The gift that I recently received from my horrible writerly anxiety
I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety lately about my writing. I’m not sure whether it’s actually worse than normal or if I’ve just had an unnatural ten month or so cessation of my usual writerly anxiety. Either way, I really dislike this feeling. I hate staying up at night, worrying about what some editor thinks of my story, or about whether I’ll ever be a good enough writer to achieve the things I want. Sometimes, the anxiety is so bad that I fantasize about quitting writing entirely. But this blog post is not about overcoming anxiety. Instead, it’s about the gifts that anxiety can give you.
For me, the things I am anxious about are usually the things that I can only somewhat control. Things that are entirely out of my control don’t tend to worry me. And things that are fully within my control also don’t worry me. It’s the in-between things that are horrible. That’s why one of my biggest fears is getting into a car crash (because it’s something that can only be averted by constant vigilance and constant suspicion).
Similarly, good stories are built out of blind intuitions that are ruthlessly subjected to second-guessing. For long periods of my writing career, I haven’t practiced the rigorous quality control that was necessary. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story so bad that it made me ashamed (luckily, no one has, or will ever, see it). It’s not that the story would’ve burned out the eyes of an editor, it’s that the story was worse than what I could do, and there was no reason for me, at my skill level, to have written something of that quality. Halfway through the story, I could sense that it was not what I wanted it to be, but I finished it anyway, out of momentum.
Now, most writers would say, “Don’t worry about writing a terrible first draft. You can fix it in revision.” But I know better. For me, once a story is done, it’s done. I can cut it down in revision. I can tamper with its balance or heft. But I can’t reinvigorate its rotten core. Revision, for me, can bring out only limited quality improvements.
So I lay awake that night, thinking, “What can I do to avoid writing stories that are this awful?” And while I was lying awake, I came up with what I think is a truly great writing process.
For years, I’ve been hearing about how typewriter-era writers were so great because they had to physically retype the entirety of each draft and, in doing so, transform every sentence and paragraph of it. For a time, I even experimented with doing the same thing, but I found it to be of limited worth since I would just stare at the last draft in another window and slavishly retype it (except for changes in a few places). It was not a transformation, the changes in the end amounted to nothing more than what I would have done during a normal revision.
But my new writing process was a simple variation on this typewriter style redrafting, except instead of looking at the previous draft while I retyped, I would start fresh, and just start writing the story again. The previous version of the story would be nothing more than a very detailed outline held entirely in my memory. As I wrote, I would be actively re-imagining every word of the story.
So far, I’ve written two stories using this method. For the first, I wrote the first 1000 words of the story. Then on the second day (without looking at the first day’s production), I started over and wrote the first 2500 words of the story. On the third day (with only small glances at the first day’s output), I started over and wrote the first 4200 words of the story. On the second day, I started the story in a different place. On the third day, I made fairly major adjustments to the main character’s motivation (and in doing so, changed the expected ending). On the fourth day, I was so ridden with the anxiety at starting over again that I just started off where the previous day had left off and wrote straight through to the end (another 4000 words). However, I was extremely pleased with the story that resulted. I ran it through a critique group, and found that it won’t need that much revision.
For the second story, I wrote 500 words the first day, then started again on the second day and wrote the first 1900 words. Then I started over the third day and wrote 2500 words in order to complete the story. Again, my conception of the story changed significantly during each rewrite. Yesterday, I revised that story and sent it out. Again, I felt that it was about as good as it could be.
It’s an interesting technique. Oftentimes, I would struggle to recreate a passage from the previous draft, and feel that in the current draft I had produced a much-inferior replica. However, after comparing drafts, I usually found that the newer passage was better.
In the finished stories, I didn’t have the sense of gappiness that I often get from my stories, where some initial conception of the story was abandoned halfway through and then the hints of that conception were excised in a way that left scars. Oftentimes, I’ll feel (in my revised stories) that the paragraphs don’t transition smoothly, but I won’t know how to fix it.
I also feel like I am finally treating my subconscious with some level of respect. In a previous entry, I wrote about my writing process (writing dozens of beginnings in order to find one story worth writing). But I had never felt satisfied about how I would spend days writing these terrible, boring story fragments and then, when I was finally presented with something worthwhile, I’d blow through it in one or two days. Now I feel like I spend the right amount of time and effort on these stories. Maybe there is a puritan strain in me. Maybe I just feel like if I don’t suffer to produce something, then it’s not worthwhile.
And there is a kind of suffering to this process. Oh, it’s not breaking rocks in the hot sun, but it is harder than what I was doing before. When writing a story straight through, it gets easier after about halfway through. I know how it’s going to end, and I just need to get there.
When rewriting from memory, it gets harder. It’s hard to struggle to write something that came easily the day before. It’s hard to keep forcing my imagination to work, long after it feels like it should shut down.
But it’s worth it.
So yeah, those are the kinds of rewards that anxiety can give you. Sometimes I read a blog post like this excellent one by Tobias Buckell (which approaches writerly anxiety from a different angle), and think, “Man, I need to stop worrying about all these carrots and sticks. I need to just sink down into the adventure of the writing process. I need to focus on saying what I need to say, and just getting it down there. The destination is less important than the journey.”
And that’s fine. But the destination influences the journey quite a lot. If all I cared about was writing for fun and companionship, then I would just put everything up for free on the internet. I wouldn’t care about quality. I’d probably write terrible fan-fiction or something.
If all I cared about was writing for myself, then I wouldn’t subject myself to even the possible of rejection. I’d write in my journal. It’s worrying about the reaction of that wispy, near-fictional reader–someone like you–that drives me to produce something that might be worth reading.
But…I am going to keep trying to find a way to internalize that voice in a less physiologically and emotionally destructive way. Sometimes I think that what I need to do is think of writing in more spiritual or abstract terms. I am not trying to please an actual reader. I should instead try to conform to some Platonic ideal of quality that can only be approached asymptotically. Then this writing gig would not be a struggle to please an actual person; it would be an internal odyssey. It would be entirely under my own control, and hence less nerve-wracking.
Yeah, sometimes I think that, but then I gag on on the New Ageyness of it. Still, though, that’s probably what I’ll end up believing, someday.