Monday, July 23, 2012

Writing Anxiety

by Barbara Claypole White

When Luke Skywalker tells Yoda he’s not afraid, the Jedi Master replies in a voice that sounds more appropriate for an Exorcist movie, “You will be. You will be.” Fear—it’s an inescapable fact of being book pregnant.

As the mother of a teen who has battled OCD for most of his life, I’ve learned a few things about diffusing fear. OCD, an anxiety disorder that can feed off anything, is Doubting Thomas on speed. While the fear it generates is irrational, the anxiety one experiences is real.

The hero of my debut novel, The Unfinished Garden, is an obsessive-compulsive entrepreneur who’s terrified of everything except snakes. Which gives him one up on Indiana Jones. But the brain tricks James deploys against OCD can be used to defeat any anxiety—real or imagined. Here are a few of my favorites:

Boss it back: This is a staple of cognitive-behavioral therapy and can fry those niggling doubts. Re-label an unwanted thought as junk mail and imagine tossing it in the recycling.  Say aloud,  “The doubt’s not real; I’m not going to listen. Ha.” (Ha is vital. It’s a battle cry.)

Logic is your friend:  Yes, you will get at least one lukewarm or negative review, but reading is subjective, and you’re still going to write. Nothing is going to change those facts.

Laugh like you mean it: Have you ever tried laughing when you’re worried? Watch a silly video on YouTube and giggle like a preschooler with Tickle Me Elmo. Now tell me you’re anxious.

Pick a calming phrase and practice: Inspired by the aging rock star and ex-heroin addict in Love Actually, my son and I use “shit, f**k, bugger, damn,”  as our om phrase. You’ll have to trust me on this one…

Tinker with the worry: Dress up the worry, put a hat on it, turn it into a slapstick movie. I had a nightmare that I was going to spend launch day tearing my novel off bookstore shelves, screaming, “I can do better.” So I turned it into a romantic comedy with George Clooney.  It’s my party—why not?

Two can play the what-if game: OCD is all about what if, but when fear strikes, ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen. Yes, I could stand up at my first reading and develop a severe case of late onset Tourette’s, but really, what are the chances?

Mindfulness, man: In my OCD support group, we talk about mindfulness. Truthfully, I never believed I was the meditative type. Then one day I was watering my garden, a chore I denigrated as a total time-suck, when I realized my mind was still. Now as I water, I consciously listen to the hawks, watch the hummingbirds, and enjoy the moment. I’m in the zone…

And we’re breathing: Sometimes it really is all about the breath. “Slow the breath, and the heart and the mind will follow,” my yoga teacher used to say. Inhale to the count of four, hold to the count of two, exhale to the count of four.  Repeat. Feel better?

Think small: Don’t focus on the big picture. Create a mega marketing plan but break it into manageable chunks. To avoid freak-outs, I concentrate on my daily goal: the page count for novel two plus one promotional activity that can be as simple as emailing my pre-order link to an old friend.  Fear is all about control. By thinking small, you can take back your universe. 

Expose yourself to fear: Full-blown fear is like grief. Avoidance is bad, very bad. So when your first bashing on Goodreads drives you to imitate Howard Hughes—who lived naked in his screening room for months, peeing into bottles—read and reread that silly review. At some point, your mind will get bored and wander off to the grocery list.

Give in to the dark side: If the anxiety keeps rising, let it blow. Fear can be graded on a scale of one to ten, ten being pray-the-tornado-passes-quickly. Hitting a ten, however, can be liberating. Logic tells you there’s only one way for the fear to go—down; science tells you the human body can’t sustain a high level of anxiety for long. Bingo.

And finally, guard your writing time well, young padawans. Writing is the best therapy I know.


  1. What a comforting post, Barbara. I will definitely use your tips. In fact, I'm already practicing, "Shit, F*%k, bugger, damn!. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great tips, Barbara! I think I've tried them all, at one time or another.
    I have a favorite you didn't list, though.

    Fake it til you make it.

    I mentored a youngster at work (back before I retired, LAST Thursday!)She asked me, "How come you're never nervous? You always seem so calm and self-assured."

    I laughed, and told her that one good thing all the years give you -- you become a good liar.

    Hey, in the midst of a crisis, use whatever works!

  3. Wonderful post. I remember telling my mom once, "I've just had the worst day of my life." Her response, "Well, good. Glad we got that over with so soon. From here on it's uphill."

    Worse days have come and gone. The important word in the sentence is "gone."

  4. Absolutely, Brenda--it's all about moving on. Or, as Sir Winston Churchill said: "If you're going through hell, keep going."

  5. Great Advice, Barbara! I especially like think small. I sometimes feel over whelmed with writing and promoting. Small manageable tasks seem the way to go!

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  7. Good grief--I was typing about multi-tasking, while eating lunch, and accidentally removed my own comment! I agree, Erin. In this craziness of staying connected and doing ten things at once, thinking small keeps me sane.

  8. I loved this, Barbara! Going to print it out!

  9. Very good post, Barbara! And I've been loving watching for these in The Unfinished Garden as I read your lovely story! I need to print this out and tack it to my forehead right now. :)

  10. Thanks for the list of helpful hints. I enjoyed the movie references and the Winston Churchill quote.

  11. My favorite advice here is the battle cry: Ha! I'm going to say that right now as I plunge back into a chapter that has been defying me for WEEKS: Ha! Take that, you bad chapter! Ha!

  12. Fabulous post, Barbara! I'm nodding my head and agreeing with Julie upstream. I need to print this one out!

  13. Barbara, it's like you wrote this especially for me! My first novel is coming out end-of-October, I'm writing the next one, and well, I may have an undiagnosed touch of OCD. Oh boy, can I worry. :)

    Printing your post out now and tacking it up on the wall over my desk, to help me remember to think small and BREATHE.

  14. I also learn some techniques during my schools days in college. That one thing an individual will be able to calm anxiety is to let him face his/her fear. Teach him how to face the situation and how to overcome it.