Writing is a Nightmarish Hellscape

But small bites of it can be easier to swallow

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

When it comes to writing, I have terrible performance anxiety. I know this seems strange; after all, I’ve been writing for decades, and by all measure I should feel a bit of swagger every time I sit down to start a piece. Practice makes perfect and all that, right? But each time it’s a bit of a challenge to convince myself that I’m going to pull it off. In a strange way, I think having done well so far has added to the pressure, because I feel like I’m forever waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting to finally be exposed as an utter imposter who really doesn’t know how to write, and that this time the jig is finally up.

I do not think I’m alone in this. I will never forget being in the New Yorker offices many years ago, and seeing an incredibly successful, accomplished writer pacing the hall, his face fretful and distracted. I asked my editor what was going on, and he explained that Successful Writer had just turned in a piece and was waiting to get word from his editor about it. I was astonished; could he possibly be worried when he was so clearly and manifestly a big deal? Don’t kid yourself, my editor said. That’s what makes it even worse.

So this is a fact of the writing life. And it makes some sense. After all, writing is not an exact science; there’s never a moment when you are given irrefutable proof that you’re a good writer. Rather, you’re only as good as your last piece, so you’re always falling forward into a new test of your abilities. And everything you write, every sentence, even, is a fresh test. You’re not making widgets. You can’t write a good sentence and have it as your template for all future sentences. You invent yourself anew with each word.

Most writers I know beg for more space for their stories, wanting to make them as long as possible. For my sanity’s sake, I’ve always headed in the other direction. I guess I figured I would have better luck writing something short than something epic. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had conversations with my editors in which they proposed a certain length for a piece and I counter-proposed about half the length. It isn’t really that I think the piece should be that short. I simply hated the weight of that bigger expectation, and by whittling down the length, I felt more sure of myself.

The metric I live by is the Talk of the Town. When I first started writing for The New Yorker, in 1987, I did lots of Talk pieces, which ran about 700 or 800 words. They were bite-sized; compact, swift little tales that required a minimum amount of supporting structural engineering to make them work. I did so many of those pieces that I got into their rhythm, and felt like as soon as I had figured out a lead, I was off to the races. Obviously, short pieces like that needed to be very carefully written — sometimes their brevity was itself a huge challenge — but I felt a mastery and control that was wonderful. Maybe it was because I could see the end from the beginning, and I never found myself in that scary place, mid-story, where you haven’t quite yet made your point but you’ve already written quite a lot, but you’re not yet able to picture the finish line. A short piece never strands you there: You are heading towards the end as soon as you begin, and sometimes the piece just feels inevitable, in the best possible way.

So when I got an assignment or a book contract, I wouldn’t think of it in its entirety. I imagined it as a series (sometimes, admittedly, a very long series) of Talk pieces. I reminded myself that I could write a decent Talk piece, so I just needed to do that a few (more than a few, honestly) times. The mental trick of breaking down big tasks into manageable pieces is a damn good trick. I find myself sitting down and writing the equivalent of a Talk piece and thinking, wow, that wasn’t so hard, was it? and then writing the next and the next, and then suddenly I’ve written a piece or a book.

When I was writing my first book, the giant size of it always loomed over me, and even if I had a good day writing, I nonetheless felt defeated, knowing I had so much more still to go. When I wrote my second book, my editor suggested a trick that I now swear by. He suggested I give myself a daily word quota and stop thinking about getting the whole book done. And I did it. I set myself a goal of 800 words a day (later increased to 1,000) and aimed hard at that, putting the idea of the whole project out of my mind. Finally, I had a way to feel satisfied (quota achieved!) and not frustrated (I wrote all day long but it will still take me months to finish this!). I don’t think I could do what I do without that reachable goal in my mind.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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