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?!'”

Care less.

That’s my answer.

I’ll give that a second to seep in.

Care. Less.

*whistles a tune*

Okay, I think I’ve given that enough time for it to crawl into your brain-bone.

Let’s talk.

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.

You’re writing.

One word after the other. No wants, no needs, no fears.

Only words.

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.

Care. Less.

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.

56 comments

  • Yep.

    Dont. Give. A. Shit.

    Write and don’t care. Enjoy yourself. Free your mind and the rest will follow and all that.

    My motto is HEAD DOWN, MAKE WORDS.

    Just write and seriously, if you don’t come out the otherside with some sense of satisfaction or joy, then take a hard look at whether the writing gig is for you or not.

  • I tried to care less, but found I couldn’t.

    Don’t get me wrong, I care about the story, I care a lot about the story, actually. But the writing? I don’t give a shit about that.

  • That thing you said about depression? Yeah, that’s the real deal. Been struggling with that myself lately. And when the depression centers itself around your writing it gets even worse. There’s nothing like a tiny voice whispering, “You’re never going to make it at this writing thing, you know that right?” in your head to make you want to just give up.

  • As with other Wendig articles, this is one I’m going to be linking people to every once in a while.

    Such a perfect transition. “There is no such thing as writer’s block” to “depression” to “maybe you don’t like writing”. Wonderful.

    Although for the “depression” aspect, I’d just recommend writing through that, too. It’ll hurt, but you’ll feel better once the hurting stops. Hopefully.

    • @Bronson:

      I think the argument for writing through depression fails in the sense that, depression is not necessarily just a hurdle — it defies expectation and rationality. Depression — by which I mean something more clinical and less abstract — doesn’t fade upon success or triumph. And it can be very hard to just push through in a way that feels satisfying or even possible.

      Which is why in that case I think — and I’m not a doctor, so everyone should take my words with an epic salt lick — you have to treat the depression before you hunker down and attack the writing. The one, I feel, must follow the other. I don’t really have issues with depression but used to with anxiety and worry and panic (though I’m sure there’s a case to be made where they’re all the same thing), and “writing through it” isn’t always an optimal solution. I maybe write my way around it, or write my way in ignorance of it, but just trying to hammer those things into submission often makes them push back rather than fade away.

      It’s all about getting your mental house in order before you have guests (the characters?) over for dinner.

      Again: not a doctor or a “headologist.” I just think the thing to remember is that depression is NOT about writing. It’s easy to see it that way — “Oh, I’m feeling sad BECAUSE I can’t finish this story or because my writing is shit,” but that’s a broken order of operations. The depression has just settled on that thing you love because depression is like water; it fills in all the low spaces. It didn’t come from your inability to write the way you want; the inability to write the way you want comes from depression.

      Order them properly and I believe it helps you attack the problem rather than the symptom.

      — c.

  • Thanks, Chuck.
    The depression thing has been getting to me lately too. With a side of anxiety. Lovely. The poor character I just wrote it in to is in for some serious shit.

    But hey, maybe I use it to kick myself in the ass and do this writing thing for reals.

  • Thanks for covering the depression stuff, Chuck. That happened to me in the early days, when I was too green to grasp the fact that stressing over writing was making my bad mental state even worse.

    These days when depression, worry or stress rears it’s ugly black head and messes with my writing I know it’s time to go watch some TV and relax for a while. Mental health’s gotta come first.

  • @ Chuck: important topic to discuss and people are so very prone to hiding it, which only makes it worse. I say this as a former psych nurse and a long time depression/anxiety sufferer who spends a lot of money I don’t have on a really good therapist. Seems like a little thing to give people a forum to discuss but it can really make all the difference in the world.

    so thanks for the millionth time.

  • I used to think I could write through depression. I also used to think I could write through panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, mood swings and mental exhaustion. And I used to make very impassioned arguments for doing so.

    I was lying to myself. Sure I could write while experiencing the mental hurricanes, but I didn’t have any good feelings backing the words – it was just what I did, and in such a low place I figured I wasn’t good at anything, so whatever, at least I’m not working a desk job.

    The problem was that while the writing was getting done, I wasn’t taking care of myself. This didn’t matter to me, since up until last Friday, I really thought I was walking the planet Earth strictly to edit and write, living be damned.

