the Author

On Writing Process, part six: Anxiety and writing

Posted in writing, process.


This one is more compli­cated. Or at least it is on the inside of my head.

So, let’s start with a digres­sion. An anecdote.

A friend of mine in real life, who also writes, once asked me a ques­tion. It was pretty simple.

What are you thinking about?”

I’m thinking about the struc­ture of this book.” (I don’t remember which book, but it was one I was writing, and not one I was reading, and yes, the distinc­tion does make a difference.)

What else are you thinking?”

I’m wondering if there’s anything I can do to help Older Son sleep at night.”

What else are you thinking?”

I’m thinking that I don’t have enough things in place to write the Dragon Court book I want to write. Not enough has been estab­lished in previous books.” (Let me now add that I am laying down the type of answer I gave, since it was a couple of years ago.)

She stopped there. But she could have continued for another few iter­a­tions, and I would have had answers without having to reach for them. 

And then she said she was asking because her father had called her at home with a new discovery about his wife (her mother): She only thinks about one thing at a time. This was shocking to my friend, because it had never occurred to her that people think about only one thing at a time.

For her – and for me – there are a plethora of thoughts that are always bubbling near the surface, fighting for attention. 

She had asked her husband the same ques­tion. “What are you thinking about?”

I’m thinking about how to debug this program.”

What else are you thinking?”

… I’m thinking about how to debug this program.” 

(My husband broke out laughing when he heard this, btw — of course I had to share — because he under­stood from the second answer that she was like me and her husband was like him, and we’d kind of gone round on this in our own marriage before.)

This is not as strange as it sounds. I mean, if I ask a visual person to imagine a long dress, they can. If I then ask them to imagine a mini skirt or work boots or etc., they can, and as I ask, all kinds of clothing types will begin to march through their minds, like a collage fashion show. They can do this pretty instantly, although they might ask: What kind of long dress? What era? But… you get the idea.

With my brain’s land­scape littered with words, because again, that’s how all thought is processed for me, the words some­times demand atten­tion. So: while I realize there’s some debate about multi-tasking, and whether or not it’s an actual thing, if I am not multi-tasking, I am flip­ping between my version of “images” pretty constantly. 

I am also thinking and putting aside process ques­tions or other ques­tions that I don’t have imme­diate answers for. I am assessing the answers I think I do have. I am listening for bits and pieces of reader-brain, of other’s posts and comments about their own reader-brains, and I am collecting disparate bits of infor­ma­tion that might, with time, cohere into cogent thought.

My inte­rior brain is there­fore like a library, and I sit at a table with a bunch of those books open, and all the pages are facing up and my mind’s eye is wandering between them, almost compul­sively. And some­times complaining bitterly about the typesetting.

The longest period of non-writing, for me, was during my then younger son’s 9 day hospital stay. This inability to write lasted for 3 months.

During that three months, all of my thoughts, and by thought I mean worry, were focused on my son, on observing my son, on doing research about the thing that had landed him in the hospital. I had no creative thoughts. All of those open books were about him and the rami­fi­ca­tions on the rest of the house­hold and older son.

Worry is part of my creative brain. The What-If func­tion is subsumed entirely, because in order to be prepared for cata­strophe, I have to under­stand all the shapes in which it might arrive. I have to think them through. I have to have a plan in place to deal with them. It’s kind of like writing thought, but terrifying.

At the time I owed one short story and one novel. (Both were late, in the end). Sitting down in front of the computer and typing was not writing, and… every part of my brain had been diverted and I could not simply will it back.

I believe a certain amount of will and focus is required to sit down and write. On most days, it is prefer­able to cleaning the oven. On some days, the oven cleaning looks pretty darned appealing.

But if I have the will to sit, the second part is all of the asso­ci­ated thoughts, the things that underpin my “butt in chair”. I need a few layers of thought in place to actu­ally write creative words. They don’t have to be perfectly orga­nized because — in case it’s not obvious in the rambling struc­ture of these posts — orga­nized thought is … not my strength.

