Writers’ Performance Anxiety: 3 Questions and An Answer

This week's Ask Robin

By Robin Colucci

Q. “I’m thinking of writing a book…I want it to be creative and fun and informative and when those thoughts enter my head it scares me so I don’t start.”–Valerie T.

Q. “I’ve three chapters of a book which is conceptually complete. I need to have someone to force me to sit down and write!”–Stephen A.

Q. “Ok so you write-What makes you write-Why do you write-What are going to accomplish by writing or should you even be wasting your time?”– Bryan H.

A. Performance anxiety in writing is a universal theme, as it is experienced by writers at every level of mastery and in every genre. While the expressions may vary from the "deer in the headlights" freeze, to avoidance, to cynicism and resignation, it all comes down to the same fundamental concerns–will the work will be “good enough?” and does writing make a difference?

I acknowledge my courageous readers who submitted their questions, for the first step to freedom is admitting you have a block. Let’s tackle these one at a time.

Not “good enough”: What stops Valerie is she wants to know before she writes anything that what comes out will be brilliant, interesting, fun, engaging, and delightful to read. If that were true for any writer, I should say we would have no need for editors, and I promise you, that is NOT the case. Typically, the creative process includes writing a lot of crap, noticing the good parts, trimming away the lame and inane, refining the stuff that makes sense, building upon the strongest points, rewording, rephrasing, reordering, tinkering, reshaping, and then, finally, turning it over to an editor who will do the same.  So, Valerie, don’t let it scare you. In fact, expect the first draft to be something you wouldn’t even want to share with your mother. The best work comes out of a writer in revision. The first draft is just to get the whole process going, so stop worrying and start writing!

Avoidance: Stephen probably is a busy guy and easily finds lots of important stuff to do besides writing that takes up enough of the day that when he thinks about writing, it gets put off to the next moment and the next, until the day is over and it’s too late. It’s possible that what is behind the avoidance is the same “not good enough” fear that Valerie has, but the reason doesn’t matter so much as the cure.

Stephen, you have two viable options, you can put yourself on a writing schedule, say 15 minutes a day first thing in the morning, NO MATTER WHAT, or another possibility would be to join a writer’s group where the facilitator and other participants will expect you to produce some form of writing each session.

Ideally, you want to approach your writing time as just that, writing time. Once you get into a groove, you can think about things like productivity and completing chapters, but to start, you might do better just committing to write. Even if you sit there and type “I don’t know what to write” for 15 minutes, you are better off than if you did nothing.

Most writers struggle with the discipline of writing at some point in their career, many struggle throughout their career, but the fact is simple: writer’s write. No way around it, you can self-motivate or get support, but one way or another, you must find the time and use it. The most brilliant writing comes out of the discipline. You never know when inspiration will show up, which is why it’s important that you show up.

Why write? This question brings to mind the old philosophical query, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” For the writer, the question goes to the next step, “When a tree is felled to make paper, is it worth it if no one else reads the words printed upon the page?”

If you ask me, all writing is a journey of self-discovery. On some level, every book is an opportunity for the author to work out something for their own growth. With that perspective, all writing is worthwhile. To some, it may seem selfish to “indulge” and take the time to write. To the cynic, it may seem wasteful to engage in any potentially fruitless activity. Bottom line, Bryan, write for writing’s sake. Write for your self-expression, write for self-discovery, write for a good laugh, or a needed cry, and at some point, when you discover you’ve stumbled upon something that may be of value to others, get thee to an editor!

Thanks to each of the three of you for your questions. Until next time.

Robin