Don't worry, be writing

Don't worry, be writing (text over image of a person with a colorful umbrella standing before a tumultuous waterfall)
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Shawna Ayoub Ainslie identifies some common fears that keep us from the page or screen, and how to manage them.

So you’re afraid to write. I get it. But you can’t be a writer if you don’t do the writing.

Sometimes, we need to take a tough-love approach to completing even our most precious goals. At times, I will say out loud to myself: Stop letting yourself avoid the work. Sit down. Get started. And when I think of something other than writing that I have to do, I write that something down, too. 

Why? Because I used to excuse myself from the writing I wanted or needed to do by chasing fear. After some careful consideration, I realized that most of the time, my fear was not about writing itself. I am a working mom, and I am often afraid that taking the time I need to write means I will not get the important day-to-day tasks accomplished.

I deal with that fear of not getting things done by making lists.

I now start my day with a(n often unrealistic) list of everything I would like to accomplish. I make sure to write down one or two basic things I have already done, like “wash dishes.” I mark them off the list, a visual cue that I have already been productive. Before I set the list aside, though, I add “write XX minutes.”

Including writing on a list of basic tasks is a way of training my brain to take this task as seriously as all the others. It sounds so simple, and it is. Every day, I see “write XX minutes” on my to-do list, alongside “pay electric bill” and “buy school supplies.” This allows me to stay focused on my writing even while doing something else. Even if another task pops up, I can jot it down and get back to writing. The more I return to “write XX minutes" and actually write, the easier it has become—and the less anxious I have been about neglecting other responsibilities.

Making lists is a good way to get to the actual writing, IF your issue is task management. But is that your issue? Without some thoughtfulness about your fears, you still might not be able to get any words down. Spend some time considering your fear, where it is coming from, and what the most productive way to handle it might be. For guidance, here are some common fears my students express to me about writing, and the advice I have given them to manage it:

Is your fear rooted in a lack of confidence?

Give yourself permission to write. Dedicate your writing to yourself. Let go of judgement. It doesn’t matter if the writing is “good” or not. Grammar, spelling, punctuation—none of that is necessary, at least not yet. You are writing for you, for the joy of writing. Give your inner editor the day off. What matters is that the writing happens. 

Are you afraid of how writing this particular topic or story will affect you emotionally?

Plan a check-in with yourself for after you write. When we are writing, difficult topics can crop up whether we expect them or not. Remember, you are not judging what you write. You are simply writing. If troublesome topics arise, don’t worry. Know that you are going to spend five minutes on a written reflection of how what you wrote made you feel. This is a grounding technique originally used by Pennebaker and Beall in conjunction with writing trauma expressively that has been shown to have measurable positive mental and physical health impact.

Are you worried about who else might read this story?

Create a ritual for your words after they are written. This step is dependent on what type of writing you are trying to do. Is your goal to create a story others will read? Are you aiming for publication? If so, schedule time to review and edit your work. If your goal is just to get the writing out, have a location in mind to keep it once you have released it. If your goal is to free yourself of a story, troubling or otherwise, consider a safe way to destroy the work you have produced, such as burning it in a fire pit. This way you control who witnesses your work, and your writing truly is just for you. 

We all have fears, insecurities, and worries about writing and life in general. This advice is not about eliminating fear so much as managing it in a way that keeps you writing.

What are you afraid of? What keeps you from getting to the page every day, and how do you cope with it? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: How expressive writing can keep you afloat

The many challenges of writing life maintenance, and how to balance them all

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