Creative Anxiety

It’s been a month already, huh? As you may or may not recall, last time I rambled for a bit on Today’s Author, it was about the differences between the writing process and a writing cycle. The short version looks like this:

The Writing Cycle

I think that with some very minor revisions, we could view any creative output through a similar lens.

Of course, this is just how one guy thinks about it (that’s me). And I admittedly think about creativity a lot—maybe too much. I am inherently curious about what triggers creativity and why it happens the way it happens for the people it happens for. But that’s for another day.

Today, I want to look at anxiety in both the creative process and the creative cycle–creative anxiety, we could call it. I think that artists are, on average, a pretty anxious breed. We worry about almost everything it seems, but in my experience the anxiety is worst at the beginning of the writing process and at the end of the writing cycle.

When I start a new writing project, I freak out in the early going. Are the ideas good enough? Does the story have enough going on? Are these characters interesting? As a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” writer for a good chunk of the process, this anxiety hangs around for a while. As a writer of general fiction, the anxiety starts to fade when I get up around 40,000 words. It’s almost all gone by the time I finish my outline of the last half of the book. That’s when I know, for better or worse, the book will be finished. The momentum takes over.

Writing poetry was similar. At the inception of an idea for a new poem, I was nervous about writing. I would struggle through the lines for a while, and eventually, if the poem was meant to be, some line or couplet or stanza would snag me and the anxiety would fade away.

I enjoy the early stages of the process, though—in spite of the anxiety. It’s new and exciting and I’m learning about these new people, so there is a chance that some of that anxiety comes from the excitement of starting something new.

 

We’ve established that the writing cycle encapsulates all of the movements of any writing project—from its planning, to its editing and revision, to cover design and layout, all the way through publication, if that is the goal of the project. Of course, a creative cycle can end when you put the binder clip on and shove it in the back of a drawer. Once a writing project is abandoned for whatever reason, that cycle is done.

I’ve learned that I feel the greatest anxiety at the very end of this process. When I’m out promoting the book, I’m anxious about two things:

1.    My creation doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. Will they take care of it? Will they love it? Will they hate it and burn it? Will they understand it?

Not that any of that really matters. It’s up to readers to read and draw their own conclusions. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a source of anxiety.

2.   What will the next project be?

This is different from the anxiety felt at the beginning of the writing process. Here, we worry if we will have another idea worth pursuing with the same vigor as the one that just wrapped. Will we always have stories to tell? For some people, it may be alright to imagine a world where they don’t write anymore. But for me? I don’t know what that looks like.

There is a great scene in Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, where a young Rushdie meets Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut asks the young writer, who was fresh off publishing Midnight’s Children, “Are you serious about this writing business?” When Rushdie responds that he is, Vonnegut says, “Then you should know that the day is going to come when you won’t have a book to write, and you’re still going to have to write a book.”

That scene sticks in my head for a couple of reasons. First, it would have been super badass to be in that room. Second, what if I run out of stories?

What are your experiences with creative anxiety? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “Creative Anxiety

  1. Really interesting post – and as someone who is currently attempting to keep her anxiety under control, I really appreciated the reminder that I’m not alone.

    I’m only on my second book, but I’ve found myself generally more anxious throughout this one than I was with the first – probably because last time around I had nothing to lose, and this time I at least have an agent who might decide that taking me on was a terrible mistake when she reads the latest draft. When I get to the stage of sending it to her, I think I might have to shut myself in a darkened room and just rock back and forth for a while!

    • That’s a really great point! When I was writing my first novel, I didn’t even know if it would ever see the light of day. Now, with the second book, I know it BETTER get seen. Haha!

  2. Great post. I do get “creative anxiety.” There are times, I have half an idea and as much as I want the other half to come it won’t. And there are times when I have a creative idea, but feel it’s inadequate in someway. Often it isn’t and my lack of confidence is just my normal feeling that I am not good enough.

    • Oh man…that half-idea bit is SO frustrating! Sometimes I’m able to write through, but I am constantly worried–when working through a new thought–that there isn’t enough there.

  3. For me, I use a lot of creativity in the planning and the editing. The outline is pretty dry, but if I think outside the box, I get that spark back in.

    Interesting article, Shane. I love seeing how others do their best writing.

  4. I also worry that my current idea might be my last, then before I complete WIP, I have another idea buzzing around, yelling, “Write me, write me!” Not all are outstanding ideas but they promise I have more to do.

    Meeting Kurt Vonnegut – now that would have left me dumbstruck.

    Great post, Shane, as we all feel anxiety. I worry most about what others think about my work. I so want people to like it well enough to talk about it. I’d bite my nails to the quick but they’re already painfully sheared.

    • Again, we think alike, Shari. I’m absorbed by my current WiP. Any ideas revolving around another story must be so far back in my subconscious that I’m going to have to go digging for them when I have a few days to spare. I worry pointlessly about if I will even find a story line I want to tackle once done with this one. Hopefully, by the time I’m past the middle of the WiP, I’ll be like you and the light will come on again.

  5. I used to have ideas all the time. Now I do not. I used to write all the time. Now I do not. Life has changed for me in directions that have caused the creative side of me to fall away. I’ve been trying to bring it back, but it has proven difficult. Thankfully, in the times when the ideas flowed freely, I wrote a lot of them down. I’m hopeful that reading those ideas, even as bad as they may have been, will kick start things again. I just need to find time to start again. And that’s where *my* anxiety lies: if and when I am in a place where writing can be a priority again, will the ideas and the words be there?

    • Rob, I think I know what you mean. I lost my “stuff” way back when I was still in my twenties. I even MADE time to write, but all that came forth was garbage. I abandoned writing finally. Here it is approximately thirty-five years later, and I’m writing again. For a few years, it was nothing but essays, awful essays at that.

      There is always, ALWAYS hope.

    • You know, when I was in graduate school and immediately after, I found it difficult to do creative work. I was much too analytical and critical. It took a while to reclaim the creative impulse and even longer to feel good about any of it. It’s one of the reasons I decided against a Ph.D. I was worried about losing my creativity again. So, it can wane…or come and go…and that is troubling.

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