#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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#98: How to Write Without Plotting

Dear Story Nurse,

I work in a different creative industry, but books and stories are what that pushed me to pursue it. I want to put something out into the world that resonates with other people the way my influences resonated and shaped me. Something that’s good enough for someone else to care about it. Fantasy worldbuilding and character-making are such joyful exercises of the imagination, and I want to do something exciting with all these fun toys I come up with! But wow, turns out I hate making stories maybe?

Or rather, plots and narratives are agony for me. I thought that since I’m delighted by intrigue and puzzleboxes it’d be enjoyable to construct those things myself. Turns out I’m full of it. I hate scrounging around for premises, I don’t care about the whats and hows and whys of events, and everything is just a thin excuse to make my characters have a Point. All I want are for my characters to Feel The Deep Feelings and for things to have been Very Important because of Reasons. I want to be good at this and to do practice stories and sharpen my skills, but the exercise of the craft never seems to give back even a drop of fun. Trying to force the vague shifting silhouettes of a “story” into a concrete narrative shape is a joyless chore. Why pour my very limited time and energy into something that I seem to hate actually doing?

Yet I’m still never able to make peace with the idea of truly giving up and letting go. I keep burning with the desire to actually Make Something. I believe if this desire exists inside of me so strongly then it must be tied to something real. But it feels like I don’t have any stories in me, just the places where they could happen and the people they might happen to, someday.

Can you bash yourself over the head with something you hate enough times until it becomes fun? Is that possible? Is this all really very normal?

—Not a Storyteller? (she/her)

Dear Not a Storyteller?,

I’m sorry that plotting is giving you such a hard time. It sounds like you’re very clear on which parts of writing fiction are fun and satisfying for you, and which ones aren’t. That’s important! And you’re not alone in loving some parts of writing and disliking others. For some people the struggle is with voice; for some it’s character creation; and for some, like you, it’s plotting.

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#97: Blocked on Book Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m running into a problem with starting my second novel. I completed my first novel a few months ago after about a year of work and have been brainstorming and writing scenes for future projects since then. However, I haven’t been able to commit to working on the second novel.

I have plenty of notes and a good idea of the story I want to tell. I’ve got characters, setting, a beginning, some plot—but I’m feeling very stuck. I feel like my first novel just… happened, even though I obviously remember struggling with it at times and putting in the work. A part of me feels like maybe that was it, the one story I have to tell, just a fluke that I can’t repeat. Do you have any strategies to help me get unstuck and get to work?

I realize this problem is a bit abstract. Thanks in advance for any advice you can give!

—Aly (she/her)

Dear Aly,

First, let me reassure you that this is really, really common and you are not alone. Second novels are sort of like second children: you think that this time around you’ll go into the project knowing everything, and then the project turns out to be so different from the first project that you’re back at square one in a lot of ways. But don’t worry! There are definitely ways to unstick yourself.

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#94: Unfinished Story Choice Paralysis

Hello! I mostly write realistic/literary type fiction, with some excursions into horror. I have five or six unfinished projects languishing in Google Docs right now, ranging from short stories to novels.

My problem is that every time I sit down to write, I feel paralyzed by all of these options. I can’t decide which project I want to work on. Instead I get distracted by thinking about my aspirations for each story (submit to journals, self publish, whatever) and/or I just sit there with a general sense of panic that I will never get any of this done. Each of my stories has its own mood, so I’ve tried to pick one based on the mood I’m in, but lately my only consistent mood has been “Dammit I need to write something!”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to pick one story to focus on when there are so many begging for attention. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

—Emma (they/them)

Dear Emma,

What you have is something called choice paralysis, a well-known psychological phenomenon. It happens a lot to people in grocery stores: faced with seven thousand varieties of ketchup or toilet paper, we feel totally overwhelmed. We know we’re supposed to weigh all the alternatives and pick the one that best meets our needs, but sometimes it’s just too much, and we go with a familiar brand because it’s familiar, choose at random, or flee the store.

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#91: Making the Transition Between Writing Projects

Hello Story Nurse,

I’m currently in revisions for a project that has been a major part of my life for a year. While I’m incredibly pleased with it and am excited for its upcoming completion, I feel deflated about other writing work, and apprehensive about working on other things once this is completed.

Due to life circumstances (positive but exhausting travel soon after submitting the complete draft), I didn’t end up having much time to decompress, and I keep obsessively checking my email to see if my editors’ notes have arrived yet! When I try to sort out pitches and writing samples for other projects, my focus slides away, and it’s hard to try to write something small in scale. I want to take advantage of having a sliver of spare time by writing something else (whether for publication or for fun) but there is such broad scope that I don’t know where to start!

How do you switch gears when you’re between projects or waiting for editorial feedback? And how do you deal gracefully with the sudden gap in your life after finishing a big project or milestone?

—Searching for Energy Over Ennui (she/her)

Dear Searching,

I’ve had this Spider Robinson quote in my quote file for a long, long time:

Funny feeling, isn’t it, when you bust a tough one? Triumph, sure. Maybe a little secret relief that you pulled it off. But there’s a fine sweet sadness in there, too, because now the golden moment is behind you. For a moment in there you were God… and now you’re just a guy who used to be God for a minute, and will be again some day.

That is a lot of feelings to feel, and it takes time to sort through them all and come to terms with them. A big project changes you—it develops your skills and makes you think in ways you hadn’t before. A big project can make you feel all sorts of things that you weren’t expecting. You haven’t just brought your reader through emotional catharsis, but experienced it yourself. And you know that stories don’t end with the climax; you need that final chapter or three, the gradual descent from peak intensity (finishing the draft! turning it in!) to your lower-key everyday life.

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#67: New Ideas Stop Me from Finishing Anything

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished writer, and I’d like to start submitting work to magazines and anthologies. I’m having a problem, though: every time I try to write a short story, my ideas for it get way too big. Even when I work on novel-length projects, my brain’s already spinning off plans for sequels before chapter one’s even written. This means that I end up spending a lot of my time starting projects, but they rarely ever get finished because my idea for a one-shot story morphs into yet another massive arc I don’t have the time to work on.

I’m struggling with finding a way to drop into a narrative at the right place, tell an interesting story, and wrap it up in a way that doesn’t demand a sequel. Help me, Story Nurse!

—Shaggy Dog (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#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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#34: What It Means to Be Blocked

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a professional writer. I write list articles for a website that focuses on trends in geek culture. I usually average about 1750 words per article. It’s a fun gig and I get paid to write about my favorite things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. It’s part time so I supplement my income by working at a grocery store.

The problem? I’m blocked.

And it’s just on my list articles. I can sit down and plug away at my passion and practice projects (thanks for the idea for practice projects!). But I’m running out of ideas for list articles and when I sit down to write I just end up staring at the outlines I made with nothing to say. It doesn’t help that I sometimes work early shifts and come home too tired to write. Is there anything you would recommend to get unblocked?

—Blocked (she/her)

Dear Blocked,

Thanks for this very interesting question. Being blocked on writing that one is obligated to do—for work, for school, because of any other external commitment—is something we don’t usually think about the way we think about being blocked on creative projects. But it certainly does happen, and the root causes are very similar.

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