Writing and Anxiety

I still remember the first time I knew I wanted to be a writer: I was in fifth grade, and I’d been spending all my extra time (including some precious recess time!) scribbling in the journal we were required to keep for class, an odd combination of prosaic facts about my day, daydreams, pictures, and very bad poetry. But my teacher saw something in those words and told me so, and I determined that someday I would write books.

Fast forward a couple decades: on a warm summer day, the postal worker brought a package I’d been waiting my whole adult life for–an advanced review copy of my book. This was real. The book was going to be published.

But after the initial elation faded, something unexpected settled in–anxiety.

As reviews started to trickle in following the release of those advance copies into the world, it finally hit me that people were going to be reading my book. You’d think this would have sunk in much earlier. After all, we tell stories in order for people to read them! But when I’d thought of readers before, it had always been in a glossy, abstract, dreamy way.

The readers who responded and wrote reviews on Goodreads weren’t abstract ideas–they were very much real, and they didn’t always like my book. And anxiety, my old frenemy, quickly extrapolated from those reviews to a terrifying future where people hated not only my book, but me personally. I shouldn’t have been so surprised: Brene Brown reminds us that whenever we are courageous enough to put ourselves out there, “if you’re going to show up and be seen, there’s only one thing . . . .You’ll get your ass kicked.” But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story–and certainly I don’t advocate taking advice from your fears.

So then why am I telling you all this? I’m not looking for pity: I fully appreciate that I’m getting to do something many people only dream about. Only, I was blindsided by the anxiety, during a time that I’d expected to be primarily full of excitement, and I think it’s something we don’t talk about often enough.

Turns out, most writers struggle with anxiety in one form or another, and this anxiety can be more pronounced among writers who are experiencing the publishing world for the first time. Anxiety can be grueling–it feeds on the same energy we need for creativity, and it can be a struggle to carry that weight for days, weeks, months. But just as we spend time honing our craft to become writers, I think we also need to learn critical self-care for the business of being writers.

The question becomes: what can we do about anxiety as writers?

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Here are a few things I’ve found to help:

  1. Talk to people. Knowing that others in my circle of writing have also been anxious about parts of the process helps me feel less alone–and therefore, less afraid. Writers need a good support system.
  2. Exercise. It’s kind of a given that writers, given how sedentary our lives often are, need exercise. But this is particularly true for anxiety, as exercise can help burn out some of the energy that anxiety feeds on. Personally, I’ve become a big fan of Pokemon Go, as the goal-directed motion absorbs me enough to let go of some of the stress.
  3. Identify what you’re afraid of. Part of mindfulness exercises involves identifying facts and feelings. As my counselor pointed out, the fact is that I have a book coming out. That fact might make me feel afraid, or excited, or any number of feelings–but the fact alone is not evidence of everything I’m afraid of. Figuring out the source of my anxiety and naming it has been helpful for me–as has writing about it. In addition, Susan Dennard has a wonderful post on acknowledging fears as a way to rob them of their potency.
  4. Get help if you need it–talk to a counselor, learn strategies for managing anxiety (including medication, if necessary). One thing I’m learning is that anxiety is often driven by chemicals in our body–chemicals we can’t always manage on our own.

What about you? What ways have you found to deal with anxiety as a writer?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf/Random House. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

2 thoughts on “Writing and Anxiety

  1. Like you mentioned, mild exercise (I go for a walk) and a nice chat is one of the most effective helps when my writing anxiety flares. I also keep a list of calming images to visualize, which when my counselor suggested, I thought was a little silly, but helps a lot. And the biggest help for me is keeping my hands/mind busy with something rote, like crocheting. Thanks for sharing this past of your journey!

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  2. Pingback: Overcoming Shame as a Writer | Thinking Through Our Fingers

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