Doubt and Fear Are Not Only for Novice Writers
Right now I’m scared. I’m finding it hard to sleep at night and there’s a background of anxiety against which I play out every day. I’ll tell you why. But first things first as they say.
I’ve written thousands of words on this blog recommending a disciplined, persistent and productivity-centered approach to the writing life. But I’ve never written about writing anxiety. And that’s pretty much what this is about.
The blog is just over a year old – I started it when I first ventured into independent fiction publishing – and in that time I’ve written and published four books. There’s another one coming out soon. I continued with my other work as a copywriter while pushing on to realize the dream of making a living from, as Neil Gaiman rather flippantly puts it, “making things up and writing them down.”
A year in and I am nowhere near achieving that ambition.
But I didn’t expect to be. I had a five-year plan, and I’m at the end of year one. While I haven’t hit all the targets I’d aimed at – I should have completed the Dark Sea Trilogy by now, published six episodes of the Dragon-born Guardians Series, and put together an anthology of ghost stories – I’m still pleased with my progress. The first two books in The Dark Sea Trilogy are out and there’ll be three books in the Dragon-born Guardians Series by the end of this month. I also published two short stories in the ‘zines.
I always intended the first year to be experimental. So I’ve experimented and from my experiments I’ve learned a great deal, both positive and negative…
On the negative side, (just to get these out the way first) I now understand:
- writing and publishing books takes longer in practice than calculated theory suggests.
- other people involved can be unreliable, so you need a backup plan.
- gaining traction and visibility in the marketplace will take a lot longer than I’d thought.
- getting reviews and making consistent sales without spending so much time marketing and promoting you haven’t any time left to write, is tough as old boot leather.
- your projected budget at start-up can dry up before you’ve received enough returns on your efforts to reinvest.
- writing anxiety can be an obstacle even to an experienced writer with a well-developed process
On the positive side:
- I have more realistic expectations now in the light of the above.
- before I started this, publishing a novel was a pipe-dream, but by the end of this month I’ll have published two novels and three novellas. They may not be perfect, but I’m proud of them.
- my second year will be much more successful as I develop better informed, more focused and effective strategies for overcoming the problems I’ve encountered this year, and pushing on to achieve my aims.
- I’ve developed complete self-belief in my ability to conceive, write, and complete novel length fiction.
- I have a much better idea of what might and might not work and how to go about optimizing my process for success.
- I’m learning how to overcome writing anxiety and crack on regardless
It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? So why am I talking about being crippled by doubt and paralyzed by fear? And how am I going to overcome those things and continue to write?
What Causes Writing Anxiety?
The one thing I couldn’t have a contingency for in my original plan was the dramatic and unnerving change that would take place in my personal life during last year.
While I want to be honest in this blog, it’s a public forum, and so I don’t wish to share all the gruesome details of what’s been going on behind the scenes. It’s complicated. All kinds of factors from the sometimes painful realities of human relationships to the impact of political events play their part. In broad summary the results are these:
- unanticipated changes in the structure of my already complicated and unconventional family have demanded time, emotional energy, and financial resources which I might otherwise have channeled into my writing business.
- the bottom has fallen out of several freelance markets which were the pillars of my livelihood and I’ve been struggling (failing!) to make up the losses. If I can’t make improvements soon, I may have to look for alternative employment. But at my age, and with my eccentric CV, my prospects are far from certain.
- the political uncertainties and knock-on effects of the Brexit process continue to jeopardize my long-time established life and home in Italy. The sword of Damocles hangs above me by a frayed and slender thread.
These are three continuing and unresolved influences which impact on me physically, emotionally, and financially. They result in a mesh of interrelated problems over which I cannot exercise very much control. The best I can do is mitigating the worst of what may come. Having my security threatened and undermined on multiple levels, combined with feeling it’s beyond my control, is a certain recipe for heightened anxiety.
Self-doubt and fear are the twin demons which haunt almost every writer’s life. It’s frightening when they manifest with such power and in such solid form…
Keep Calm and Reason Things Through
On the whole, I keep a calm, problem-solving, and rational approach to everything. I’m aware of my strengths, weaknesses, psychological foibles, and the limits of my emotional resilience. I eat well, spend time in nature, live an active life, and practice mindfulness.
But despite all that, I’m experiencing a mounting sense of dread. My focus and concentration are suffering. I’m sticking to my routine fairly well, but I’m producing a lot less. I have to overcome anxiety just to move forward with the simplest things and to believe they’re still worth doing.
So being me trying to do what I’m trying to do is difficult.
I’m almost 50 years old and it looks as if everything is slipping away beneath my feet: my family, my work, my home. It’s scary.
I’ve figured out many possibilities, contingencies, potential ways forward, damage limitation strategies, and so on. But I have little idea to what extent any of them are actionable or realistic. I face the real possibility of deep and abject failure.
But you know what?
Anxiety is A Normal Part of Life
I face that every time I sit down to write (I write standing up, but never mind). The next page is always blank. The detailed outline of the plot is always flawed. One of the great joys of writing fiction is filling the blank page, resolving narrative flaws, deepening understanding of the protagonist, and pushing the plot forward to its logical but surprising conclusion. Writing is a series of problems you need to solve. If you want to write a book, you just have to get on with it. It’s the only way.
I believe it’s the same with life. Hard as it proves to be, crippled as I am by self-doubt, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty about my future, I’m compelled to keep trying. There are many things I could do. There is only one thing I cannot do; and that is stop writing.
Look at this:
That’s me. I was about eight years old. And that was my first typewriter. Back then I had a free pass to the land of stories and a fearless belief that anything I imagined could be realized. When I wrote my first stories I experienced nothing but joy. I didn’t experience writing anxiety.
I had a dream.
And somewhere that little boy still lives in me, still believes, and still dreams. I know him well now. I know the pain, the suffering, the disillusionment, and the struggles that lie before him.
But I still believe in him.
And I’m not going to let him down.
If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to read your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments below. Please share this post on your social media. That would be a lovely thing to do.
Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels and the photos of me) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.