The Anxious Author: 3 tips to Overcome Anxiety In Writing
Writers are known for 3 things: perfectionism, boundless creativity, and anxiety. At some point in their careers, nearly all writers face some level of anxiety that has them questioning their skills, abilities, and worth. It is part of the territory when it comes to creating and selling art – you give a part of yourself to the world, and there’s always that chance that you will fail miserably and become a laughing stock just for bearing your soul, and that is scary.
Anxiety is no joke. It can be completely debilitating. At best, causing you to lose focus and productivity, and at worst, causing you to give up on a project completely. I will admit that there have been times in my life where the anxiety won. It has affected my interpersonal relationships, my education, and even my business. At those times, I struggled with my self-worth and the work I was putting into the world. What was I doing? What would people think? Am I just pretending to be good at this? Does it even matter at all? The doubt was non-stop, fueled by anxiety.
In today’s society, awareness of generalized anxiety disorder is increasing and there is a growing field of study in the medical community on its causes and effects. Anxiety disorders affect over 18% of adults in the U.S. Even without being diagnosed, there are millions of people who are facing the daily challenges that stem from the little voice inside, telling them that they’re not good enough.
Anxiety can make it nearly impossible to face new situations, learn new skills, or even talk to unfamiliar people. This can have a major effect on your career, and in extreme cases, can keep some from being able to hold down a job at all.
What does that mean for authors though? On the surface, it’s the perfect job for people with anxiety. “I can just lock myself in my dark, quiet office, furiously typing away on the computer, while the Keureg churns out cups of life-granting elixir. I never have to see another soul!” Thanks to the ease and accessibility of large digital booksellers like Amazon and Kobo, self-publishing is easier than ever; you don’t even need an agent. Like a shut-in Sim, churning out pages and sending them off to some mysterious publisher, all you have to do is wait for the simoleons to role in. Your fortune is assured!
Only, it really doesn’t work that way. Not if you want to be able to afford your nice computer games and expensive coffee-maker. There is a strong “do it yourself” mentality when it comes to self publishing, which is great—as far as it goes. Yes, you can upload your novel to your favorite website and call it a day, but chances are you won’t reach a very large audience, and you certainly won’t be making the kind of sales you want to be seeing. There is a lot more to being an author than people want to believe.
We want it to be a three step process. Write a book. Upload it to the web. Watch the money roll in.
Granted, this is a beautiful dream. I mean, who doesn’t want to write a bestseller and move to a remote island somewhere in the sun, retire at thirty and travel the world? While the idea of the simple three-step process is appealing, it isn’t realistic. There’s a lot more that goes into publishing a book than just uploading it to your favorite website. And that’s where the anxiety creeps in.
Nearly all anxiety is perpetuated, sustained, or outright caused by a fear of the unknown. Not knowing what steps you need to take to make your book a success can be the first major obstacle that stops weekend writers from becoming authors.
The good news is, there are a great many places on the internet that are designed to help demystify the process. Smoothing the way for anxious authors is the main reason I started Firesong Arts, and helping authors overcome this block is essential to why I do what I do. I know firsthand what it’s like to try and launch a new career doing something you are deeply passionate about while anxiety is breathing down your neck whispering that you that you don’t know what you’re doing.
I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong about your fears, or devalue the problems that you are undergoing in your writer’s journey. Anxiety is a deeply rooted problem for most people, and your beliefs are part of what make you who you are. I am also not a psychologist, counselor, or mental health provider. I am an editor, and over the years I have seen these same fears and anxieties crop up in myself, and in my clients and friends. Over the years of talking with people who have been fighting this battle, and experiencing them myself, I’ve realized something really wonderful: we don’t have to fix it.
We can succeed anyway.
Anxiety can be worked around.There are steps that can help get you past the doubt that anxiety has left in you. Here are a couple simple solutions to common problems I see from anxious authors.
“I don’t know what I’m doing”
It’s easy to dismiss any new process as “too hard” when you are just starting out. Whether it’s writing in a new style or genre, building your writer’s platform, or soliciting an agent, everything is new at some point. No one starts out an expert. Goodness knows, I didn’t.
You’ve written a book. It’s revised and perfected, and you couldn’t be more proud of what you’ve accomplished, and now you’re ready to publish! OK… how? Or, perhaps you haven’t written it yet. You have a great premise, and you’ve outlined your plot. You sit down at your desk, and… now what? You’re pretty sure you need an agent… maybe? There are so many questioned wrapped up in the day-to-day work of writing, that you are bogged down and have no idea where to turn. The simple solution is to give up.
