In case you haven’t noticed, being anxious seems to be a “bonus” of being a writer.
We are very good at worrying. I think this is because in the world of writing and publishing, we writers have very little control.
What we can control are our thoughts. And so we spend a lot of time playing in these what if worlds inside our heads. Worrying and imagining all the ways things can go wrong. Because at least we can control them inside our head. It’s something to do.
The unique anxiety that comes with being a writer isn’t something that goes away when you’ve gotten an agent or a book deal or a movie deal or ANY of those milestones we hope for. It’s not a switch that gets turned off once we accomplish X, Y, or Z.
Below, I’m sharing EIGHT tips for how I’ve dealt with my writing anxiety, in the hopes that they can be helpful for you, too!
GET A NON-WRITING HOBBY
It’s important that you find some joy and purpose from something outside of writing. For those waiting for emails from the query trenches or from your agent while on sub, you also need something to pass the time. If you’re someone with kids or someone with one or two or three jobs already, you may be good on this front. BUT I maintain that you need some sort of creative outlet that isn’t writing.
When writing becomes your passion and you’re trying to turn it into career, your mind can start to treat writing as a tangle of self-worth and also work. You call writing your “you time,” but your brain treats it as your job. Even if you’re having fun, you’re spending a lot of brain power.
Furthermore, with another, non-related hobby, you learn the importance of doing something for fun, not to be good at it. Learn to draw. Even if you suck at it. You’re doing it for you. You’re doing it for fun. Try knitting. Fail at it. Buy a coloring book. Color outside the lines. I personally am a fan of embroidery kits. I get to use my hands and produce something that’s separate from my writing. You also may find some new friends to connect with about your new hobby!
JOURNAL ON PEN AND PAPER
Take five or ten minutes to write down a conversation with yourself. Pretend you’re your own therapist. Ask why you feel anxious. Ask what would make you feel better. Ask what’s frustrating you. And I say to do this on pen and paper for two reasons:
- If you normally write your book on the computer, your brain will feel like this self-help exercise is homework instead of healing
- If you’re on the computer, you’ll trip and fall and suddenly you’re on Twitter and adding fuel to your anxiety fire. Or watching cat videos.
CALL OR MESSAGE A FRIEND
I’ve come to learn about myself that I’m an external processor–I understand what’s happening to me only when I write things down or talk about them with a friend. If you have a writing group, tell them about what’s making you anxious. Ask for advice. Ask to vent. Be clear about what you want from them; be conscientious of their time and their emotional bandwidth.
Call a friend. Ask if you can ramble about your anxieties. Sometimes talking them out will make you feel better. And if you ask for their thoughts, listen and process. Sometimes they can give you some nugget of encouragement to turn your day around. Sometimes they’ll tell you to GET OFF OF QUERYTRACKER. And you should listen to them.
GO FOR A WALK
Exercise and me are not the greatest of friends, but especially in light of quarantine, I’ve come to appreciate the power of movement, sunshine, and a change of scene. Moving from your writing nook out into the real world, or even into a different room, can help you address your anxiety and feel like you have a clean slate. If your anxiety voice is extra loud while you go for a walk, bring a podcast or your favorite playlist or ask for a friend to have a phonecall with you while you walk. Just moving your body out of your writing zone will remind you that there is a world bigger than your computer screen.
GO TO BED
Along with the power of a nice, restorative nap, when my brain is at its darkest and gloomiest, my mom always advised me to just go to bed. And man, that advice has carried me through a lot. Even if it’s early at night, if my brain is unable to be hopeful, if the world seems like it’s out to get me, if worry is all I can think about, I decide to just end the day and go to bed. It’s kind of like that IT advice that everyone knows: if your computer is acting weird, try turning it off and turning it on again.
Going to bed isn’t going to erase your anxiety, but you’d be surprised how many times you wake up feeling better or even forgetting what you were so worried about in the first place.
FILL UP YOUR CREATIVE WELL
We so often feel guilty for watching TV instead of sitting at the computer and writing. While putting your butt in the chair to write is important, “you can’t pour out of an empty cup,” to quote a good friend of mine. Or to quote a therapist of mine, “you have to put on your oxygen mask before you can help anyone else.” This goes for writing, too.
You are allowed not to write. You are allowed to intake new stories, bad stories, stupid reality TV, cartoons that make you cry, video games where you really want to catch a tarantula. Yes, new ideas can come to you as a result of just consuming media.
You aren’t a machine whose only job is to write. You are allowed to watch dumb TV just because it makes you happy. It doesn’t have to be homework. Not everything in your life needs to be done for the purpose of making you a better author.
PUT A TIMER ON YOURSELF
The Google Chrome extension StayFocusd has been very helpful for me! It makes it so that I can only use certain sites (like Twitter) for a set amount of time each day. After 15 minutes of time on Twitter, I’m locked out of the site.
While StayFocusd is meant to help you stay productive, it can also keep you from places that exacerbate your writing anxiety.
Tuesdays and Thursdays on Twitter are pretty full of book deal announcements, for example. And while you can and should celebrate for friends and strangers, it can be food for your anxiety voice. It’ll tell you you’re not good enough. It’ll tell you you’re not fast enough. It’ll tell you you’re a bad person for not working.
Don’t give it that food. Don’t fuel the anxiety monster, if you can help it.
Identify those triggers in your life, and in your internet habits, that make your anxiety monster start to chatter away. And try to avoid those triggers, if you can. Then, when you see those triggers again, say to your anxiety monster, out loud if you can, “Not now.” Because that anxious voice, it’s not helpful, and it’s rarely right. It’s just used to chattering away when it sees those triggers. It doesn’t know what it’s talking about.
The way I talk about anxiety above encapsulates my final advice; one I’ve learned through therapy:
SEPARATE YOUR ANXIETY FROM YOURSELF
It helps me to think of my anxiety as an annoying guy or a monster with a lot of opinions. Because my anxiety isn’t me. It’s my brain trying to process the world around me, and usually overreacting. Separating it from myself and remembering that it isn’t always accurate helps me feel in control of myself and my thoughts and remember that agreeing with the anxiety monster is a choice I can make–or not make.
The anxiety that comes with writing and publishing is very particular. We worry about what agents will think of our work. We worry about what critique partners will see in our messy second drafts. We worry that our book will never sell while on sub. We worry that readers will hate our books.
That worry can eat us up inside. We can’t snap our fingers and make it go away. But we can acknowledge that it’s there and take some small steps to find some ways to help ourselves.
Ask for help. Reach out to friends.
And if working with a therapist is something you can do, something you’re interested in, please don’t be afraid to try. It may seem like our writing and publishing worries are small compared to other things in the world, but all of our worries are valid. The battles going on in our minds are real. And they affect every part of our lives.
Be kind to yourself. You are more than your writing. You are worth taking care of.