very real, vulnerable part of myself and I’m being rejected. I feel very raw and naked in these new stories, and I’m deeply hurt by the reactions I’ve gotten, even though I know, as you say, I can reject a critique. It seems so personal.

Also, I keep worrying that I’m wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t write a disabled character with vaginismus or an eating disorder, even though that’s my life experience, because that belongs in memoir or literary fiction rather than fantasy, which is meant to be escapist. I’ve re-read #36, about how just because you fit a stereotype doesn’t mean you should write it.

I’m so confused. Should I try writing in a different genre? Should I not write characters who are like me in this specific way? Should I try to give characters positive, empowering stories in every genre? Should I ‘out’ myself as someone who experiences dysphoria and disability? Should I try to toughen up and take critiques less personally?

I thought vulnerability was supposed to make stories better,

Anthem (they/them)

Dear Strange and Unusual and Anthem,

I’m sorry you’ve both run up against critiques of the form “stories about marginalized characters should only be positive and happy”. Anthem, I’m especially sorry that post #36 came across as a “you shouldn’t” post. I intended it as a how-to on a particular technique, not as a suggestion that there’s only one way to write stories about marginalized characters, and I appreciate you sending your follow-up question so I could clarify that.

I grouped your letters together in part because I want you to know you’re not alone. I’ve heard a lot of other marginalized writers express similar concerns.

There are many conflicting takes on whether and how to write stories where bad things happen to, or are done by, marginalized characters. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, and here is my personal approach.

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#61: Encouraging Beta Reader Follow-Through

Dear Story Nurse,

I just finished a first draft of a novel. I’m fairly happy with the broad strokes of the story and the characters, but I’m at a point now where I really need outside input. I’ve done what I can on my own in terms of editing and refining and letting the thing rest and picking it up again. I need a fresh set of eyes. I’ve been at this point for over a year now.

I’ve contacted just about everyone I know whose opinion I value and asked them to beta-read for me. All of them enthusiastically agreed, then disappeared off the face of the earth. It’s gotten to a point now where I joke that if you want someone out of your life, just ask them to read your damn novel.

I understand that beta-reading is a huge commitment. I always, always mention that if someone changes their mind for any reason, that’s absolutely fine. Just tell me you’re out, no nagging or interrogations from my end, just a no is fine. I’m very happy to repay them any way they see fit if they need help themselves. But not a single person has gotten back to me.

So friends and family are apparently out. I’ve tried online workshops, but while a chapter critique can be very useful, what I really need is for someone to read the entire thing. Again I fall into this cycle of people committing and flaking without explanation. I’ve done a few manuscript swaps, which were very disappointing. Maybe it was bad luck, but I only seemed to get people who clearly weren’t interested in providing thoughtful critique and just wanted their own manuscript read. I must have written hundreds of pages of critique for other people and gotten almost nothing back. I’ll go back to these swaps if necessary, but I’m pretty burnt out on them at this point.

I honestly did some soul-searching to see if the problem was me, and I don’t think it is? I don’t nag people after I’ve sent them the manuscript. I’ll ask once or twice over the course of a month or three, but I’m very careful not to pressure anyone. I try not to come across as desperate, but I am, so maybe it shows? I know the manuscript is rough, but it’s not so shitty or offensive that it should prevent people from reading it through. Dunno. Can’t tell.

Apart from the fact that it breaks my goddamn heart to have people I care about (including my own damn husband) consistently flake on something they know is pretty damn important to me, I can’t for the life of me get this manuscript read by anyone. I am saving up my pennies for a professional developmental edit, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I know a professional editor is very important and I need one, but we’re at a stage now where we can barely afford food, so.

Is this the normal process? Am I going about this the wrong way? And since this is so emotionally draining to do all this while also on the rejection treadmill for a bunch of short stories, should I just give up for a while and pick this up later?

—C.S.H. (they/them)

Dear C.S.H.,

That sounds really dispiriting and difficult. I’m so sorry you’ve been having a rough time getting someone to make and keep a commitment or explain to you why they can’t.

Asking beta readers to start reading, finish reading, and talk to you about what they read doesn’t seem like a lot, but it can feel pretty daunting from the other side. In my experience, there are three main reasons beta readers flake on giving crits:

  1. They didn’t finish or like the book and feel bad saying so.
  2. They don’t know how to write a crit or give useful feedback and are embarrassed to admit it.
  3. Other things take priority over unpaid commitments.

Here are some ways to prevent these problems. Continue reading

#47: When to Reject a Critique

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m an aro ace writer with a few published stories under my belt, now beginning to venture into writing ownvoices stories. I wrote a fluffy fantasy story with an openly labelled aromantic main character and passed it to one of my usual beta readers (who I am not out to).

CN: arophobia
One of the notes in Beta’s response said that “aromantic” didn’t seem like the right word for MC because MC was clearly a nice, kind, warm-hearted person. When I asked cautiously for elaboration, it came with more microaggressions attached. /CN

Now I come to revise the story and the notes drain my energy for doing so every time I have to look at them, and it makes me wonder if I would be believed if I did come out. How do I separate criticism of my story from criticism of myself, when what is actually being marked down is the marginalisation my character and I share?

Thanks for your time
Flat Battery (she/her or they/them)

(For definitions of aromanticalloromantic, and related terms, see this glossary.)

Dear Flat Battery,

I’m so sorry your beta reader responded in such a rude and biased way. Of course those notes will now make you feel bad about yourself and your work!

In this case you don’t need to separate criticism of the story from criticism of yourself. What you do need to do is reject the criticism as based in falsehood and therefore invalid.

Continue reading