Writing Anxiety and The Wisdom of Improvisation

June 6, 2016

writing anxiety post

This essay should’ve been written and finished weeks ago. And it might’ve been had it not been for a recurring problem I have with writing anxiety. By this, I mean the fear that my writing is not good enough, my ideas are not original enough, and no one will read—much less like—what I write. Anxiety often gets in the way of my writing goals. It has the effect of making me far less productive than I’d like to be. I have a shameful number of unfinished or barely started pieces, and as much as I’d like to chalk this up to a busy schedule, the truth is anxiety plays the biggest part in slowing me down.

I know many authors have some fear when it comes to writing. But most writers work through it, and slowly I’ve been learning how to manage my anxiety as well. It helps to seek out what other writers say about their own periods of writer’s block and fears about writing. Knowing I’m not alone in this relieves some of the pressure to always be perfect and productive no matter the actual difficulties of writing. It also helps me to look at my anxiety as a kind of performance anxiety, like stage fright, and cope with it the way an actress might. I took acting classes at The Second City, the improvisational theater and training center in Chicago, at a time when I was especially frustrated with my writing, and I thought focusing on another creative pursuit might help me, which it did. Studying acting and learning improv exercises made me less judgmental about my creative efforts. I also found a correlation between famous pieces of writing advice and improv principles.

The fundamental quality of improv is that it’s unscripted and unrehearsed, relying instead on spur-of-the-moment ideas or audience suggestions, which means it causes anxiety in performers who fear facing an audience without a practiced performance to prop them up. To help keep improv actors relaxed and open to spontaneity, The Second City developed exercises to build trust between actors and confidence in individual performers, even on a stage without props and costumes. I was recently reminded of what I learned in my classes when reading Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, a couple of business professionals employed by The Second City. The book is marketed at more of a corporate crowd, but its advice comes straight from principles developed by The Second City’s founders and other improv pioneers.

So what are some of these improv exercises and how do they equate to writing advice? One exercise is called One-Word Story and can be summed up with the phrase “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” The exercise requires a group of people to form a circle and tell a story together, with each person allowed to add only one word until the circle comes around to her turn again. If the exercise is to work well, each person should add only the most suitable word the story needs to keep going, even if that word is only a simple “a” or “and.” But if a person overthinks it and adds more (or more obscure) words than are needed, the story gets derailed. By hogging words or trying to impress with vocabulary, a group member not only derails the story but puts herself at the center of the exercise, rather than the story itself. The person is bringing a cathedral to the moment when only a brick, or a word, is needed. Anxiety is as much of a culprit here as ego. In the end, energy is wasted on self-serving plotting rather than straightforward storytelling.

The One-Word Story exercise reminds me a lot of Anne Lamott’s one-inch picture frame advice. In her book Bird by Bird, Lamott suggests breaking down your project by giving yourself short writing assignments, such as describing a scene small enough to fit a one-inch picture frame. She gives the example of her brother panicking over a school paper on birds that he put off writing until the last minute. “Just take it bird by bird,” is the now-famous advice Lamott’s father gives her brother to get him to stop panicking and start writing. It’s terrific advice, whether your project is a term paper on birds or a novel about the immigrant experience or an essay on writing anxiety. No matter the breadth of the project, all writing is done word by word—just as all cathedrals are built brick by brick.

The other thing I try to do is give my self-judgment a break. The basis of the One-Word Story exercise is a principle called Yes, And. Yes, And involves building on an idea to keep a story going. For example, two actors might begin improvising a scene with one actor saying she smells smoke but can’t tell where it’s coming from. Ideally, the other actor will respond by affirming the first actor’s idea and building on it—for example, by saying he just burned a pizza in the oven and has called the fire department. The scene now has a multitude of ways to continue. But if the second actor responds “I don’t smell anything”—i.e., saying “No, but” instead of “Yes, and”—the scene’s momentum is already killed. Yes, And feeds creativity whereas No, But brings the story to a standstill..

This principle can also be applied to writing confidence. One reason I get blocked so often is because I stop when the writing reaches a point that seems too challenging. I become afraid that I’ve written myself into a place I can’t get out of, or I start judging my writing as awful and think there’s no point in continuing. This happens to bestselling writers too. In his book On Writing, Stephen King admits he got three pages into writing Carrie, his novel about a teenage misfit with telekinetic powers, before calling it quits because he didn’t really like the character he was creating and he worried he was out of his element writing a story about a teenage girl. Later, King’s wife rescued the pages from the wastebasket and encouraged him to keep going. Eventually King realized it wasn’t his story that was misguided—his real mistake was in not writing through his fears. “[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” It’s a good thing King had someone to “Yes, and” his earliest Carrie draft. Carrie became King’s first published novel, landed him a $200,000 paycheck, and sold one million copies in its first year.

Most writers don’t reach this level of success, at least not in terms of money, prizes, or bestsellers. Then again, many would-be writers never get beyond the dreaming stage—or the worrying one. If you’re a writer who actually writes, who manages to conquer your anxiety long enough to commit to the labor of writing, word by word, brick by brick, until you have a finished piece, then give yourself some credit. Tell yourself “Yes, and” the next time fear is saying “No, but.” You might not end up with a Carrie or a cathedral full of accolades, but as long as you finish what you started, you’re right where a writer needs to be.

by René Ostberg

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