Performance Anxiety

Why I haven’t been writing, and what I’m doing about it.

If you know me, you probably also know I’ve struggled to write this year. Tempting as it is to blame 2016 and move on, there have been a lot of factors. I’ve found it hard to publish anything partly because since last summer I’ve had no address of my own; partly because my mental health, like most of my friends’, has been running low; partly because I’ve spent much of this year working through a history of parental abuse, and partly just because other things have sucked up my time. Lately it’s become a cycle: not having put it to use for a while, I seem to have lost my voice.

To an extent, the joke’s on me. I’m a self-saboteur. As anyone who’s hired me knows, I’m a relentless editor, and in my own writing it turns out that’s a stumbling block. In 2015 and early this year—follow the links above—I did some of my best writing, but since then I’ve feared publishing anything less good. Every idea has been a tough second album, and I’ve found myself unable to write beyond first paragraphs, scrolling back up to scourge imperfections. In What It Is, her graphic memoir about making art, U.S. cartoonist Lynda Barry writes:

Is this good? Does this suck? I’m not sure when those two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called work—I just know I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it.

There, sans the grace of God, go I.

I’m trying to silence those two questions, at least for long enough to get things done. I’ve hit on a couple of strategies, the first of which involves going low-tech. I have a bad habit of trusting gadgetry to make me work, when retina displays and edit screens only make a blank page more terrifying. The allure of backspacing out bad lines has grown so strong that I’ve fought to write more than a hundred words per sitting, so, in an extreme step, I’ve gone back to writing pen-and-paper.

I have a journal now, hardback with finely ruled pages and a ribbon. It’s where I wrote the first version of this, now layered with scribbles and crossings-out. The permanence of a biro guarantees messiness, and feels more forgiving as a result. Certain artists, I’m told, work with charcoal because they’re forced to live with their mistakes. Ink is the same: on an immaculate white screen, I’d never have made it this far.

Then there’s the other thing: my writing muscles need a stretch. As with many vicious cycles, the only way forward is to accept a short-term cost. I’ve failed to put my best ideas to paper recently because I’ve been unable to write much to begin with, and I’m making peace with being in no fit state to produce miracles. For now I’m going to write what I can, regularly and for the sake of it. Most of the things I want to do can wait—at the moment, I want to learn to enjoy the writing process again.

For the next month, I’m going to try and post daily. I’m not focusing on doing my best-ever writing, and I’m not going to fuss about every post being the best it can be. I’ve worried in the past about things being long, neat and relevant enough, but this month I’m not going to try and Have Something To Say or cater to the news cycle; I’m certainly not going to pay attention to how many people read. I’m going to write whatever’s on my mind, and refuse to stress over it. I won’t be striving for journalism—I’ll just be journalling.

Having neglected it, I’m taking an intentional break from my main blog to do this. Posting daily and in this way isn’t something I expect to maintain post-November, so I want it to stand apart as something self-contained—on top of which, like a writer moving from desk to dining chair, I need a fresh workspace. I might not be publicising posts as much as normal, so if you want to keep up with things here, click to follow my posts on Medium next to my author blurb.

That’s all for now—with any luck, I’ll be back soon.

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