Writers Talk About Writing
How to Overcome Negative Feelings When Writing
Do you find writing interesting and pleasant — a time filled with self-discovery? Or is it stressful and unpleasant — sort of like a root canal crossed with doing your income taxes?
I work with many people who associate writing mostly with the negative. The act of writing makes them feel anxious or frustrated, confused or filled with fear. Today I'm going to look at seven of the most commonly held negative emotions associated with writing and suggest ways you can deal with them.
My theory? If you can recognize these feelings — as they're occurring — you can start to take charge of them and lessen their impact.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, fear or unease, typically about something with an uncertain outcome. If you feel anxiety about writing you're likely saying some of the following things to yourself:
- My boss or client is going to hate this piece.
- I could lose my job when my boss/client finds out I can't write.
- I'm going to look really foolish when this appears in print.
What to notice: Can you see how all of these comments reflect on people outside of yourself? You may be the person feeling the emotion but it arises out of your worries and expectations about what others are going to think. Thus, it's not a concern about the act of writing. It's a worry about publication. You should also be aware that anxiety is the most persistent mental health disorder in North America. More common, even, than depression. Experts say that four people in every one hundred will have an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
What to do about it: When you write, concentrate on producing your crappy first draft. Repeat after me: "No one else should see this draft." A crappy first draft is for your eyes only. You can edit it into something better later. Here are some of the things you can and should say to yourself:
- I don't feel the same degree of anxiety every time I write. This feeling will eventually pass and I may as well get some writing done while I wait.
- What's the worst thing that can happen if I write? (Answer: I may have to do some more editing.)
- If I breathe slowly and calmly, that will help make me feel less anxious.
- Many other people also feel anxiety. This is a normal feeling.
Being bored means you're not interested in what you're working on. If you feel bored with your writing you're likely saying some of the following things to yourself:
- I wish I could write about something else; I don't want to do this again.
- I don't know how to find a new angle into this story.
- I'm wasting so much time on my research (or my writing, or my self-editing.)
What to notice: Boredom may occur because you have to produce too many of the same kinds of stories. (When I worked for a forestry company, I had to write at least one safety story each week, sometimes more.) Furthermore, some aspect of the work of putting words on paper — whether it's the research, the self-editing or the writing itself — doesn't feel comfortable for you, so you tune yourself out.
What to do about it: Instead of thinking of writing as a chore, treat it as a game. What can you do to make it more fun? Here are some ideas:
- When you interview subjects, challenge yourself to extract at least one story from them. Stories, anecdotes and real-life examples make writing inherently more interesting because they are concrete and they usually have some tension built into them.
- Do a mindmap. Mindmapping gives you access to the creative part of your brain, rather than the linear, logical (and dull) part. A mindmap can help you come up with new ideas.
- Use an app to make some part of writing more fun. I particularly like the Hemingway App, which, with its rainbow of colours, turns editing into a game.
- Recognize that boredom has benefits. Allowing your mind to wander can help improve your creativity.
Exhaustion is a state of extreme physical or mental fatigue. If you're feeling exhausted you're likely saying some of the following things to yourself:
- I just don't have the energy to write.
- I need a nap or at least I should go to bed a lot earlier.
- I'm not enjoying any part of this writing job.
What to notice: Exhaustion arises for two reasons: (1) You may not be getting enough sleep. Many people in North America shortchange themselves, getting only six hours or less of sleep per night when what they really need is seven or more. (2) You may be burned out — and therefore, exhausted — from not having enough variety in your life. All work and no play makes Jack and Jill dreary people.
What to do about it: Analyze why you're exhausted and take steps to fix it. These steps might include:
- If you have very young children, cut yourself some slack. As the mother of triplets I recognize that sleep is sometimes beyond our control. You can't be a writing machine if you get only five hours of sleep per night. Lower your writing expectations until your children are older.
- Monitor your TV, Netflix, Facebook and Twitter habits. If you're regularly spending more than an hour a day on so-called "fun" screen time, put yourself on a digital diet. And get to bed sooner.
- Recalibrate your expectations: Are you demanding too much of yourself? Most professionals write for no more than four hours per day. They may spend the rest of their day doing related work (marketing, interviewing, researching) but they know that pure writing is exhausting. Fifteen minutes per day may be enough for beginners. Even five minutes per day is a good way to start.
- Make sure you have plenty of time for fun: music, movies, coffee dates with friends, exercise, reading novels. Your well needs to be full before you can write.
Frustration occurs when you don't have the ability to change or achieve something. If you're feeling frustrated with your writing you're likely saying some of the following things to yourself:
- I don't know how to begin this piece.