    And then this happened: http://writernextdoor.blogspot.com/2012/07/heres-what-i-did-this-weekend.html

    For the immediate time, writing and editing go on the backburner. And yeah, that puts a big dent in my income production, and a long day of therapy saps my energy, but it’s not a permanent event, just a short-term intensive course correction.

    On the plus side, I did do a little writing this weekend, and it’s an entirely new and different experience – without that “OhmygodIhavetodoagoodjobelsetheauthororpublisheroragentorwhoeverwon’treferanymoreworkeveragainandI’lldiepoorandhomelessandforgotten” driving me to put words on paper, I can actually enjoy myself and sure, it takes longer to get things done, but if I’m enjoying myself, what’s the big damned rush?

  • When my anxiety about writing was particularly bad, one thing that helped was to hand write rather than type. Everything is submitted digitally these days–whatever your process, eventually the thing has to be typed–so to write it meant CLEARLY this is a draft –> non-final –> experimental –> no expectations. Also, I could use goofy colored pens.

  • As a young man (and now Chuck tosses out some comment about the waning days of the Carter admininstration – shut up, Chuck) I wanted to be a capital W writer. I wanted to be important. I wanted to be the American Graham Greene. And that tended to tie me up in knots a bit when I’d sit down at the ol’ typewriter. (Yes children, I’ve actually used one of those.) Because being the American Graham Greene wasn’t about writing, it was about being important. So every word, every sentence, every paragraph had to carry that weight. I had to write literature, not just tell a story.

    Once I relaxed, realized my stories would be what my stories were and had to be told in my own voice and for my own reasons, it all got a lot easier.

    Plus, they invented these word processor things. That helped.

  • Thanks for putting this together – the issue of what keeps us all locked up inside as writers has been haunting me lately. Why the inner stress is even part of our process at ALL is almost like some understood shackle we have to stick on ourselves when we pick up the pen.

    The balance I’m trying to employ is, as John A. mentioned in the above comment, to take care of myself. Being aware of the mental state you’re in and why you’re caring so much is equally as important as trying to ‘power through it’ (which I don’t find works for very long). I’ve also found that complaining about writing and feeding into the whole ‘writing sucks, it’s hard’ conversations that I was getting into with folks was only feeding the angst-wheel going around, until I couldn’t get to the heart any longer of WHY I was having trouble. In the end, I’d come out and realize it wasn’t the writing that was making me anxious, but the anxiety over other people’s opinions, which is not related to writing at ALL but more about how I put too much stock in other people’s opinions in my life. And that was feeding my depression/anxiety, not issues with the work. That required time and work outside of the writing that had little to do with the creative process itself.

    So thank you for addressing this in general again.

  • I tried writing with Goofy colored pens. First, they’re terribly expensive. Do you know how many Disney comic books it takes as raw material before you can extract one pen’s worth of ink?

    Then I tried pens filled with ink made from the actual blood of Goofy. It didn’t work any better. Whenever I wrote dialogue, all the characters said “Gawrsh!” a lot.

  • Good post, good links and comments too. I just wanted to throw in that sometimes depression can be sadness too, which presents in a lot of the same ways but the treatment is different. If life’s served you up a boat load of shit for a while or there’s been a life changing event like a death or divorce or even moving, we can get sad and lose our way for a time.

    I also dug what you said, Chuck, about not really liking writing. I’m very creative. I’ve tried many things and it took me foreverrrrrrrr to admit that I just didn’t like them…even if I was good at them. Being good at something in no way means we have to spend the rest of our lives doing that thing…now that would be depressing.

  • True words of wisdom. I find they work well with most of life, actually.
    But depression? I find a large bottle of strong alcohol (I prefer vodka, or tequila) cures that right up for at least a night. And if I’m depressed the next night, I just take my “medication” again. :)

  • I treat my depression by writing. When I do, I’m writing for me, I’m writing what comes to mind and shoving it in a drawer when I’m done. Sometimes I open that drawer and steal a page, or an image, or a moment that I could feel intensely when what I’m doing now sounds fake.

    Of course, I also treat it with yoga, and Ice cream, and tequila, and running, and Mariachi bands from Brooklyn played loud, you gotta have many avenues of escape from that black hole.

    But when you’re being followed by the black dog, writing can be the lifeline. If it’s not working, go to the beach.

