After more than 15 years and literally millions of words written between day jobs and school assignments, the fog of writing anxiety hasn’t lifted for me. It shrouds much of this blog, if not this dashed-off entry.
The most obnoxious writing advice I ever got was from another student at university, who said that I should write “as if a reader were always looking over your shoulder.” Terrifying! But this reader-telescreen sticks around, like Bay Area fog obstructing the vistas beyond.
Is it a good thing, though? Staring at a blank page gives me heartburn, but the anxiety pushes me toward the metaphorical antacids, by making me go back and yank a word for a synonym (having to do this during the day has given me a new perspective on the usefulness of nouns like “setups” are “arrangements” as generic stand-ins for many words) or retool phrasing for smoothness so that I can feel better about what emerges. “I don’t like writing, but I like having written” – yes.
Maybe anxious handwringing over word choice and style is preferable to the alternative – pure freedom, which philosophers from Hobbes to Sartre have characterized as actually frightening. For me, the “writer’s block” cliche seems more grounded in not knowing how to pick one out of many tantalizing options, rather than being stuck trying to rework a section or idea (though that happens). Having to produce enormous volume on schedule helps with the latter issue, but the first one is still painful, like a feeling of “which of 1,000 different ways will I pick to fail?”
This naysayer voice fortunately doesn’t linger forever. Naysayers don’t see opportunities, no more than grammar-hounds see style or originality – reason enough to nudge them to the sidelines. Many times, a piece will end up as something with no resemblance to its original germ, which seems so much more satisfying than just adding, using and then rolling away the scaffolding for something that’s been taking shape in your mind for some time (though that’s a great feeling, too). Where did that come from? That was inside the whole time?
I’m not a fan of “spotaneity,” a word that implies almost sociopathic negligence of purpose, friends and family. But I do like the idea of setting down an idea and then trying to either build around it or demolish it outright – a win-win for a writer who can bring curiosity, thinking, and patience to the game. It’s why when I work on short stories, I often pick an author and then imitate his style at first and then add my own flourishes to see if it either enhances or engages what made Hemingway, Joyce, or others so fun to read in the first place. That’s the start of alleviating fear of a blank page planet, even if the lesser anxiety of retooling structures and word choice await. That’s good anxiety.