Three Ways to Combat Creative Anxiety
Any time you’re taking a creative writing course is not the ideal time to develop a phobia of writing, but that’s what happened to me.
I was a bit of a mess my second year of college thanks to anxiety and depression, which took their deepest roots in my writing life. I didn’t just hit a creative roadblock; I veered right off the road. I’d never imagined begging my adviser to let me drop his creative writing class, but with fear gnawing at me every time I sat down to write so much as an email, I thought I had no other choice.
I imagine you’ve experienced something similar, even if you’ve never dabbled in writing. Fear can attack us in all areas of life, sometimes chasing us straight off course. Below are some of the ideas and techniques that helped me find my way out of the ditch and, in time, back on my way.
Go Word by Word…
When I went to my adviser to tell him that I couldn’t write anymore, he just gave me the kind of mysterious smile people much wiser than you give when they’re about to give you game-changing advice.
“Sometimes, you just have to write, ‘See Spot run,’ over and over, because you can’t do anything else,” he said. “When you’re feeling better, you can decide, ‘No, he’s not running—he’s jumping across the backyard into Mom’s flower garden.'”
This advice has continued to buoy me in my creative life. It has allowed me to take the creative process step by step, even when those steps seem to go backwards. You have time to fill in the blanks when you can. You have permission to rewrite. You have a floor beneath you to crawl on when you need without fear of falling or scraping up your knees.
…But Do Take Time Off
I believe giving in to fear will harm you more than help you, with writing as one exception. To borrow from author Anne Lamott, writer’s block signals creative emptiness. You have run out of things to write about, in a way, and need to recharge.
For me, anxiety and depression were nothing but emptiness. I had exhausted my reasons to live and needed to rest. I didn’t give up imagining what I might want to write someday. But when writing itself had me floundering in a mental whirlpool of worry, I found it best to take a step back for a moment to remember how—and why—to swim. Don’t fear doing the same.
Accept the Lump in Your Throat
In her book The Long Way Home, Louise Penny examines the anxieties that come with creativity. While discussing a struggling artist trying to break free from his safe but boring creations into the avant-garde, poet Ruth Zardo and police chief Armand Gamache share the following exchange.
“‘I believe in using your head. But not in spending too much time in there. Fear lives in the head. Courage lives in the heart. The job is to get from one to the other.'”
‘And between the two is the lump in the throat,’ said Gamache.”
Later, when confronted about his efforts to move between his head and his heart, the artist in question admits that his work is “a dog’s breakfast.” And yet he delights in the messiness of his creation, because it will lead him to something beautiful.
We get stuck in our heads so often, afraid of our perceived inadequacies. You might think if you write something “good,” you are a good person; however, if you write trash, you feel like trash. We struggle to separate ourselves from our creations.
The funny thing is, all writers create trash at times. All first drafts are, indeed, terrible. Still, we’ve all written first drafts of something—an essay, a short story, a speech—at some point, and we don’t see worthless people walking around every day.
Slowly, by distancing myself from my work for a while and writing word by word when I returned, I learned to move out of my head, to accept that I will create enough bad sentences to feed an entire animal shelter for years, and to realize that I will have a lump in my throat for a while as I keep honing my craft. I will even have a lump there as I keep trying to accept my own worthiness and adequacy.
But for now, it’s enough to know that a world of creative courage awaits me and anyone wanting to write. Whether you want to start a blog or write a story for your friends, these tips can help you overcome any worries you may face. Then, you can embrace (and love) all the joy and messiness that come with the beauty of creation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MOLLY WIERMAN
I’m a rising junior at the University of Dallas double majoring in English and French with a concentration in either applied math or international studies. Clearly, I’m not quite sure what to do with my life yet, but, having spent my childhood in Canada and a semester in Italy, I love traveling. I also love writing about anything that comes to mind and catches my attention.
Location: Irving, TX/Wichita, KS