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How to Concoct Your Own Antidote to Pre-writing Anxiety

[1]I love satire in general and Saturday Night Live in particular, but there’s one series of sketches I wish I could erase from my mental library: Al Franken’s take-down of the 1990s’ self-help industry in the form of his character, Stuart Smalley.

Have you seen these skits? They feature an effeminate man who dresses in pastel sweaters and speaks with a lisp. Having affixed a goofy smile to his face, he looks into a mirror and spouts several affirmations that are patently untrue, full of psychobabble, or so non-specific as to be incapable of helping anyone take positive action.

Here’s a short example of Stuart preparing to tape a segment:

And if you’re still on Facebook, here [2] he “helps” Michael Jordan.

Why do I regret having seen these videos?

Setting aside political issues about the actor and the cringeworthy reinforcement of rigid gender roles and stereotypes, my objections are two-fold:

    1. They mock statements and slogans that contain actual wisdom by making them sound woo-wooish. (e.g. “It’s easier to put on slippers than carpet the whole world.”)
    2. As regards the point of this article, they turned me off affirmations for years, and I imagine had a similar effect on other viewers. As I now consider affirmations to be a huge aid in reducing pre-writing anxiety, that’s a shame.

How I became a convert:

Though I’ve been writing for decades, during 2018, I feel like I finally became a writer—one with modest external success, and with ambitions that exceed her grasp, but a writer nonetheless.

Part of this is a function of experience; having now written three novels, the third of which will come out in February [3], the writing bug has only intensified. It’s becoming undeniable to the world, and more importantly to myself, that writing is part of my identity.

But part of this is that, while composing my third novel, I finally developed rituals to conquer pre-writing anxiety. Surprise! A big part of that was developing writing-related affirmations.

Given my tortured recollection of the Stuart Smalley era, I started small and somewhat accidentally.

One day, when beginning the book on a tight-for-me deadline and with little idea of where I was headed, I sat down to write my first chapter—only, it wasn’t going well and I was entering a self-perpetuating cycle of blockage and negativity. “What happened to having fun?” I remember thinking. “What happened to my pledge to write with the growth mindset?” (If you haven’t read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset [4], I urge you to pick up a copy, especially if you are a parent.)

In a state of supreme frustration, I picked up a blank recipe card and jotted down the following:

I write joyfully and with an experimental mindset. I often discover the best material in the spirit of play.

Writing that was like setting a mental goal post of sorts, yes? To my surprise, it helped—immediately and for about a month, until something happened in the real world and I could no longer conjure a playful attitude for the life of me. Suddenly, that single affirmation felt stifling in its own right. I mean, on top of coping with everything else, was I supposed to fake my way into having fun so that I could write?

Obviously that wasn’t going to work.

The answer turned out to lie within another affirmation, which I crafted and now read immediately following the one above:  

I have also discovered the best material when grouchy, stressed over deadlines, and when I have my head down, grinding it out.

And so went the following months. When faced with a recurrent thought, I’d think of a counter-premise that felt as true, or truer than the intrusive thought, and put it on its own card. Then I would read through the stack of cards before sitting down to write.

For example, I have this mental bugaboo about always being behind, no matter how much I’ve accomplished or how hard I’ve worked. Here’s the affirmation I use to counter that particular thought:

I begin each writing session in a state of absolution. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done or failed to do before. I will simply try my best now, alert to the joy and gratitude that come from dwelling in the world of story.

Or here’s one to counter the anxiety I always face when returning to writing after a break of more than a few days:

When there has been a disruption to my writing routine, I return to the world of story with a sense of lightness and in the spirit of self-care. I can trust myself.

Here’s one final one, which arose on a day when I wasn’t feeling anxious about writing, and paradoxically felt unsettled by the experience:

I can trust the process. Both X and Y say so. It is not necessary for me to be emotionally roiled to write emotionally roiling work. I have guardrails in place to ensure I will not publish crap.

The results

If you can forgive a medical metaphor, I have found affirmations to be like a vaccine for negative thoughts. Administered before I approach the page, they allow me to get to work quicker and with a clearer head. When writing obstacles arise, as they always do, I can revisit the cards for a quick booster shot of calm.

How many cards do you need?

How many unique, negative thoughts about writing plague you?

Had you asked me before beginning this process, I might have said my unhelpful beliefs numbered in the hundreds. In practice, I have a sum total of twenty cards on my desk, and some are related to other areas of my life. That’s it. Less than two-dozen lines that take less than five minutes to run through on the days that I need them and ignore when things are running smoothly.

Interesting in trying affirmations now? If yes…

Here’s the process I’d recommend:

  1. Obtain clarity on the core idea or story that is preventing you from writing, or that causes undue anxiety.
  2. Craft a short-ish, specific statement to serve as an antidote.
  3. Ensure that it is truthful. (This is important! Don’t BS yourself; not only will you end up not writing, but you’ll lose self-respect in the process.)
  4. Ensure that it focuses on activities or attitudes within your control.
  5. If you can, include something that speaks to your identity as well as your desired behavior. (Behavior change is known to be more lasting when it influences how we see ourselves.)
  6. Refine the affirmation until, upon reading it, you feel something unwind or loosen within you.
  7. Keep your statement handy to your writing tools and read it before you begin writing, taking a moment to allow it to resonate.
  8. Don’t hesitate to modify, discard, or craft new affirmations as novel thought patterns arise.

Do you use affirmations before writing? If yes, care to share your most helpful ones? If not, and you can’t see how to counter a limiting belief, put it in the comments below. Between me and the other Unboxeders, let’s see if we can help.

About Jan O'Hara [5]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [6] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [7]; Cold and Hottie [8]; the forthcoming romantic-suspense, Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [3]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.