- I don't know what to say next.
- No matter how much time I spend on it, this piece of writing isn't getting any better.
What to notice: Frustration in the writing stage means you haven't given yourself enough time for thought. It the editing stage, it means you're too close to your work.
What to do about it: Before you write, get away from your desk and spend some time thinking about what you want to say. Good ideas almost never occur at a computer — they happen when we're off doing other stuff: walking, running, cooking, cleaning. Here are some other steps to take:
- After you've thought about your writing, do a mindmap. This can help give you a better route into your story or piece.
- Write in small chunks of time: 15 minutes scattered four times throughout the day will be more productive than an hour all at once.
- Be sure to allow your writing to incubate before you start editing. If you don't have the luxury of a long incubation be sure to take at least an hour-long break before editing and do something radically different (go for lunch, interview someone, proofread something else) before starting.
- Talk to a trusted colleague about your writing challenges. (Make sure they're the kind of person who's helpful not hurtful.)
Having doubt means you're uncertain whether what you're writing is any good or, perhaps, whether you even have the ability to write. If you feel doubt about writing you're likely saying some of the following things to yourself:
- I'm never going to be able to do this.
- How did I ever get myself into this situation with my job/book/thesis?
- I'm such an idiot to have ever attempted this.
What to notice: Closely related to anxiety, doubt is an emotion that all writers feel, even the successful, already-published ones. I swear to God, Stephen King, Alice Munro and even the uber-confident Jonathan Franzen feel the cold fingers of doubt wrapping around their hearts from time to time.
What to do about it: Rather than dread doubt, expect it, even welcome it. It's a sign that you're a writer. Here's what to tell yourself about it:
- No writers can ever accurately evaluate their own work. For that, you need another person. Divorce yourself from evaluating,
- Record your achievements and celebrate them: When I'm working on a big project I keep a chart showing how many words I write each day and how many I have left to write.
- Focus on the small job of producing your crappy first draft. Worry about editing and getting published later.
- Know that doubt has its job to do: doubting. You have yours: writing. Let each of you do your own jobs.
Being confused means being unclear in your own mind about what you want to accomplish. If you feel confused about writing you're likely saying some of the following things:
- I don't know what my boss or client really wants with this piece.
- I don't understand the information a source has given me.
- I don't know what my readers most need to know.
What to notice: Can you see how all of these comments reflect gaps in your own knowledge?
What to do about it: Being a writer is a bit like being a parent: You need knowledge to be able to assert your authority. Here's how you can get it:
- Ask your boss/client to give you more explicit instructions. Better, ask them to give you an example of another piece of writing that they'd like you to emulate. Having a model is exceptionally useful for most writers.
- Be prepared to ask "stupid" questions. You have to truly understand a subject before you can write about it. Don't worry about how you look; worry, instead about what you don't understand. Here's a guide to asking better questions.
- Have a beta reader who can review an early draft (the one beyond your crappy first draft) to ensure it makes sense to them.
Despair is the complete absence of hope. If you feel despair about writing you're likely saying some of the following things to yourself:
- I'm never going to be any good at writing.
- There's no point in trying any harder because I just can't do it.
- My writing is never going to improve.
What to notice: Can you see how all of these comments assume the worst possible outcome? They're blanket generalizations but I prefer to call them "awfulizations" or "catastrophizations."
What to do about it: We all feel discouraged from time to time. But if you've crossed over into the realm of despair, it's time to intervene. Here's how to do it:
- Give yourself a temporary break from writing. If you can take a holiday, great. If you can't do that then take a mental health day and do something fun. Go to a movie or for a walk in the park. Get your mind off writing.
- Once you've had your break, question the veracity of your thoughts: What evidence do you have that you'll never be good at writing? Is it true that no aspect of your writing has changed in the last 10 years? Oftentimes we say stuff like this to ourselves, but when we question it, we quickly understand that it's just not true.
- Celebrate your successes. Make a habit of noting down an achievement you've accomplished every day (do it right after brushing your teeth) and review this list from time to time. Save any compliments or laudatory remarks you receive, as well, and review them regularly. We're all pretty good at criticizing ourselves but we often forget to congratulate ourselves.
Here's the thing about writing: Even though you can't control how you feel, you can manage how you react to those feelings. Instead of trying to ignore them or stuff them deeper inside, force them to identify themselves and let them know that you're in charge.
If you can keep yourself willing to experience the emotions — instead of fleeing them — you will eventually get through to the other side. And you'll have a stack of writing to prove it.