  • @Chuck:

    You’re right that clinical depression is something writing can’t cure, but it’s also something people have to live with, even after treatment. I don’t think I actually said what I meant to say, which is that writers should still try to write no matter how they feel. There’s no point putting it off in hopes that it’ll feel “right” later.

    I don’t think the writing will help the problem nor should the problem be ignored or even seen as a symptom of the other. There is not a causal relationship going on, but there can be a codependent relationship, where the writing and the depression bring each other down to the other’s lowest lows. Once again, what I meant was “try”. Try writing depressed, elated, drunk, sober, tired, energetic, and everywhere in-between. If it doesn’t work out, at least you know.

    And I’ll “try” proofreading my comments for ambiguity ;)

  • Great article. I’ve found that when my depression rears its ugly head, rather than stopping writing, my writing gets more depressing endings. So I suppose that will always tell my readers or the future me of the bad parts of my life, lol.

    I also agree about loving the idea of things rather than actually loving the thing itself. For many long years I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved animals, but after working with animals in large capacity, I’ve decided I kind of really hate dealing with more than my own pets. There’s always one out of one hundred that you like, but odds are you’ll dislike it more than you like that one.

  • I went through this very problem last night. Three re-writes later, I stood up out of my chair and said, “Fuck it.”

    And suddenly I felt 100% better.

    I loved that post by Mur Lafferty.

  • I’m so glad my question got such an AMAZING answer and a GREAT response.

    Perfect advice. Thank you so much. It did indeed help. I was struggling with a first chapter of my novel since February and it wasn’t until I just dove in without a single thought in my head other than “just put words down” without caring if those words were any good or not I was able to finally finish it and move on.

    Caring less is definitely the solution I needed.

    I know I love writing because once I’m actually doing it, I can’t stop.

    And in regards to depression… I agree. It needs to be dealt with first. But I also noticed that even when a person feels good, that doesn’t mean writing gets done. I spent the majority of my 20s trying to improve my mental health. I succeeded, but I still wasn’t writing, which was amazing. I was happier, happier than I ever been, and yet my life hadn’t changed at all. This made me realize that the feelings inside have nothing to do with what was happening on the outside. But luckily, though slowly, once I shifted my emotions to a positive outlook, it became much easier to do the things necessary to change the outside situation.

  • Great article. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

    The myth of writers block is one of my great irritations. It’s little more than an excuse for laziness, a refusal to admit that the idea you’re struggling with isn’t working or just proof that you’re not a very good writer.

    Either way, if anyone tells me they have it, all they get told is to get over themselves.

  • Can I just say that your article was JUST what I need to hear?

    I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve always wanted to be novelist. Since I was 12. lol Now I’m almost done with college and even though I’ve never stopped writing, (and I do a heck of a lot of writing!), I DO have occasional slumps which I would always attribute to Writer’s Block. Or just plain cowardice. You know…you want to be the next Jane Austen, and you’re sooo sure you’r stuff is crap, you think you’ll never be any good, and you feel almost ashamed of sitting down to read your half-written novel.

    However, I feel like we as writers can so easily block ourselves, just like you said. It’s an innate fear of failure. But we take it to degrees unheard of!

    You’re article helped reinforce what I’d been thinking of for the past week. The problem with my writing slumps before was that I was writing what I THOUGHT I should be writing (in order to become the next Jane Austen), and not what I WANTED to be writing. Once I decided to write what really and truly made me happy…well, what a difference! :)

    You’re so right! We need to care less!

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR INSIGHT! :)) :)) :))

  • Went through terrible depression in my teens and 20’s. Finally got it under control by telling myself that it wasn’t really me, just bad wiring and bad mixture of chemicals. Once I could treat it like it was something outside and separate from myself, like an alien using ESP to whisper awful things into my mind, I managed to sort of defang it.

    It’s still there, locked in a box in the basement, but I keep a close eye on it and it doesn’t run my life anymore

    Oh, and remember, first drafts are always crap. They’re supposed to be crap. They’re just a hint of the story you’ll end up with. So go forth and write great big piles of crap. You’ll make something shiny and wonderful out of it after 6 or 7 drafts.

