While touring for my first book, an older gentleman I knew sidled up to me to ask about my main character’s love interest. He said, “So who’s this Alex guy?” in a wink wink kind of way and it ruined me for writing for awhile.
Writing STAY wasn’t part of a master plan to be published. I was about seventy-thousand words in before I even admitted to myself I was writing a book, so I hadn’t thought through the idea of PEOPLE I KNEW READING SEX SCENES I WROTE.
“So, who’s this Alex guy?” and I stretched that question through to the implication that this person thought not only was Alex based on a real person, but that my main character then had to be me and. . . the hyperventilating came fast. After that, any time I sat down to try to write, those words would hijack my mind, bouncing around like the refrain to a terrible song: So who’s this Alex guy? So who’s this Alex guy? So who’s this Alex guy?
I started pre-editing my ideas, thinking through what people might think of me if I wrote them, which is a terrible way to write. No one wants to read a book about a character who sits quietly with her hands folded in her lap. And no one really wants to write one either. It’s not satisfying.
I’ve read a lot of writing advice in the “Think of your audience” vein. And I get it. When we’re writing books for other people to read, we have to remember to make them readable. We have to figure out how to reach the right people with our stories. Of course we do. And I consider my readers in the broad stroke choices I make, but then I have to stop doing that and consider my characters in the fine-tuned moments of their world. I need to forget that anyone will ever read what I’m writing, because even though it’s fiction, it has to come from a vulnerable place. That Alex guy is the product of my uninhibited mind and if I want to write more characters who seem like they’re real, I have to make sure they grow from the same kind of free thought.
My cure came by accident, through necessity. I sold my second book on a proposal with a tight timeline. Also, my husband and I were facing a cross-country move. I couldn’t move until I finished the book and I couldn’t finish the book until I tackled my stage fright. The pressure forced me into a strange kind of tunnel vision about my work, which I talked about a bit here. It felt like I was writing for my life (to get back to normal). The immediacy of my mission drowned out my destructive mantra. The characters had to matter more than my fears.
Obviously, that pressure isn’t something I can (or should) mimic with every book, but the experience gave me clues about what might work going forward. It also made me realize that conquering inhibition is a legitimate part of the work that goes into writing.
Here are some things I do to combat writerly stage fright. Maybe they’ll help you too.
- Play Head Games. I can’t really pretend I’m not writing a novel anymore. I am. But I made a pact with myself to always look for the most honest ways to describe a feeling or a moment through my character’s lens, with the knowledge that I can edit it out later if it feels too vulnerable to share. What I’ve learned is that honesty of emotion makes a story world work, and when something is working, there’s a natural distance that occurs. The vulnerability is transferred to the characters. I need the safety net of knowing I can hit delete on sensitive content, but I rarely have to use it.
- Get Silly. In college, as a theatre major we started acting classes by shaking our faces out and making ridiculous sounds. It works. It centers you in your body, and also helps you let go of pretense. Singing/dancing to cheesy music is a good option too. Of course, this may not work if you write in coffee shops, but I’m not here to limit you.
- Exercise. Hard. (But, obviously only if your doctor thinks it’s okay for you.) Some of my best writing is done while dripping sweat on our fake leather Ikea chair, madly typing thoughts I spun while tearing through the neighborhood trying to (almost literally) outrun my insecurities.
- Consume Brave Art. Reading, viewing, or listening to art by people who have pushed their own boundaries (and we know it when we read/see/hear it) is truly effective inspiration. Conversely, consuming only work that plays it safe can be limiting.
- Set Steep First Draft Goals. For my most recent project, I gave myself slightly unreasonable weekly word count goals for the first draft. There was much work to be done after that draft, but I got thoughts down before I could second-guess them.
- Get Absorbed in Something Else Before You Write. Sometimes it’s easier to make the transition from self to work in stages. (That brave art comes in handy here too.)
- Take a Break When You Need One. When we can’t shake the stage fright, we might need a little extra self-inventory and care to tend to the feelings keeping us afraid. I know sometimes in the face of a writing goal, it’s hard to step away, but think of it like having a pebble in your shoe. If you take the time to remove the pebble, you’ll be able to walk that much further.
What do you do to get over your writing inhibitions?