Not too long ago in one of my writer online groups, someone said they were feeling a lot of anxiety about their novel-in-progress, and they asked other people if they sometimes felt the same way. Plenty of people said yes, they did.
It’s good for writers to know they’re not the only ones. But then, the conversation took a disturbing turn.
Several people suggested that angst was necessary to writing — that, in fact, if you didn’t feel angst, you weren’t challenging yourself as a writer, and frankly, you weren’t producing good work.
This is possibly the worst writing advice I have ever heard, and what’s more, I think it’s dangerous to people’s mental health.
Angst is an occupational hazard of writing, but that doesn’t make it necessary or desirable. It’s like saying you’re a poor runner if you don’t suffer knee injuries.
In my long career as a creative professional, I have never seen people’s performance improve because they were freaked out. It’s exactly the opposite. When people are terrified of failure, they make more mistakes, they give less convincing presentations, their creative work falls flat… or they are simply unable to work at all, because their brains lock up. I think of Dune — fear really is the mind killer.
Would any creative person really argue otherwise? Would you say to your manager, “Hey, constantly yell at me and tell me I suck, because I do my best work under those conditions?” Well, it doesn’t work any better for writers who are mentally doing that to themselves. In fact, anxiety and fear keep many people from writing at all.
The even bigger problem with anxiety is that it hurts our health. It raises our cortisol levels, which in turn compromises our immune systems. It makes us lose sleep, which damages our overall health in many ways. It raises our blood pressure and the risk of cardiac arrest. Prolonged anxiety can lead to addictions or cases of serious depression.
If angst is a secret weapon for writers, it’s one pointing right at us.
You can see how dangerous it is to believe that angst fuels creativity. This belief could prevent people from taking steps to reduce their anxiety and from seeking out help with mental health when they really need it.
You might say, “Well, this famous writer said that s/he needed angst to write.” I am unconvinced. Plenty of writers have said that about alcohol and drugs, too. Like most people, writers can be resistant to personal change. The fact that someone was able to do good work while they were anxious, drunk, or high doesn’t prove that the anxiety, alcohol, or drug was necessary.
I can understand why people might say they require angst. Sometimes we fear that if we’re contented with who we are or what we are, we won’t have the drive to improve. It’s not really the case, though. Peace of mind and determination can co-exist very well.
We are capable of believing that we’re okay even if we’re not perfect, and that we are going to make huge improvements in our work. Those aren’t contradictory ideas.
We can say, “I’m doing something risky in this story, but I’m not going to freak out if people don’t like it…” And keep on saying it, until we really mean it.
A lot of angst comes from the belief that if our creative work isn’t good, than we aren’t valuable human beings. Think about that idea. You can tell that it’s crap, right?
I know I’m saying the obvious here, but human beings are inherently valuable. You can produce twenty terrible novels in a row and still be just as worthwhile of a person. You don’t have to produce a thing to be important and to deserve happiness.
And if you wait until you’re completely satisfied with your creative work or your success to be happy, then sorry, but you are going to die waiting.
Please don’t approach your writing as the justification for your existence. Your writing is there to entertain you, challenge you, inspire you, immerse you in new ideas or new worlds… and to connect with other people and help them do the same thing. If you’re a writer, the more you can enjoy the process and approach it as a pleasure, the happier your whole life is going to be.
Do you have any advice about overcoming creative angst? Please share it in the comments! I learn so much on this blog from other writers and creative people. And if you want to follow my blog about writing and living a happy life, you can subscribe at the lefthand side of the page. Thanks for reading!