  • For me the most useful thing has been to apply lessons hard-learned from my music career (where in a live setting you have even less control over your performance, because there are no do-overs, bodily nerves physically interfere with performance, and there may be distracting environmental stuff or discomforts that can’t be helped). Once a book is out there, it’s out there, drifting on the wild uncaring ocean. People are going to like it or not based on their perspectives and needs and tastes, not yours. You must surrender control.
    The other thing that helps me get over white-page-itis is to remember that, as I like to say, the story you never actually write is always *by definition* more perfect than the real actual squalling red-faced thing that makes it out into the world. Ideals are like that, they always get to be ideal. Realities are, well, lumpy. They have cellulite and frown lines. Hopefully that’s part of their charm. The only way to be a perfect writer is to never actually write.
    Also, I’ve now been through this enough to know that even though it seems overwhelming at the outset, if I can just get going somehow, anyhow, the process *will* kick in and as words and ideas come out where I can actually muck with them, ways to improve them will present themselves along the way. Trust the dirty gritty imperfections of the process. Dress rehearsals often suck. A room being renovated looks like a war zone. It’s okay. :-D

  • PS — I’d also add one particular thing for rookie writers: it’s very important not to set the bar too high. Don’t sit down to write A Great Novel. Sit down to write a humble story. Don’t even think about trying to decide what it’ll actually be good for till you have substantial chunks of it down. Also, there’s no prescribed way you have to write it. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder. If you don’t have the beginning figured out, don’t start at the beginning. If all you have in your head is a pivotal scene somewhere in the middle, write it down, *then* see if it wants to grow. You can write a scene as dialogue-only. You can write a bio or diary entry for your character that will never appear in the finished product. And in the end it may turn out the whole thing was only useful as an exercise, as practice. That’s fine, there’ll be a lot of that, it was ineluctable, ordained. There will be other story ideas just as good, I promise, you’re not losing anything by butchering one in the privacy of your home. And you can always revisit an old idea later on when you’ve leveled up. The only really important thing is to keep choking out them words until momentum picks up.

  • I like this. :D The caring-too-much beast definitely gets hold of me from time to time…okay a lot. I will repeat “you’re not curing cancer. You’re just writing.” mantra from now on. LOL

  • As a gardener, for the record, we call that “AAARGH it’s too freaking hot to go outside and what do I care anyway it’ll never look like a spread in “Better Homes And Gardens” and oh my god I think the weeds are taller than the house.” Writer’s Block is much pithier.

  • Way back when, I used to write to cope with the depression, it was my mode of self-medicating (never did drugs or drank). But once I’d published, the depression which I’d always carried around like a crusty penny in my pocket became a ravenous slavering BEAST and nearly killed me. Took me five goddamn years to get my words back and I’m not giving them up this time. Writing isn’t always easy, but it’s here, and the words are good. Clean, sharp, lovely, and vicious words. Glorious words.

    Agent’s shopping first post-mental-crash book around, current novel’s half done.

    Fuck depression.

  • Ray Bradbury kept a sign that read “Don’t Think” above his desk, something I have adopted for myself.

    Next to it or beneath it or somewhere in that same vicinity, I may add a second sign: “Care Less”

  • It’s funny I never really have had this problem before.

    I don’t know if I’m just abnormal or something but Pressure doesn’t really bother me much :/

    I just stride to make an entertaining story is all. Nothing else to it :/

  • I needed this post today! I’ve been working on a story for about four years and I’m half done with the second to last chapter (the rest of the book is done) and I feel like I’m being dangled from a helicopter flying straight towards the side of a mountain. Care-less! Absolutely spot on! I so need to just gag my internal critic and write the freaking end. I’ve been lecturing myself for the last several days: Why do I think it’s my business to question the value or worth of my stories? Their purpose is to make people laugh. Why do I keep panicking as if I’m writing life saving tips for spies in danger? No one is going to die (or be maimed) if they don’t read my book or even if they read it and they think it’s boring. No one will die! Care-less! Yes! Thank you!

  • This, this, this. Except that with me it’s music. I’ve come to realize that the problem is not my musical ability (or imagined lack thereof), or even the time I (don’t) spend practicing; it’s a mental block. That is to say, a mental problem that probably needs sorting out in therapy. To which I always do the “head scratch of confusion and despair” and wonder how the hell an outlet turned into a source of depression and anxiety.

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