Don’t do that though. It turns out there is something else you can do, that still means you get to succeed. It’s big, it’s ugly, and people hate it when I tell them this, but the best, simplest, and most sure thing you can do to overcome your anxieties around not knowing something, is to learn about it.
Do some research. Go online, go to the library, talk to people who have done whatever it is you are having the most trouble with. If you have trouble starting conversations with people, try emailing them. Not all experts in a given field will answer you, but that’s OK. You don’t need them all to, you just need one who is knowledgeable and helpful. Still too much? Find a forum, or a Facebook or Twitter group and go through their archives until you find information. My personal favorite tool for this Quora. If you have a question about anything, start there. Someone has already asked it, and it has dozens of answers. If it hasn’t been asked, ask it. You will be amazed by the feedback you get.
There is nothing in the world that solves the fear of the unknown like making it known. Research, investigate, study, and learn. The more you know, the more prepared you will be to take the last step in overcoming this anxiety, which is doing it. And if that still doesn’t work, email me. I’ll see what I can do about helping you take your next step.
“I’m not a creative person.”
This one also masquerades as “I don’t know what to write about”, but they’re the same thing really. You sit down at your keyboard or notebook, ready to spill as many words onto the page as you can, and you stop. You can’t think of anything to write about, and the more you try the more that creative light seem to fade. What can you do? Obviously, if you were creative you could come up with something to write about… right?
I see this problem all the time. But I know a secret, if you really weren’t a creative person, you wouldn’t feel the need to write. You are creative because you feel the urge to create, you are simply stuck in a cycle of fear and doubt. So, now that you know it’s not true, here’s what you can do about it:
Write something. Anything. It really doesn't matter what so long as you are composing it, not transcribing or copying it. A poem, a journal entry, a list of your favorite things, a great memory, a song; as long as it's yours it will work. Now, do this every day for a week. Any length, any topic. If you miss a day, be gentle with yourself and do it the next day. Don't make excuses and don't beat yourself up, remember its a process.
Creativity is a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it will become. If you practice little acts of creativity every day, soon you'll start to have so many exciting ideas that you can't stop and work on them all.
The thing about creativity is, it isn't pennies from heaven being doled out by God as we need it, it's a massive river held back only by the dam of self doubt and excuses. The best way to open the floodgates is to express that creativity all the time. Exercise it, and it will never stop.
“I’m not a good writer”
Sometimes this one takes a few forms. “I don’t have the skills”, “My story isn’t original”, “No one will like it”. These all stem from the basic anxiety form of “I’m not good enough”.
This one is hard to deal with, because it is so embedded in our self image. Clearly, if I was worthwhile, I would already be doing great things. No one is going to want to read my book, and I don’t have anything of value to say. I’m just no good, and if I’m not good enough to succeed, why am I even trying?
I wish there was a magic pill for this one. An actual step-by-step guide on how to write around it. But there isn’t. This one is all about belief, and telling yourself the things you need to hear in order to overcome it. Sorry. Bear with me though. Here’s what I’ve seen work:
First, you need to remember that no one gets it right the first time. There’s a reason that editing is still a profession after so many centuries of the written word. The revision process is there to help you clarify your ideas, develop your story, and create something that is good. So be patient with the process, and keep telling yourself “It’s OK if I fail the first time. I will get better.”
For me, this one is all about turning the fear into motivation. I am a very competitive person, and as long as I can keep doing better than I did the last time, as long as I keep winning against myself, I can keep the anxiety at bay. And you know what? There are days when that’s not true. There are days when I can’t win, and can’t keep the anxiety at bay, and that’s okay, too. It’s part of the process.
Trust yourself, and trust the process. Try, reach for your goals, fail, fall apart, let yourself be weak and vulnerable. If need be, have a cup of tea and try to remember why you started writing in the first place. Pick yourself up, and do it all again.
No one is perfect. We all fail sometimes. When anxiety and fear strike it can be completely crippling. There is no easy solution to coping with anxiety. I truly wish there was. Until they devise a medical solution that actually solves the problem, all we can do is muddle through together. And if you find that your anxiety is still crippling, please please don’t hesitate to seek out the support you need. Help is always available. These few steps I’ve discussed might not solve the problem for you, but with any luck they will help get you past that initial hurdle, and into some measure of success.