People who face anxiety-related writing blocks experience a range of different emotional concerns, and often it is the combination of different concerns that lead to a writing block (See note on writing blocks, at bottom of post). When fears/doubts/anxieties come in groups, the emotional response is stronger, and it becomes harder to see any of the concerns individually, which makes it harder to eliminate or reduce any of them. In this post, I’m going to do a rough typology of different fears, and suggest and exercise to sort out concerns so that you can begin to untangle the variety of fears that trigger the emotional response that becomes a writing block. A typology can help in sorting out different anxieties, and can help in making addressing specific anxieties so as to reduce their impact on the writing process.
Why a typology?
As I have previously argued, sorting out different types of writing-related concerns is a good preliminary step toward making plans that can reduce those anxieties and limit their impact on your writing practice. The typology here is offered as a tool to help distinguish different anxieties that you might experience. It should not be viewed as intellectually rigorous, but rather as a loose guide to identifying and distinguishing your own issues. It is not meant to restrict or limit your concerns—it’s possible that you have concerns that I do not include in my typology—but rather to help you analyze those concerns, so that each concern can be addressed individually rather than en masse, making it possible to begin to make plans for responding to, and possibly eliminating or reducing the concern.
A Typology of Writers’ Fears
- Fear of rejection (“They won’t accept my work.”)
- Fear of failure (“I won’t be able to do what I should do”)
- fear of ridicule (“They will mock and mistreat me”)
- fear of personal inadequacy (“I’m not good enough”)
- fear of suffering (“writing sucks”)
- fear of specific people (“my professor/parents/etc. is so mean!”)
These different types are not mutually exclusive; many come together, as, for example, with a hypothetical cruel teacher/professor who not only grades a work down but also makes cutting comments about your lack of ability. Recognizing the different dimensions of the anxiety allows a writer the chance to separate out the different dimensions of the criticism, seeing both those that are accurate (the actual errors and weaknesses in the work) from those that are not (a general critique on ability or character that is contrary to evidence of previous experience).
Realistic and unrealistic anxieties
There is one criterion that deserves its own sorting, separate from the typology, and that is the division between those anxieties that are realistic and relevant and those that are not. Some anxieties are entirely realistic and therefore very difficult to dispel, most notably the concern that a work will not be accepted. While you may be able to reduce your emotional response to that situation, it’s a real and realistic concern: your work may not be accepted. It’s not a concern that is casually dismissed (though you don’t want to focus on it!). By contrast, emotional difficulties relating to a person in your past—a former teacher, your parents—are not relevant or realistic (in the sense that they are not current, even if the emotional issues remain). It may not be easy to set aside that internal critic that you learned from your past, but it is certainly realistic to do so: someone from your past is not going to read your present work. Concern yourself with the people to whom you will submit your work in the future, not those to whom you submitted it in the past. If you focus on the realistic present concerns and thereby limit or eliminate unrealistic and irrelevant anxieties, the overall level of anxiety is reduced and the more realistic fears that remain may be more easily negotiated.
Exercise 1: How realistic are your worst worries?
[Exercises are for practice, not for performance. They are to learn about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and also to increase your skill and ease in putting ideas into words on the page (i.e., writing). Writing an exercise like this will help develop your writing skill generally, which will support your writing in more formal efforts. Don’t worry about making mistakes; just do it for the exercise. Try, but don’t try hard. This exercise is not about pushing your limits of tolerance; it’s about doing something relatively easy to get the sense that not all writing is a difficult battle for precision.]
List some of your writing-related anxieties. For each item in the list, how realistic is that concern? Are there any concerns that stem from previous experiences that have no bearing on your future performance (e.g., a professor or teacher you no longer work with)?
Goals of this exercise:
- 1. Put ideas into words on the page (write something!)
- 2. Identify realistic anxieties for planning purposes
- 3. Identify unrealistic anxieties for mental health purposes
- 4. To write without fear of making a mistake
- 5. To write with minimal effort
To be avoided:
- 1. Getting stressed over doing the exercise
- 2. Working hard
If you struggle with anxieties related to writing—struggle to the point that anxiety significantly interferes with your ability to write—then there’s a good chance that you’ll feel a lot of anxiety when trying to list your anxieties. Thinking about worrisome things is often a trigger for anxiety, so the exercise I’ve described above could be unpleasant or even counter-productive. If you feel it so, please be kind to yourself and gentle: you’re not going to reduce anxiety by self-criticism. While the exercise might trigger anxiety, it might also help to calm it. Often, sorting through a group of problems, and seeing the issues clearly can also provide some comfort: no longer are you facing a massive, indistinct monster, instead you have a swarm of lesser issues, some of which you can deal with effectively.
In the long run, sorting out different obstacles is a preliminary to making plans of action to address those different obstacles. Often, a sorting process of this sort will also lead to some ideas for how to work more effectively. One a problem has been named, solutions are often implicit. For example, if you recognize a specific cause of anxiety as being related to an unrealistic concern—your fear of your high school writing teacher who won’t be seeing what you’re writing now, for example—it is pretty obvious that the solution is to stop worrying about that person (of course, knowing that you should stop worrying about an unrealistic anxiety does not immediately eliminate or reduce that concern or stop you from worrying, but at least if that specific fear rears its head, you can remind yourself that its not relevant and perhaps even focus your attention elsewhere).
Exercise 2: Where do your fears fit in the typology?
What are the fears that impact your writing process? Are they concerns about how other people will treat you, or are they concerns about your own shortcomings, or both? How do the issues that block you fit into the typology? Do you have any fears/doubts/anxieties that impact your writing but don’t fit into any of the types described above?
This exercise is, again, more about the process of putting words on the page and the insights you might gain during that process than it is about what you write. It’s also about engaging in writing without any pressure for any outcome.
My plan for future posts is to discuss different specific concerns about writing and how to address some of them to reduce or, when possible, eliminate, related anxieties. This post gets a start on that process by identifying the specific concerns to which a writer must respond.
Note on Writing Blocks:
As discussed here, “writing blocks” are emotional/intellectual issues that interfere with the writing of people who are otherwise, organized and diligent. Laziness is not a writer’s block—if you don’t try, that’s not a writing block. Competing demands are not writing blocks (in the sense discussed in this post, at least): if you have to care for children that’s not a writing block (though a writing block might lead to you say that your kids need all your available time when you could cut out an hour or 30 minutes for writing if it weren’t for the writing-related anxieties).