on not losing my nerve
I’ve been afraid of writing for a long time. I think we sometimes shy away from giving 100% to the things we care about most because we know failure there hurts more than anywhere else. For instance I’m generally good at making people feel at ease, but when I really like someone I tend to become noticeably awkward around them: because I care more, I perform worse. I’d always been afraid to try to write a book because I could instantly imagine a thousand disaster scenarios: what if I’m one of those people who just procrastinates for five years and produces nothing, or what if I write it and it’s really terrible? I was only able to embark on it as a project because I was at a relatively happy, stable point in my life. Otherwise I would’ve never had the confidence to even try. I always thought I wouldn’t be able to write something so long, and I’m happy that I’ve proven at least that particular fear wrong: I’ve written well over 100,000 words this year.
The problem, of course, is that other fears have popped up. I worry that the plot isn’t engrossing enough, or that the quality of the writing itself is subpar. I worry that the dialogue is contrived, that the characters feel flat and two-dimensional. When I send chapters to friends I worry that they secretly hate it but are afraid to tell me because they want to spare my feelings. I’ve also noticed that my level of output fluctuates a lot—some weeks I’m extremely productive, some days I can barely write a paragraph—and I feel guilt about that because I feel like I’d be able to steadily power through everything if I were only determined or disciplined enough. I don’t sit around all day leaning into paranoid (or possibly realistic) fears, but they often flit across my mind.
While talking to a friend the other day about creative work I realized that a constant resolution that helps me continue is the thought that I can’t lose my nerve. It’s like walking on a tightrope: there are infinite ways to fuck up and fall, but it’s important to not think about it too much, or else you’ll psych yourself out and actually fall when you otherwise might’ve been okay.
The one thing I know is that thinking about something is not equivalent to doing the thing. Thinking about it is intellectual masturbation: it’s fantasy, it’s reassurance. None of that moves you closer to actually doing the thing. Sitting around worrying is not writing, and in fact subtracts from the mental space that I know should be allotted to writing. The only thing that actually helps alleviate my anxiety is continuing to write and edit. For instance, I think I’m less anxious about writing this month than last month, and significantly less anxious than I was in April. I’ve been training myself to keep the criticism local instead of global: I scrutinize each chapter and cut out cheesy lines of dialogue and rewrite clunky paragraphs, and often feel relieved by the improvement afterwards, but refrain from thinking things like if this sentence is bad probably the entire book is just awful.
I have a fear of talking about writing partially because of what I mentioned above: talking seems like a distraction from actual writing. Plus it seems wrong to talk about something too much when it’s still so vulnerable and incomplete. Substack is actually a great outlet for me, since I can ramble on about my inner thoughts and feelings without the stress of expressing them in conversation. I’m also hugely reassured by knowing that my particular set of worries is incredibly mundane. I love reading interviews with writers where they articulate my exact fear or struggle (Sometimes, after a whole day of creative pangs I manage to write only two or three lines) because it reminds me that lots of people have felt exactly what I’m feeling, and they soldiered through just fine.
Still, just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s not scary. I wanted to write post this today because I’ve finally hit a point in the second draft where the end is in sight—it’s now pretty clear I will finish the book, even if it’s a disaster, and from the beginning I always told myself that the goal was to complete it—and I thought I’d be thrilled when I hit this point, but instead I’m… stressed? Worried? In an ideal world, of course, I’d like to be confident all the time, happily relishing the privilege of having time to write instead of chewing on my nails and staring at the word processor, but I’ve accepted that you don’t always get to choose how you feel when you do the thing. You just have to muddle through and do the thing. So I’m trying my best.