IN THE DARK: thoughts on the anxiety of writing fiction



*cross-posted to Storytellers Unplugged

When I was in university, one of my closest friends asked me if writing fiction couldn’t be a “hobby” instead of something I staked my future and my livelihood on.

I was adamant that it could not. I had to create or die, dammit! I was born to be a writer! Anything else would be a death of the soul!

I wonder about that now. It’s good – and necessary – to be passionately dedicated to your art, whichever and whatever the art happens to be. But I’m also reminded of something that Stephen King said in his book On Writing: art is a support system for life, not the other way around.

When I was a kid, I could knock out five or ten pages of fiction with such ease I honestly didn’t understand what it meant to have ‘writer’s block’ or why writers, especially successful writers who made it look easy, would go on about the pain and torment of facing the blank page.

Sure, I was young. But writing was not the center of my existence; school and family occupied most of my time and mental energy.

Writing was the shadow life, running through the real one.

Writing took place at the edges of things.

Only later, when I was an adult, and in a situation where I could put my writing squarely in the center of my days, did I start to understand the pain and torment those writers were talking about.

There is a lot of anxiety involved in the creative process. The choices we know we have to make and the self-doubt we know we have to weather, and then the criticism and rejection we know we will experience when it comes time to show our work to the world (or at least certain corners of it), demand a toughness of spirit that isn’t always easy to manifest.

Then there’s the nature of the work itself: that mysterious wild quality to the creative process that seems beyond our control, so that we often feel ourselves at the mercy of it — that it’s the boss of us rather than vice-versa — and wouldn’t it be nicer and easier to go to the movies instead. There’s something to be said for keeping that kind of work at the edges of your life: like an eclipse that will drive you blind if you stare at it too directly, maybe fiction-writing, or art-making in general, is often possible only if you sneak up on it from a certain angle.

After all, the harder and tighter we try to hold on to anything, the more likely it is to slip through our fingers.

There’s an anecdote I like to tell about a writer I used to know whenever I got into a discussion about MFA programs. I think there’s a lot of value in MFA programs, but I was making a point similar to the point I’m making now: the importance of doing something else, of having a passion other than writing, a passion that you can bring to your writing.

My friend, K, published his first book of short stories when he was 28. He won a prestigious national prize for the title story. I knew him at university – he was bright, and showed talent as a writer, and was devoted to the craft.

He wasn’t unlike many other young aspiring writers who graduate university and go on to do an MFA, or take jobs in coffee shops and write when they can.

K, though, took a different route – he loved sailing and had a passion for the sea. Despite his complete lack of experience, he figured out how to get himself hired as a crew member on a yacht. He sailed round the world, went scuba diving, visited many different countries and took an interest in the people there.

Then he came home and transmuted those experiences into fiction. He found an agent and got a two-book deal with a major publisher. The book came out and, from what I understand, did well, got some good reviews, and K looked poised for the kind of literary career others only dream of.

When I told this anecdote, I was making the point that there are alternatives to the MFA route, and finding a different path that provides equally different material for your fiction can be a deep advantage.

To be sure, K sought out writing teachers and mentors, including a professor at the local university. He read and wrote and got constructive feedback and revised and wrote some more.

That’s what you do.

That’s the job.

He didn’t write a perfect manuscript. But what he did write was something very different than what his peers in their MFA programs were writing, and it made his voice fresh and distinctive, and it gave him a great story of his own to include in the author blurb at the back of the book and in promotional materials. He didn’t just learn how to write; he went out into the world and found something to say.

In everything I’ve read about writing fiction, everything addressed to aspiring writers and especially young aspiring writers, I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on that: find your voice, yes, but also find something to say.

Find the subject matter that is uniquely your own.

Be curious about the world and hungry for experience. Get obsessed, and follow those obsessions wherever they lead you.

And then write about them. Be bold. Take chances. Use your imagination as well as what you know, use your ability to put yourself in someone else’s perspective.

K wrote stories about a young man who works on a yacht, a young man who learns about love and sex, but he also wrote from the perspectives of women, of people from different places, different cultures.

Write what you know, but chances are that you know more than you think you know. Keep learning, keep exploring, so that you know more and more.

But here’s the other part to the story about K, that I didn’t have way back when I used to tell this anecdote. Seven years later, he has yet to come out with the second book in his two-book contract. As far as I know – and I could be mistaken – he hasn’t published again.

The last time I saw K, he was passing through Los Angeles on his way to Mexico where he was going to stay with a friend on the beach and write his novel. Finishing his novel was important, K told me, because he had to do it for him, not his publisher; he had to know that he could do it.

I haven’t seen or talked to him since. I hope he finished it. But I think there’s a good chance he didn’t, because something in his writer-self had shifted since the success of his book. Writing no longer held the same kind of fascination for him; the spark had gone out of it, the way it sometimes does, especially when we invest it with that Create or Die ultimatum. Unlike when he wrote those short stories, people were watching him, now, people were waiting for his work. They had expectations for him. He had expectations for himself.

When we have so much at stake, we get tense. We get anxious. Anxiety reaches deep into the most ancient part of our brains and triggers that fight-or-flight–or-freeze response. All we’re facing is the blank page, but we might as well be facing a snarling sabertooth tiger; that primitive part of our brain can’t tell the difference.

All it registers is: threat.

All it cares about is: survival.

So we freeze up. We back away. And maybe we take flight into some activity or process that is guaranteed to relieve that anxiety, at least temporarily, whether it’s watching television or shopping or doing drugs or alcohol or any other one of a myriad of hard and soft addictions.

Then we berate ourselves for our lack of willpower, we call ourselves idiots; we feel like total failures, we regret the lost time, the lost chances to produce good work. But that part of our brain is older than we are, and it operates in a dark instinctive space that is beyond language or reason. If we back it into a corner, and make it think it’s fighting for its very survival, can we be surprised at how fiercely it drives us away? And that, once again, no writing gets done?

Having it on the sidelines, releasing ourselves from the pressure and burden of expectations, might be, ironically enough, one way of keeping our writing center stage. We do our work in the corner, nourish it and let it grow like a plant that only blooms in the dark. So much of writing seems to happen underground anyway, in the rich mysterious spaces of that parallel life where other lives get lived and life-or-death drama plays out while we run errands, make lunch for the kids, put in the time at the day job.

If you wrote for twenty to thirty minutes a day – every day – you could write a book in a year.

Writing fiction is serious business. It demands nothing less than everything you’ve got to give: your blood, sweat, heart and soul; your time; your ego. You expose yourself in your work and again when you show your work. It deserves to be taken seriously, and yet somehow we have to find a way to treat it lightly, hold it lightly, so it doesn’t slip away from us.


Sep 19, 2009

3 comments · Add Yours

You speak truth. Well said.


Fantastic article. It’s true of all writing, not just fiction, and I’d take it even further for anything creative: playing an instrument, painting a picture, delivering a speech, starting a business. All mediums are empty without interesting subjects.

-Marshall Jones Jr.


Thanks for a wonderful article. I have learned the hard way that I have to keep some degree of fun in my writing or it becomes a chore. Too much pressure sucks the life out of it. So yeah, I guess I agree with Stephen King on this one. :)


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