Overcoming the stress and anxiety of the writing process

January is a popular time for resolving to change their lives. Many of those resolutions will fail. That’s partly because most people make New Year’s resolutions in the same way. They promise themselves to do something they’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t; they make their resolution without treating whatever caused them to procrastinate previously; they forget their resolution before the calendar turns to February.

A lot of writers go through this same cycle. Blind optimism leads to setting unreasonable goals, which leads to disappointment and stress, which leads to procrastination, feelings of failure, disappointment, and a feeling that you should really get around to writing that paper, novel, letter, etc. Before long the to do list is pitched and the project gets tabled only to be taken up again whenever you have the most optimism to face it; say, maybe, next December 31.

The way out of that cycle starts at discovering why you’ve not been writing. Those causes are generally not rational. We all know that it’d be best to get down to business and start writing, but there is some deeper or emotional block that has convinced us that we can’t do it. In school projects, that’s usually inadequate content knowledge, an unclear picture of what is expected in the assignment, or a general lack of confidence. In other projects, it’s fear of failure or feelings of being inadequate or overwhelmed.

Nearly all writers feel this way at some point in their project. Those who succeed in pressing on aren’t necessarily the ones with the most talent. Instead, they’re usually the best at dealing with the negative thoughts that pop into their head when they’re writing an essay. Once they’ve subdued those negative emotions, they see the way forward. They  recognize that they need more knowledge, so they go to the library. They seek out help from professors or writing tutors. They can rationally compare the two paths of doing and not doing a project and see that the only certain path to failure is not doing anything.

None of those actions happens without a tremendous amount of effort, which taxes our willpower and our ability to devote our attention to our task. Knowing that effort is involved is the first step. Too many writers convince themselves that writing is supposed to be easy, as if the words should flow in poetic, preformed sentences from our mind. That’s not the case.

Many writers think they can simply take the mind over matter approach and rely on their rational thought and willpower to get themselves unstuck. That can lead to greater problems. Trying to rationally think yourself out of chronic procrastination can be a recipe for more stress. Disciplining yourself for straying from the task with condemnations of your own willpower misunderstands the capabilities of our brains and leads to moral judgments which leads to negative feelings of self worth.

Failure and how to deal with it are topics that  Sian Beilock covers in her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting it Right When You Have To. Pressure, stress, and anxiety activate the areas of the brain responsible for negative emotional thoughts. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the the brain that houses our working memory (as Beilock calls it, our “cognitive horsepower”) stops working properly. We lose some of our ability to regulate our emotions and to focus our attention on what we’d like to. It’s easy to extend the consequences of this to writing. I imagine that this loss of cognitive horsepower is partly responsible for those moments when we imagine how much we have left to do and how little time we have to do it and suddenly the plans we had for our next sentence seem to vanish from our head.

It is possible to become better at reacting to stress, anxiety, and failure. The more times we positively react to stress, the easier it gets. Having a bunch of strategies at hand to detect when we’re feeling the negative emotions of stress and to divert our attention from those emotions will positively effect performance in the long run.

If you’re used to running away from things, you’ve probably experienced the opposite effect. You’ve not built up our defenses or stockpiled strategies, and negative thoughts signal the start of a cycle that ends in a failure.  Just as the practice works to overcome these obstacles, repeated experience of the negative effects of failure can make it harder to make a positive intervention. You excel at psyching yourself out and coming up with self fulfilling prophecies. Eventually, you give up because you doubt your capability to even finish the task. None of that negative talk does any good. In fact, it’s what causes occasional procrastination to turn into chronic procrastination.

If you ever find yourself in that state, it’s best to take a step back and examine what you’re avoiding. Chronic procrastinators may find it helpful to pursue talk therapy with a trained therapist who can help them identify the causes of the procrastination and develop strategies to detect when they’re stuck in one of those ruminative cycles. Beilock’s book also suggests a number of strategies to build up our abilities to refocus on the task at hand. Among these, the most intriguing is meditation. Studies suggest that as little as 11 hours of meditation training can change the wiring of the brain and make it easier to regulate our thoughts and emotions, which can lead to a more positive performance in academic tasks.

For better or worse, I’ve had plenty of experience with these struggles with procrastination and self doubt when it comes to writing. Throughout my formal schooling, I seemed especially prone to self fulfilling prophecies and the negative effects of stress, and overcoming that has taken a dedicated effort, which I’ve only been able to maintain by knowing that my performance would never be perfect. For these reasons, I made myself a promise when I decided I wanted to put this blog out there that I’d never start a post with “I’m sorry for not posting in so long.” I’ll feel like I need to say that when things go silent for a month or two, but the apology does little. Anyone who was offended by the lack of posts has already moved onto other blogs. Those who stuck around, probably don’t care or don’t notice.

Still, it’s hard to keep that promise to remain positive. I’ve had a busy few months and have not gotten to update. Over that time, every time I went back to check the blog or find some reminder of it, I think about how I ought to put something on there, even if it is just an apology and a promise to do better, to keep the momentum I built last spring. The more I think about it, I recognize that the urge to apologize is really directed at making me feel less guilty. I want to apologize to myself for falling short of my own aspirations to show that I really did want to do better. In the long run, wanting do do better or feeling badly about not achieving goals matters little. It only matters that I get over that disappointment.

Seeing oneself as a multifaceted individual with many strengths is another of the strategies that Beilock recommends for overcoming the stress and anxiety that hinders performance.  The antidote to the feelings of guilt and regret for me can be found in looking at what’s done rather than what’s not. Aside from starting this blog and posting to it a few dozen times, I had three reviews published, a longer essay, gone to several conferences, and gave several talks this year. I also planned a complex creative writing course that revolved around an RPG (role playing game) structure, directed two reading groups, and got married. Doing that task gave me a powerful feeling of momentum that helped break me out of the state of inertia that gripped me since the start of the winter.

One of the achievements that matters most in all of this is persistence. To have bravely faced a personal set back or loss is much harder than publishing an article, but it often gets forgotten when we tally up our plus/minus in the productivity column.

Persistence, however, takes practice and preparation. All motivation is a trick of self delusion. Moving forward requires getting your rational mind to ignore the reasons the other parts of the brain concocts. Dealing with failure is one of the hardest things a writer has to face, but because of that, those who can persist can succeed where more talented writers fail.


2 Responses to “Overcoming the stress and anxiety of the writing process”

  1. 1 Francis
    April 9, 2012 at 3:50 am

    I am really thrilled to find these website posts that convey a great deal of actionable ideas – thanks for committing your time to your fans.

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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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