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Nothing’s Set In Stone: Getting Past Writer’s Anxiety

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Anxious WomanWriting is hard.

Coming up with a new story idea is exciting, and playing god to your story world can be wicked fun, but almost everything else between the light-bulb moment and typing “The End” is different degrees of torment for me and, I’m sure, scores of others.

I don’t know who said it first, but the oft-quoted words are true: something to the effect of “I don’t like writing so much as I like having written.”

I’ve written and published 14 books, and don’t get me wrong, I adore my writing career in general. But the day-to-day in the Knupp house can get a little hairy when I’m stumped by a plot.

It was well after I’d sold my first book that I started noticing a particular feeling when it was time to sit down and write for the day. Kind of an uneasiness in my gut, a shakiness in my chest. It hit me it was that ugly A word…anxiety.

But wait a second. This is my dream job. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was in grade school, that out-there undertaking I always promised myself I would “someday” try. I’m doing it. And if you judge by selling books or by getting positive reviews or by having enthusiastic readers, I’m doing it with some success.

Anxiety? Really?

I’ve known for some time I can be a bit of a head case. (Oh, the stories my husband could tell….) But freaking out each day when it’s time to do the thing I love? Slightly ludicrous.

Part of this new “crazy” was easy to figure out. Trauma, pure, plain, and simple. I’ve been through some hellacious rounds of revisions with my publisher. The worst was when I ended up rewriting 235 pages in 12 days. (Funny, I can remember the horrific numbers, but I can no longer remember which book that was for.) Once you have to do that, it can make you question every word you type in. (Is this scene going to be where I derail? The next one? Wait, do I have a viable conflict for my story in the first place?) Combine that fear with setting what was, for me, deadlines that were too short, and hello, panic city!

I thought it was just me, but I found out I’m not so special after all, at least not in this way. A few years ago, I went to a workshop by Eric Maisel, who is a leading creativity coach and has written quite a few books on creativity and, among other things, fear and anxiety.  (If any of this sounds familiar to you, I recommend you check out his books.)

The thing he said that sticks with me most is that writing fiction, especially, can cause anxiety because every little thing you make up entails making a decision. Blond hair or brown? Surgeon or Army Ranger? Does he shoot the guy here or walk away? And a jillion things in between. Decisions make people anxious, some of us more than others. *raising my hand*

Just realizing and acknowledging this has helped me a little. And over the years, I’ve developed a few other methods of fighting off the fear-based, writing-induced nasties. When I start getting that feeling in my gut, I tell myself a few things:

—There is no perfect decision. No perfect answer to any plot dilemma or character question or scene quandary.
—I’ve gotten through this a few dozen times before. A few dozen times per book. I can do it again.
—Other authors experience this, too, and they live to tell about it. Even authors who’ve written scores more books than me.
—Oxygen is good. Deep breathing not only helps take away the panic effect, it stokes creativity.
—Relocating myself can jar things loose in my head. Walking away from the computer is a start, but taking a drive to the lake and staring at the shore is even better.
—Quitting is not going to get the book done, and, presumably, the objective is to finish the book. So it’s best just to plow forward.
—Mistakes, or less-good decisions, happen in writing/plotting. That’s what revisions are for. And let’s face it, when it comes to fixing mistakes or changing our minds, we writers have it a lot easier than sculptors.

So the next time you’re feeling anxious about writing, remember a few things: It’s normal. It’s not usually fatal. The vast majority of writers likely feel it at times to varying extents. And then take a deep breath and remind yourself…it’s easier to rework a story than it is to rework a slab of marble. And then keep on keeping on.

Amy Knupp is the author of 12 contemporary romance novels for Harlequin and 2 self-published short stories, as well as a freelance copy editor for Blue Otter Editing LLC. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, two sons, and five cats. She graduated from the University of Kansas with degrees in French and journalism and feels lucky to use very little of either one in her writing career. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, buying books in excess, traveling, breaking up cat fights, watching college basketball, and annoying her family by correcting their grammar.
  1. I like that – easier to rework a novel than a slab of marble. Good point.

  2. I don’t know why, but it’s nice to hear that a successful, published writer still gets writer’s anxiety!! Thanks for the inspiration to push through to the other side!

  3. Amy Knupp says:

    Juli, I repeat this fact to myself frequently, believe me. :)

    Sarah, misery loves company! ;) Kidding. I do think it helps to know others experience the same challenges!

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