Why Writing Feels so Stressful and What to do About It
The one habit that takes away all the stress from your writing sessions
As much as you love writing, you also hate it, especially on those days when it seems like the most painful thing ever. The ideas and words are in your head, but putting them on paper feels like climbing Mount Everest with a volcano strapped to your chest. You push, digging in deep and bleeding, one word after the other.
Now a sentence.
Then a paragraph.
You wish writing the book/article would be as easy as dreaming about it. The pain burns everywhere in your head, the criticisms. Of course, you are definitely a hack with that terrible sentence, the nasty voice in your head says.
You pause, trying to gather your wits.
After some daydreaming and dreading, you get back to it. Eventually, you wind up with two pages. Exhausted, you look at the time, it’s been almost two hours. This will have to do for today, you tell yourself, tomorrow we go again.
I lived this reality for at least two years before it dawned on me that writing didn’t have to be so painful every time.
I still remember the day like it was yesterday. I was writing my second novel by the stream in my estate, having one of the good days where writing wasn’t stressful. The words just flowed through me. Bliss.
When I got done with the session, I broke protocol and wrote into my journal in the middle of the day (I have a strict morning-only session). I was documenting how good the session felt so I could always remember that it was possible.
While writing, I began ruminating on the why of it, why some days of writing were so much better than others? What factors were at play?
Then it flashed.
And I caught it — a hypothesis I was more than willing to bet all hopes on.
I put this hypothesis to the test in 2018, and now, two years after, I am writing this article with no feeling of mental stress. The beauty of this hypothesis is that it’s so incredibly simple that anyone can understand and implement it.
But before I present it to you, let’s get a better understanding of what makes some writing sessions downright terrible.
Why do some days suck?
Almost all writing sessions that suck do so because of the mental strain you feel. From my personal experience (findings from reading and conversations with writers) there are two major causes of this mental strain.
Fear of the unknown
In this instance, the mind is agitated because it doesn’t know what happens next. It assails writers who don’t have a habit of planning out what they will write beforehand. If you do not plan your story/article/essay before writing it, you’ll make your mind a breeding ground for fear of the unknown.
There’s no other way I know of to tackle this fear than through adequate preparation. Once you know what you have to write, fear of the unknown loses its hold on you.
In my case, I’m lucky because I’m a heavy plotter by nature. I always spend some time thinking and planning out what I will write. I suggest the same for you.
Fear of judgment
“What I write now, I question less. Instead, I just focus on making it true, knowing that is all I am required to do.”
— Kamal Ravikant
In this second cause, which is far greater than the first, the mind is agitated because it’s busy weighing what’s being written to decide whether it is good or bad. Unless otherwise instructed, we are unable to create without exercising our ability to judge whether a thing is good or bad.
For me, this was the primary issue, and with my innate ability for a solid combination of self and art criticism, it was bloody! When I had meditated for a while, I began to notice that while writing, I was always stuck on judging the previous sentences when I should have been focused on writing the present sentence. Stopping this habit wasn’t so easy. But there were days when I got a taste of the other side, like that day I wrote in my journal. This is what I wrote:
When the writing session is so good you have to write it into your journal — Photo by Gilbert Bassey
Why you should not judge
Nothing will make your writing sessions easier than killing the desire to judge your writing while working on your first draft. Below are a few reasons why.
A. Makes you slow - It causes your writing speed to crawl at a snail’s pace because you have to exist in the past — playing judge — while creation is ongoing in the present. And it makes sense when you think about it.
While deciding whether a sentence you’ve written is good or bad, you do not consider what you should be writing next, which equals time lost. The first draft is not the time for judgment, that’s what editing is for. Stop trying to put the cart before the horse.
B. Creates negativity - If you’ve ever been upset or sad, you will know that negative emotions aren’t required when you’re creating. By passing judgment, you inevitably generate negative emotions in your mind.
If that sentence is bad, it stands to reason that negative emotions will be created to punish this badness. If the paragraph is good, positive emotions. Why play Russian Roulette when you can have more stability?
C. Silences the true creator - This is the most important ‘why’ of all. This elevates the sentence “do not judge” into a commandment.
When you create, where do you create from? Those flashes of ideas that come to you, where do they come from? Those ingenious solutions to problems?
Nothing will make your writing sessions easier than killing the desire to judge your writing while working on your first draft.
From within, a place beyond your consciousness. Steven Pressfield has a nice word for this place, he calls it the ‘little boy within’.
This boy is shy beyond description. For this very reason, he runs away whenever approached directly. He doesn’t like to be seen, much less criticized. He is the true creator within and he must be respected.
Disrespecting him by criticizing his words which he freely gives you brings with it consequences because when he is gone, writing is that much harder because you have to come up with everything yourself.
“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it… There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”
— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
How to stop judging
Having seen the importance of not judging, the natural question is how do we do this.
- Become aware of your judgment - The first step to fixing any problem is an awareness of it. I think one of the things that helped me the most was the meditation habit I’d started becoming quite consistent in. It increased the quality of my awareness, making it easier for me to catch myself when I was in judgment mode.
- Choose a mantra - Mantras are very effective tools for living. A simple sentence that’s formulated and used in response to a situation to effect positive changes. Find a mantra that will help you to avoid your judgmental self. One I tried was “it doesn’t really matter, just write.”
- Avoid judging your mistakes - I learned this the hard way. I realized that after a while, I began judging myself when I didn’t live up to the standards of numbers 1 and 2 above. The mind is such a fantastic biochemical machine. For this, the solution is still more awareness. Most times, the same mantra will suffice for the two.
Conclusion — become more aware
“The struggle ceases and magic begins.”
— Kamal Ravikant
Central to your success in eradicating the stress from your writing sessions is expanding the quality of your awareness. I truly believe this.
In those days, I never believed that it was possible to write every day and not feel like shit for 70% of it. But now, I spend as much as 80% of my writing time on the positive side, away from negativity. Even when I cancel sentences and reorder paragraphs, I still feel in the flow of spontaneous creation. This is attainable to every writer. All that is needed is dedicated practice.
Once you avoid judgment for at least 30 consecutive writing sessions, while also expanding your awareness with meditation, you will get a taste of writing heaven and you will never again doubt its reality. Always remember that if you protect the little boy within by not judging, he will gladly create for you, and these will be the best things you could have ever created.
A little fun exercise
Express your newfound freedom in the comments section by completing the sentence below with a short story of your own.
A man and a boy walked into a bar, one wielding a sword, the other wielding a toy…
The rule is to not judge your writing for the duration of working on this short story. Run on as long or as short as you want. Be free.
If this article made you feel liberated, please share it.