I do need those layers, though. Toward the end of a book, I’ve gath­ered enough that they are the primary and complete focus (it’s why I can’t write endings while working on the second book.)

Today, I sat down to write CAST words. I am still rereading West words, so no new words demanded there. I write until I have three Dragons on the page; I start the morning with the arrival at the palace. I know roughly what has to happen, and actu­ally, it (mostly) does happen — well, okay, the other two Dragons on the page weren’t planned.

I have a rough idea of what tomor­row’s writing will be. A rough idea of the three things that could happen. Those are all thoughts.

I believe a certain amount of joy, of excite­ment, of antic­i­pa­tion, is neces­sary to write. Or it’s neces­sary for me, and I feel the need to now insert the stan­dard disclaimer: This is my process, and it works for me; it is not your process, it might not work for you, and that is more than okay.

By joy, I don’t mean the type of feeling the world’s best Key Lime Pie can give you. And I don’t mean: yay, I got a new tele­vi­sion or etc. In fact, joy is prob­ably entirely the wrong word, but I don’t have the word I do want.

So, absent a single word, I’m going to try to describe what I mean with lots of words. Or more words, at any rate. There are points in the writing of each book that suck me in and drag me along; points at which I’m kind of gaping while writing; points at which I am weeping (this can be embar­rassing if you are writing in public. I think I cried through 1/3 of GRAVE, and in some scenes actively cried enough that I couldn’t see the screen, although I didn’t make noise while doing it). There’s an engage­ment, an emotional inten­sity, a pres­ence in the text. There is one sentence in WAR that made me laugh out loud – and it was the ending to a scene that really wasn’t funny.

There’s an imme­diacy, then. Maybe that’s a better word. An imme­diacy of feeling. I will keep excite­ment, though.

Okay. People who work full-time have prob­ably expe­ri­enced the great joy of having full-time jobs dump hideous blocks of over-time on them (espe­cially the program­ming crew). Forty hours can become 60 hours. Or more. I’ve done it (not at the book­store). On those weeks when I was working 60 hours I would come home with zero brain. I was tired. I was sick of work. I wanted and needed down time. 

I didn’t have the energy to engage with almost anything. I was not fit company for people.

I am making this point because it is also rele­vant to writing. The job that I love can become the job that is sucking my brain dry. It is demon­strably the same job. There is a time at which I need to back away from work and find other sources of fun and enter­tain­ment, because that’s kind of how I recharge. 

(These posts are that, for me, fwiw. They’re fun – for me. They engage me. Thinking about things like this is bright and shiny and my hobby. It’s not usually a visible hobby; I don’t normally write them down and post them in public (although I have done in email). These words are not book words, even if they are words. 

I am reading for a review column — well, not right this very second — as well as writing the novel and rereading and making notes of the West novels. These process posts are both about the writing but entirely sepa­rate from it.)

The things that are my most rele­vant hobbies are also things that are adja­cent to my writing. But for some authors, this is not the case. Some authors need to go in entirely different direc­tions. Video games? Beading? Sewing? Playing an instru­ment? LARPG? RPGs? Spending time with their friends just chilling? Some people even enjoy shop­ping T_T.

Without some­thing engaging outside of work, work becomes the only focal point and on some emotional level it becomes a constant barrage of over-time. 

At the moment, I have balance. I have things I do outside of writing that feed enough into the rest of my life that I sort of feel like I have a life. It may not be any one else’s defi­n­i­tion of a life, but — it works for me. While it works for me, books get written.

Books get written because I have the number of mental tracks neces­sary to write devoted to writing.

Now, I will continue to attempt to put these things – writing thoughts, anxiety thoughts – together. Because in my brain, there’s always an anxiety track.

(In comments on the previous thread — and there’s a lot of Michelle contin­uing to think about process in comments =/ — I mention that I started thinking about some of these posts because someone had asked me a ques­tion about writing over the long haul. This post, and the one that follows, is prob­ably the most clear-cut answer to that ques­tion, asked a decade ago, I’ve come up with publicly.)

