Ask A Writer: In Which I Exhort You To Care Less
Once again, time for another session of The Little Miss Wendig Writing-and-Storytelling Advice Column. Want to ask a question? Go to terribleminds.tumblr.com/ask and deposit it there under a name or as an anonymous human of the Internet. If I pick your question (and you’re not anonymous), I’ll toss you a free writing-related e-book of your choice. Easy-peasy George-and-Weezy.
Amber Gardner asks:
“What would you say to someone who were to run up to you and say: ‘Help! I have terrible performance anxiety whenever I sit down at the keyboard! Like my chest tightens up and physically feel like shit. I want to just sit down and write through it, ’cause writers write, and that’s the whole penmonkey attitude, but the more I try to force it, the worse it gets and what I write is awful anyways. What do I do?!’”
That’s my answer.
I’ll give that a second to seep in.
*whistles a tune*
Okay, I think I’ve given that enough time for it to crawl into your brain-bone.
Your writing is just that. Words written on a page.
And yet, we come to our stories loaded for bear with expectations. They’re like children, in that way — we deeply hope they’ll go out into the world and cure cancer and solve the down economy and grow up rich and happy and maybe be a lawyer, too, and a nuclear physicist, and have a litter of darling Village of the Damned-looking grandkids and, and, and. We wish the best for our stories. We want them to be great. We want them to win awards and climb to the top of the bestseller mountain and maybe they’ll change somebody’s life and earn us a giant sack of cash which will allow us to buy a jet-boat or an oil drum full of that very rare civet-poop coffee. Maybe a jet boat fueled by civet-shit coffee. Who knows?
We step up to the blank page — this snowy tract that hasn’t earned even a single footprint across its virgin expanse — and the potential overwhelms us. Or, it has me, at least — once upon a time upon starting a new story I’d feel like I was standing drunk on the ledge of a skyscraper. Vertigo overwhelming as if even typing one letter would send me dropping down in that cavernous concrete abyss. And this sense of woozy dizzy gonna-fall-itis is compounded by the heavy burden upon one’s shoulders — that burden of potential, of a story that must succeed if it is do anything at all, a story whose entrance into the marketplace would not be enough, a story on which hung my life, my career, my hopes, everything, all of it, OMYGOD I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS CAN’T BREATHE PANIC gaaaaaasp *pees pants falls down cries a lot*
It’s bullshit, of course.
It’s always bullshit, these mental games we writers play with ourselves.
Our words are just words. Our stories are just stories. Maybe they transcend their form. Maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Repeat after me: it doesn’t matter. Care less. Fuck it. Fuck it. Write like you don’t give a damn. Write like there’s no expected outcome except a finished story. Write the story that sings in your heart, not the one that whispers in your brain. You’re not curing cancer. You’re not saving the whales.
One word after the other. No wants, no needs, no fears.
There’s no real risk to writing except your time. (Well, and maybe your sanity, but let’s be honest — the fact that you choose writing as a profession suggests an already disintegrating SAN score.)
Nobody’s watching. You get as much time as you like. As many do-overs as you like. Er, all this presupposing you’re not on deadline. Deadlines present another axis of stress — some authors work well with a gun at their temple, some feel hamstrung by the pressure. But therein I still suggest the answer is to care less. Take the pressure off however you must.
You free yourself by caring less. By dumping the dueling goblins of Fear and Expectation out the back of a C-130 and into the mouth of an open and active volcano named Mount Don’t-Give-A-Shit.
Sure, it would seem that the answer would be to care more — how can you possibly care enough? If this is a thing you want to do and a thing you love, well, why not give it all the caring you can possibly muster?
Because we can smother the things we love by caring too much. Sometimes you gotta let your kids play in mud. Sometimes you gotta let a dog be a dog. Sometimes you have to let your story just be a story.
There you go. That’s my answer.
Now, as an addendum, there could be other things going on. First, I’ve gone on the record time and time again to say that Writer’s Block is not a real thing, in the sense that writers don’t own mental blocks anymore than any member of any other profession — anybody can get blocked, be they gardeners, physicists, or insane government assassin cyborgs. But they don’t get special names for it (“I have a bad case of Gardener’s Trowel!”), so why do we? Further, the solutions to defeating said block is almost always to just write through it — head down, run the gauntlet, get out the other side.
But the thing is, there is another form of Writer’s Block where you are crippled by the process and writing through it just yields greater frustration and sadness, and in this case Writer’s Block is likely due to depression. Which means it’s not Writer’s Block at all but, uhh, well, depression. So, if you go at the problem trying to treat “Writer’s Block,” you will be treating a symptom and an outcome, when really you need to be treating your depression. How you do that is up to you: meds, meditation, therapy, oolong tea, chakra-realignment, I don’t know. What I do know is that depression is not at all uncommon in writers and many writers with depression are not crippled by it and are, in fact, quite successful. But it’s something that must be dealt with day in and day out — this all sounds a bit glib and dismissive, when the reality is that depression can be quite limiting. But just the same: you either deal with it, or it deals with you. Easier said than done, but must be done just the same.
(After I saw this, I caught sight of this post by the Mighty Mur Lafferty that touches on the subject of depression and caring and so on. It is, of course, a cracker of a read, because she rocks.)
So, that’s one thing that could be happening.
The other thing is: you don’t like writing.
Throughout my life I’ve thought that I liked things more than I actually did — like, say, watercolor painting. I liked the idea of the thing, but turns out, I did not like the thing in practice or habit, and attempting to do that thing did not salve my artist’s soul but rather enraged it in the way that you might enrage a giant gorilla by attacking it with helicopters. So, sometimes we want to like something or find a connection with a task or an act and the fact is, it’s just not our thing.
I don’t know how you know that except maybe by stopping and discovering, “Oh, hey, I’m much happier not sitting down every day and banging my head against a keyboard till it’s bloody.”
Do with this as you will. Hope it helped.
Now go forth and write.
Without pressure, without fear, without the expectation of doing anything but crossing the finish line.