After writing for much of Thursday I finished another chapter of The Swallow’s Nest, next summer’s new release. I followed this with an attack of writing anxiety.
I’m not sure if this book’s going slower than my usual. I do know that it’s a tough one to write, and it’s competing with so many other absorbing activities this summer, that while I’m giving it plenty of time, it’s not taking up as much space in my head as a novel usually does. I’m at Chautauqua Institution for the summer, attending lectures, concerts and other performances, taking long walks across the grounds and socializing with good friends. The book is often supplanted by other things.
Am I too busy to do my best?
I’m not sure. A case can be made for not letting a novel take up all the space in a writer’s head, because more often than you might think, solutions to writing problems seem to appear out of nowhere. While we believe we’re thinking about other things, the book just keeps churning away. And when we go back to it, progress has been made.
Still, deadlines are a large part of writing anxiety. Every moment we spend away from a manuscript, no matter how productive, is the tick of a clock inside our heads, a clock that begins the moment a contract is signed or a promise has been made. And when the alarm goes off, the book had better be finished.
While most of us appreciate having deadlines, because it means we’ve arrived as authors, there are pros and cons.
On the pro side:
- We are paid regularly because our books come out regularly.
- We are unable to revise and revise until the prose is perfect but the book loses all heart.
- We are forced to work when we don’t want to, usually when we’ve hit a snag that can only be overcome by applying the seat of our pants to the seat of our chairs.
- We are forced to finish the work in progress and not go chasing after another elusive idea that sounds better–and probably isn’t.
On the con side:
- Pressure to finish forces us down paths we shouldn’t go.
- Deadline anxiety blocks questions we ought to be asking.
- Deadline anxiety blocks answers to questions that surface anyway.
- We don’t have time to let our novels sit and ripen so that we can see the flaws and fix them before submitting our manuscripts.
Ever want to be a writer? Don’t let me discourage you.
Thursday night I woke up about midnight in a cold sweat.
Not only was I unsure about that day’s work, I was unsure about the thirteen chapters I’d written so far, the synopsis guiding me, the character arc, the timeline, and the entire idea from start to finish. What was I doing? Should I call my new editor and explain as sweetly as possible that not only might my book be late, it won’t be the book she’s expecting.
This has happened before. Experience tells me it will happen again, maybe even on this book. But experience also helped me deal with it.
Here’s what I know about my own writing anxiety:
- It’s perfectly normal. After all, a writer exposes him/herself in public. And don’t think the person we are isn’t coming across loud and clear. Remember that dream when you show up for a class and you’re either naked, or, slightly better, completely unprepared for a test? That’s what writing a book feels like. For good reason.
- Anxiety doesn’t happen with every book.
- Anxiety happens most often when we take chances.
- Our anxiety seems to have no effect on whether a reader likes or doesn’t like a book. In other words, it doesn’t show.
- Eventually we let it go. For me this is almost a specific moment when I can feel myself relax, and I hear a voice in my head telling me to get over myself. And I do.
By the time Friday morning came I knew exactly what I needed to do that day.
The only way I was going to move on was to read over the chapters I’d already written. Was the book as bad as I feared? Were the problems in my head also on the pages?
I spent several hours reading to see exactly what I’d done so far. After all there had been interruptions, and long hours every day when the book was secondary to other things. Had that interfered with the flow?
What was I looking for?
- Character clarity and empathy
- Too much or too little description
- My own enthusiasm as a reader
Here’s what I learned.
I was correct when I thought this idea would make a good novel. I was also correct when I thought this idea would be tough to pull off. It will be, but so far I’m happy with what I’ve done.
Most important, and perhaps the most fruitful result of a night of anxiety? As I read I finally understood what was really happening with my characters. Three different women have viewpoints in this novel, but until this point, I didn’t see that each of them must learn something different, something important about herself by the end of the book. And what each has to learn is now absolutely clear to me.
That’s made all the difference.
I’m delighted to say the novel was already going in the right direction. In fact what I’ve written to this point has taught me what I need to write until I type “the end.” I understand where I’m going so much better, and while I don’t have to change anything, now as I move forward, I know how to tweak the rest of the story. One character in particular, who I was prepared to dislike, has stepped forward into the light and revealed herself. And now I look forward to writing her subtly altered story.
When faced with writing anxiety, trust your instincts.
It’s possible the anxiety has surfaced because you really do need to write a different book. Some ideas are just too difficult to pull off, and you have to know when to quit for good or possibly just for now. Read and evaluate. If you’re still not certain, find beta readers willing to give you feedback.
More likely, though, if you’re happy with much of what you’ve done, you’re already on the right track. This is the moment to let the book speak to you. Think about what you’ve written and then move forward, listening to your inner voice.
I’m glad I took the time to listen to mine.
While my writing anxiety will resurface, I have a much firmer grasp on why and how to address it. I’m enjoying my work again, and that, more than anything, keeps writing anxiety at bay.