My day today had the normal amount of anxiety. Someone didn’t like the new Cast book (which: failure on my part). Someone will prob­ably be really unhappy with the new Cast book, the one I’m writing, no matter what I’m writing about. I always have these fears, although some­times they’re for the West novel, not the Cast novel. I have always had these fears. Every single book of mine you’ve read — if you’ve read them — was written under the shadow of that fear. 

(Except for the first one. That was the fear of not finishing, the fear of it not being good enough for an editor, of not being somehow worthy enough to gain atten­tion. What kept me in my seat was the writing itself, and my own need, by that point, to get to the end.)

It is a constant, back­ground thrum. One level of my mental stack is writing anxiety.

There is no way to quiet that track. There is no factual infor­ma­tion that will shut it up or make it go away. I know. I have tried every­thing, over the years. Once, when I was in a frenzy of worry, I was talking about it over dinner, and my then 13 year old Oldest Son looked at me with minor confu­sion and partial disgust.


Mom,” he finally says, while I’m speaking, “Could you try to be a little objective?”

My husband is trying very hard to shut my son down, because… he under­stands it as part of the process.

I stare at my son. 

You have five book contracts, mom. I don’t think a publisher would offer you a contract if you’re as incom­pe­tent as you’re saying you are.”

Husband has now directed all his atten­tion to his food, as younger son has already done, because both realize that this is a gushing flood of subjec­tive terror that is imper­vious to some­thing as simple, as useful, as fact.

Am I being smart? Prac­tical? Well, no. There’s a reason I try to limit the outlay of fear in public. It makes no sense.

When I was younger, I hated that it made no sense and I tried really hard to change it. Believe that writer-brain is very, very good at arguing with itself. 

But as I got older, I finally just accepted that this terrible anxiety is part of my writing process. Actu­ally, it prob­ably wasn’t just age. It was also talking at length with other writers, and getting a window into their process, even if it was intrin­si­cally different. It was seeing other writers saying exactly the same thing when clearly they were so wrong it wasn’t funny. (And can I just add getting someone else’s extremely clever and good chap­ters because they’re drowning in a sea of anxiety about how garbage they are and they want an objec­tive external opinion, makes my own chap­ters seem even dimmer by compar­ison: If this is your idea of garbage, how much worse is mine??)

The best I can do is to mini­mize the anxiety so it doesn’t over­whelm the writing itself. I can ignore it for at least that long. I might only get a window in which I’m not terri­fied that Every­thing Is Wrong – but I need that window to write.

(When you see advice that amounts to: Turn off your internal editor while writing, this is what it means. But – with less words.)

The thing that makes this hard is this: when we first start, a lot is objec­tively not good. We have made — as I mentioned in the revi­sion posts — clear, objec­tive mistakes. We need to go back, to see those mistakes, and to get a handle on how to fix them. Failure at the begin­ning is the base state.

Let me say that again: Failure at the begin­ning is the base state.

People are often afraid of failing, not because of the failure itself, but because of the judge­ment of that failure by others. I under­stand this, and I under­stand why people often don’t show anyone their work until they feel confi­dent enough to do so. But… failure is part of the long process.

We have to learn how to write stories, and we don’t start out perfectly. So worry at that point is prac­tical and even neces­sary. If we can’t face the failure, can’t examine the mistakes, we can’t improve. But if ten readers tell you one thing, and ten readers tell you the exact oppo­site thing, it can be a bit paralyzing. 

I have had readers tell me they were bored by large sections of a book. I have had readers tell me that that same book is the best thing I’ve ever written. Both of these are subjec­tive opin­ions, neither can be argued with – I can’t tell someone who was bored that they weren’t bored, for instance – but… what can you do with that? How is that actionable?

It’s hard to sepa­rate fear from fact because, in the case of writing, fact is often subjec­tive. Some­times you get the person who is bored. Some­times you get the person who is entranced. It’s the same words they’re reading.

You know you have a vested interest in seeing your work as good. What if, because of that vested interest, you are seeing it through rose-tinted glasses? What if you are telling your­self that it’s good not because it’s good but because you are desperate to believe that it is when you can’t tell anymore?

