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3 Ways to Stop Fretting and Start Writing

Some people love music the first time they hear it and know it’s for them. Others gravitate toward art or architecture or long for a firefighter’s helmet. I loved words and the packages they came in, be they cereal boxes, picture books, or the glossy magazines where my mother had her hair done. I played librarian and read encyclopedias in the summertime. (Yes, I was that much of a word-nerd. And back then encyclopedias still came as sets of books.) Words were expression. Words were escape. Words were knowledge. And words were magic, not just inside your head, but in the real world too.

But words, or rather the prospect of putting them down in complete sentences that might yield an argument, a story, or some response to an essay prompt, that was something else. That wasn’t magic—at least not the good kind. It was terrifying. Hyperventilating-clammy-hands-zombie-apocalypse terrifying. And although I’ve had plenty of opportunities to engage in the practice of writing over the years, I still feel that way.

In one of my favorite quotes, Sylvia Plath observed that “Every day one has to earn the name of ‘writer’ over again, with much wrestling.” And so it seemed appropriate to begin this blog by talking about the struggle that initiates the day for many a writer—the fear of writing itself. My personal practice of choice had been to finally face the anxiety of it all after too little sleep and too much chocolate and too little time to do anything but work. However, that isn’t really an appropriate strategy for anyone, given its detrimental effects on one’s health and welfare and the quality of writing and all. So, instead let me offer three suggestions for facing trepidation and dread in the writing process.

Write Early and Often

When I was young, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a writing class taught by the transcendent poet Joy Harjo. She had us lie on the floor, relax our limbs, and slow our breathing. Only then were we open to the creative process and ready to write. Only you know what writing time works best for you. I’ve found that whether I’m doing most of my writing at 9 p.m. or 1 a.m., the few hours just after waking are the most helpful for coming up with ideas, opening sentences, or working through a piece’s structural problems. Even if you only spend 15 minutes scribbling something down before you put on your running shoes or jump in the shower, do it, every day, while your mind is still loose and before the anxiety has a chance to build.

Make the Page a Free Space

Your mind may be free and open and ready to work, but it’s still amazing how quickly it can shut down when faced with the blank new document on a computer screen or the unforgiving empty page before you. When I began my dissertation, I opened each day, not with the next paragraph from the previous day’s writing practice, but with the empty page of a running journal. I called it “freewriting” in the spirit of Peter Elbow, whose work I reference in the “Top 5” list. However, each post began with “I am so freaked out.” And I would list all of the things that stood in the way of me and that first sentence of the day. Thus, beginning the writing day became less about fear and more cathartic. The page became a problem-solver rather than a problem; a space to fill freely with my own musings, rather than that perfect next sentence. And of course, it’s amazing how quickly those musings turned into the work at hand.

Do Something Else

The time you have to do your best writing is brief. Fatigue comes on. Your thoughts become labored. You find yourself itching to scan the day’s headlines. You check in on email and Facebook and check out of the task you've set yourself to complete. Let this work to your benefit. Knowing that you have a two-hour attention span at most before you need to do something else provides incentive during the best days. It also provides relief in the knowledge that a rough day of writing must come to a necessary end. Even if you return to it later, you must stop and rest before venturing forth again. As someone who has worked with many, many writers, I can tell you that a lack of rest shows in your work. And by rest I don’t mean sleeping, although that is foremost. I mean do the job that pays the bills, walk the dog, wash the dishes, cook a meal. Do something that isn’t about the word or the page that is your current obsession. Live your life, exercise your mind in other ways, and bring that vitality back to the page.

These strategies will never conquer the fear, but they may help you work around it or even with it, and earn the title of writer for today.

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