purging the creative tension (or why writing under pressure is a bad idea)

There’s a reason that not everyone who wants to be an author is an author. Writing is hard work. And while writing is hard all on its own, you could be making things a lot harder for yourself than they have to be. It’s frustrating but true: sometimes the biggest hurdle between you and your word count is you.

The pressure many writers place on themselves to create is unreal, and the consequences of that pressure can be harmful. Some writers experience white page syndrome. They stare at the blank page (or blank screen) with an acute sense of dread, convinced that it is impossible for them to put anything on that page that is not awful. Reality can’t counter this perception; even if our writer is widely acclaimed and quite successful, she believes any positive accolades were clearly a fluke, she’s a fraud, and she’s screwed.

Another form of creative tension is expressed in the form of perpetual research. Faced with the prospect of actually writing, our writer spends eons consulting her sources (the internet, the encyclopedia, her notes, her class work, Twitter) just to make sure she has all the information she needs before she begins. Hours, weeks, or months pass without a single written word. This approach to dealing with the pressure is particularly insidious because while you are avoiding the task at hand, it really does seem like you’re getting something done!

My personal favorite form of writerly procrastination results in a clean house and an empty page. As soon as I decide it’s time to create some content, I am suddenly aware of the urgency of every menial task in my life. I need to write, but my desk is a mess. I need to write, but first, I ought to unload the dishwasher. I should really get started, but there’s some laundry to be put away and, oh, didn’t I want to reorganize every mp3 on my computer, all four thousand of them? And sort through my shoes? And relabel my rock collection? And I probably should take a shower. Five hours later, everything sparkles…and I still haven’t gotten anything done.

Every writer experiences this internal pressure in one way or another. It’s important to acknowledge that this tension exists and to be patient with yourself for engaging with it. Experiencing creative tension does not mean that you’re not “a real writer,” that you’re not “a natural,” or that “writing obviously doesn’t matter enough.” You’re doing something awesome by creating something that didn’t exist before. That business is hard.

Keep in mind that this kind of tension is adept at disguise. Marketing, networking, and social media are all very useful and very necessary tools for writers, especially if you are looking to promote your own work. Still, be aware of how and when you’re using these tools. Spending time sending emails, tweeting about indie publishing, and working on your blog is crucial for building a solid platform. If you’re doing these things when you’re supposed to be writing your book, though, you’re still sabotaging your content creation. You can’t market a book that doesn’t exist. (We all do it; don’t beat yourself up.)

Once you’ve realized that you’re engaging in this behavior, you can counteract it. If you have white page syndrome, put some words on the page, even if they’re nonsense. Copy and paste the lyrics to a nursery rhyme. I write myself a little note of encouragement. Dorky, but it really helps. Remove the pressure of the blank sheet, and the words will flow with a little more ease.

If you’re a researcher, set a deadline for yourself. Tell yourself that you have until x day to do research, and commit to writing the next day. Ask someone in your writing group to remind you about your commitment. That social pressure can do worlds of good in a situation like this. Remember, you can always fact check or find a bit of information once you’ve started. Once you keep seeing the same patterns in your research, it is time to stop researching and start writing.

Some writers have found that being physically active helps them break through the tension. Others set a specific time for writing every day, which helps the process flow a little more smoothly. Some writers journal, some do yoga, some meditate. Having a toolbox full of options can help you be more prepared to handle whatever your subconscious throws up at you. Don’t be afraid to diversify.

If you’re like me, and you struggle with organizing every last thing in your house before you start writing, let me know how you’re working around it. I try to keep my writing area clean and give myself time in my day to take care of the things that nag at me, but it’s still a struggle. And that’s okay. We all have our hurdles, and you are not alone.

How does creative tension bubble up in your writing process? How have you dealt with it? Has it worked?

Comments

  1. Sam McIlhagga says:

    Igor Stravinsky, great Russian-American composer of the 20th century said that the most difficult part of composing is the “bank page” you refer to. He felt that until he made his first notation, the world of possibilities was infinite – but once he made the first mark, it was much easier, as he began to eliminate possibilities. I have tried to treat my writing like this at times when I struggle. Love the blog, Brenda!

    • Thanks, Sam! It’s interesting to think about how the same problem exists across all the creative genres. There’s a different kind of panic that accompanies live performance, but I can see how writing and composing would actually be very similar.

  2. You are SO spot on, Brenda!!! I knew there was a reason I felt okay never doing much research…

  3. I’ve only started blogging this year and I must admit that despite the struggle I have with balancing my writing time with everything else (the unpacked dishwasher, getting the clothes hung out, my preschooler & toddler – don’t forget the social media time) it has actually been the thing that has kept me accountable. I now have to prove that I am actually writing and be able to offer something solid. Like you said – you can’t market a book you don’t have! Well I don’t yet but I will one day soon.
    The best tip I have learnt is using the good ol’ kitchen timer. Set the timer, do the other tasks and when it goes off stop and start WRITING. Set the timer again and write, write, write!

    • The kitchen timer is a great idea. I use a time management software kind of thing, but it just tracks my time. It doesn’t count down. I think knowing that I am racing against the clock (instead of just racking up the minutes) would completely change the dynamic–I’ll have to try that.

      Also, good luck with the book!! And thanks for stopping by!

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