…which is why a lot of writers have beta readers or alpha readers, and these serve different func­tions. It’s a second opinion (or a third or fourth), a view that is more objec­tive than your fears. But: beta readers are readers, and you can find your­self faced with exactly the same reac­tion as above: love and hate. Boredom and fascination. 

Choose one.

Or try to figure it out. Try to figure out if you can somehow cut down on the boredom while main­taining the fasci­na­tion. Some­times, you can’t. The thing that fasci­nates one is exactly the thing that bores another.

But, regard­less, you’ve honed your ability to look at your text, to figure out what went wrong, and to avoid some of the mistakes going forward. It’s an iter­a­tive process, and the second-guessing, the ques­tioning, the lack of certainty is part of what made you a better writer in the first place.

If you’re anything like me at all.

What I have so far is:

1. Brain space is needed to write
2. Engage­ment and excite­ment about the work is needed, which means… activ­i­ties that excite and engage you are also needed.
3. Anxiety is a constant single track. There’s no way to love it; accept it and find ways to move around it, or ways to move while carrying it.

There was a three month period in my life when these things were not in balance at all, when all the worry and anxiety was simply about my toddler and his future. I had zero writing tracks. On the plus side, this meant I had zero anxiety-about-writing track, but … it wasn’t really a plus. 

This meant: No Words. Missed Deadlines.

12 Responses to On Writing Process, part six: Anxiety and writing

  1. robertreynolds66 says:

    As to the whole “readers being bored with parts or all of a book vs. readers gushing over the same book” busi­ness, it seems to me some­what obvious that the first set simply picked the wrong book for them, while the second set simply picked the right one. I have books and writers whose work I love (you’re one of them). On the other hand, I never want to read The Catcher In the Rye ever again-not even at gunpoint. I am obvi­ously not part of the audi­ence for Catcher and I’m okay with that.

  2. michelle says:

    @Robert: Older son, is that you?

    Ahem. Sorry. Yes, it is absolutely true. But… when you start, it’s much, much harder to be certain that it’s a “not my audi­ence” vs. “this is garbage”.

    You develop certain reflexes.

    But… as I said, anxiety isn’t always rational. Some­times it is never rational.

    Some­times it is so irra­tional that Sir Terry Pratchet can say that some­times he feel like he is getting away with it. Not that he’s good or better or great or better, but … that he’s still getting away with it. And someday that might stop.

    For me, it’s D.H. Lawrence, who is beloved by many.

  3. robertreynolds66 says:

    Oh, I grok that. I’m disabled and I hear my little voice in my head say things like that frequently. So I play Devil’s Advo­cate with him and some­times that quiets him for a while. I figure that, as long as I wake up in the morning, I’m playing with the house’s money.

  4. michelle says:

    I think the devil’s advo­cate is pretty much the argu­ment with myself — but some days, it doesn’t help. It’s frus­trating, because intel­lec­tu­ally I know it’s a waste of mental space or breath — but regard­less, there it is.

    On the other hand…

    As long as I don’t let it inform my actions, I’m good to go.

  5. Steve says:

    This sounds very similar to my inner ADD voice. I’ve been told and have told it many things but it fails to to listen or change. So I’ve made it part of my book, one of the driving forces of the main char­acter, so much that he gets an A.I. in his head to shout it down, but I digress. My own opinion is that the reasons you (and any other author I’ve talked to) are so good (yes, I know„ but…) is that you’ve felt all the emotions you portray on the page. That’s why the char­ac­ters are real and I can see them without closing my eyes. Even Gaimen wrote about anxiety and feeling impostor syndrome.

  6. michelle says:

    @Steve: I think what helped me most to normalize and accept was reading about and talking to other authors, because it was just so common.

    And also, if I accept that this is just part of writing, I can come up with workarounds. If I am berating myself constantly… it’s another mental stack devoted to being mad at myself, which… doesn’t change anything and doesn’t really help.

