I used to have a lot of anxiety around writing. When I had a writing assignment for school I’d get so anxious that I’d put it off until the last hour or so before class, then sit down and in a fury just write the paper straight through, beginning to end. I think it had to do with fear of trying and failing—if I actually worked hard on something and didn’t do it right, that would crush me. But if I dashed it off at the last minute and just hoped for the best, I had an excuse ready for myself if it were less than stellar.
Eventually I realized I was doing myself a disservice by producing below my real ability level. I started to be able to be proud of my own work, to look at something I’d created and feel good about the actual product and not just the grade attached to it.
Thinking about the way I had learned to approach art helped too. When I was younger, I had similar anxiety around art until I learned, by studying bodies of work by famous artists, that it’s okay if 9 out of 10 things I drew were utter crap. It’s all a learning process, and it’s ridiculous to think that everything that drifts out of my hand is going to be meaningful and new and beautiful. If I could fill sketchbooks with junk and look back through them and shrug it off, why couldn’t I do this with writing?
For a lot of people writing is not just a specific skill, like painting with watercolors, or throwing a football, or singing, about which one can say, “Oh, I just never learned how to do that,” or “I tried but I’m just not good at it—oh well.” Rather, writing seems like a window directly into a person’s mind. We think we can look at someone’s writing and tell how intelligent they are, what kind of education they’ve had, and how successful they might be in life. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, in writing we can’t read the other person’s reaction and clarify as we go.
It’s unnerving to put a snapshot of your mind out there for others’ judgment. We probably all know someone who gives unwelcome grammar advice in a mocking tone or cuts down others’ writing not for their ideas but for the “errors” in the way they present them. This post, Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar, from a blog called (appropriately for our topic today) Shitty First Drafts, does a great job of addressing this behavior. The author says, “I equate it to going around at a party criticizing everyone’s food and drink selection. No one likes that guy. We edge away from him and talk about him behind his back. Like food selections at parties, speech patterns are both a function of personal taste and what’s available to us. Not only is grammar correcting just plain rude, it’s soaked in classism, regional chauvinism, and privilege.”
Writing is a skill, just like skiing or playing the trombone, and it takes practice. Practice usually looks ugly. We trip and fall down the mountain, we hit a flat note and can’t take it back. It should be just as excusable to do this in writing as it is in any other human endeavor.
I should say here that Natalie Goldberg’s work, particularly Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, has had by far the largest positive influence on my writing process, and that she is emphatic that we must embrace the fact that most of what we make is going to be somewhere between mediocre and terrible. She suggests keeping all of your writing practice in its original form in a journal or notebook (as opposed to using loose-leaf paper, for instance) as a reminder of this fact. Rather than erasing parts and fixing them, she advocates keeping it all and just starting over if you want to rework an idea.
Now, rather than crushing anxiety, I just have a little jolt of dread when I think about putting my writing out in the world. I can brush that aside though, and just put it out there anyway.