Overcoming Writer’s Stage Fright

During my NaNoWriMo session this morning I wrote 2,063 words in 1 hour and 20 minutes, which works out to 1,551 words per hour (w/h). Looking at my spreadsheet from last November, I see that this isn’t nearly my best time. I frequently write at about 2,000 w/h when I’m really cooking, and 1,600 – 1,700 w/h is closer to my average. But this hasn’t always been true.

Digging through my notebooks last month, I was reminded how hard writing used to be for me. Back in the 1990s, I took writing classes and belonged to a writer’s group. The same notebooks that hold my drafts of exercises and stories are also full of entries about not being able to write. A typical comment: “My fear is numbing. I am so afraid of writing that my mind goes blank.”

I know now that my problem wasn’t lack of ideas or even fear of writing. My problem was stage fright. The very classes and meetings I thought would motivate me to write by giving me assignments and deadlines were freezing me in my tracks. Faced with an exercise or story prompt, I would fight to get anything on paper because I could feel the teacher, my class mates, and the other writers in my group hovering over my shoulder. I was constantly aware that what I was putting on the paper was going to be seen by someone else and that knowledge always got in my way.

Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at just putting down the words and forgetting about the rest of the world. I know I can burn or delete anything that really is too awful for human consumption, although I rarely do. And I make a point of trying not to have ambitions for what I am working on, at least not when I’m actually writing it. I can’t let myself think “when I’m done, I’m publishing this,” because if I do, I am in danger of freezing up.

Of course, I can still stall out if I’m not careful. Even if I have successfully banished the slightest hint of an external audience of any kind, my own internal Critic can show up and whisper acidic comments and undermining doubts in my ear while I am trying to write. If I pay attention to anything he says, I’m dead in the water.

So how did I get from being unable to write a word to 1,500 and more words per hour despite my fear of my audience? By taking the good advice from books I’ve read and using it. Here are the practices that have helped me the most.

From Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande: Write first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up. I’ve done this off and on over the years, and it’s a great way to generate flow in writing. You may be familiar with a related concept called Morning Pages, but I didn’t come across Julia Cameron‘s Artist’s Way books until much later.

From Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: Write a shitty first draft. While I adore this book as a whole, this is the piece of advice I use most. The key to writing my first draft is to forget about quality and write down everything I can: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I constantly come back to this slogan whenever I find myself hesitating to write.

From Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg: Write fast. Really really fast. The author recommends writing for a set period of time and writing as fast as possible until the time is up. I’ve found this enables me to outrun every audience, even my inner one, because there’s no time to think about what I’m doing.

Thank goodness these generous authors were willing to share their experiences and tools with others, because I don’t think I could have found my way to writing fluidly without them.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Writer’s Stage Fright”

  1. I have considered creating a spreadsheet that will help motivate me during the 11 months of the year when the NaNoWriMo site won’t let me input my numbers and see the cute little graph. Also, I would be able to work on more than one piece at a time. I find I am able to work so much more efficiently when I have a pressuring goal.

    1. I have a spreadsheet I use for tracking my work time throughout the year, but I don’t currently include word counts in it. Mostly I’m trying to get a better handle on how long it takes me to do things other than writing, like research and brainstorming. I will probably add word counts, though, maybe next year.

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