    But re: emotions: I think life expe­ri­ence informs writing, always. It’s not always conscious — but, I’m the sum of my expe­ri­ences and thoughts, and the books that I write, the stories I wrap around story itself, are going to come out of and reflect that.

    Yours too :)

  7. Joyce Roquillo says:

    I think this may be appro­priate to ask vis a vis anxiety. Do you ever reread your older work, written by a younger and less expe­ri­enced you, and I mean that in life expe­ri­ence as much or even more than writing expe­ri­ence; and ques­tion your choices? Do you find the balance tilts or the plot digresses or the char­ac­ters are off in some way?

    As a reader, it is often very clear that a book was written by a less expe­ri­enced and, usually, younger author. I think I would prob­ably suffer from second thoughts were I an author revis­iting my older writing.

  8. Argentum says:

    The job that I love can become the job that is sucking my brain dry.” This is keeping up with my toddler all day long! I love it, but it sure can feel like over­time some­times, and then I spend nap time texting or reading the news instead of revising.

    Thank you so much for the reas­sur­ance that initial failure is the base state and part of a long process. I learned so much with my first draft and keep learning now with my first pass at revi­sions. It’s scary to think that one either has a gift for story­telling or not, and comforting to think it’s a craft that can be improved with practice.

    Right now, my writing worries are defi­nitely all about whether or not my book(s) will be good enough for an agent/editor/publisher. To a lesser extent, I also worry about how SPECIFIC readers will judge my story, people who may well read it regard­less of publi­ca­tion: my husband and son. Really hoping to someday worry about how existing readers will receive future novels :)

  9. Hera­clites is quoted as saying, “One cannot step into the same river twice (for other currents are always flowing.)” In this case, I take it to mean that nobody ever reads the same book. The same person reading the same book a second time is reading a different book because in the second reading their perspec­tives are different, and perspec­tive IS every­thing. So in the end we have to be authentic in our writing, to say to the world, “This makes sense to me, and I entrust you with it.” Once it’s out of our hands it’s no longer our book, it’s theirs. The only alter­na­tive to that of course is to write solely for one’s self and never let anyone else see it, but even within that there’s always a niggling ques­tion of how someone else would read it. It’s inborn, I think. And on we go.


    P.S. I don’t remember who devel­oped the idea, but it’s one I do my best to remember. Writer’s block isn’t when you’re sitting there, staring at an empty page (or screen). Writer’s block is when you’re doing every­thing BUT sitting there staring at an empty page, or screen.

  10. michelle says:

    @Argentum: The whole having small kids around is 24/7. But it’s not *predictable*. I … did not write nearly as much back then as I do now. And yes, I found it exhausting. I think we all do. I think it’s better to take that nap or take that recharge, though.

    I’ve read a lot about art vs. craft over the years. I think, at the point you have a finished book you’re willing to release into the wild, it’s actu­ally hard to tell the differ­ence. I think as readers – as people who emotion­ally engage *with* story – we have the seeds of narra­tive within us, but… craft is impor­tant. I just the think the impulse to write at the begin­ning requires a kind of devo­tion that craft alone doesn’t explain. For all of us.

  11. michelle says:

    @Joyce: Well. Good ques­tion. And the answer is: my version of better craft is not neces­sarily a read­er’s version of better craft; it depends on what they liked about the earlier books. 

    I’m going to change, let’s say. I consider that I’m strug­gling to improve. This will not be univer­sally believed. 

    So… I do the best I can at the time. I give the book and story all that’s in me to give when I write it. I can’t wait until I’m the perfect writer at some inde­fin­able point in the future or none of these stories will be told. Or read. 

    That said, there’s a *reason* I said that my early high school attempts at writing will never see the light of day. 

    After about six years, though, I don’t remember the writing of the book so clearly. I can assess it objec­tively. I could edit and revise it like a master because… it’s not attached to the inside of my mind anymore. I don’t see what I was *trying to write*; I see what is on the page. 

    But… a six year delay between writing and publi­ca­tion would prob­ably mean Bad Things for me.

  12. michelle says:

    @Mike: I really like that phrasing. “This makes sense to me, and I entrust you with it.”

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