Is excitement a new strategy for writers?

I have been intrigued by posts recently about the study Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement by Alison Wood Brooks.

Brooks identified that most people try to calm down to handle their performance anxiety and contrasted this with asking participants to ‘reappraise their anxiety as excitement’ by either stating “I am excited” or encouraging them to get excited. Experimental studies were conducted across karaoke singing, public speaking and maths performances and found that although the subjective symptoms of anxiety did not lessen, individuals who reappraised their anxiety as excitement improved their performance on independent assessment. Not just talked to themselves differently, but also did better.

This piqued my interest and got me to wondering (as I yet again vacillated about my scheduled writing task), do I suffer from performance anxiety around my writing and may this help? I love writing but like many of us find, sometimes the words flow delightfully easily once I get started and other times I can sit in front of an open document and struggle to get even a single word out. Getting started is often key. When I avoid my desk or when the words don’t flow, could a level of anxiety be underlying my hesitation even if I feel relatively calm? I do think attitude makes a difference but how is that shifted? Once you get ‘on a roll’ certainly excitement seems to be a self-propelling force.

Of course I then had to google (instead of write) and indeed I found a search on ‘performance anxiety writing’ (also writers/writer’s block) returned some interesting reading.

Opinion varies between the stance that ALL writer’s block is due to performance anxiety through to the two being completely different beasts. After considering the posts I read, my own experience and those of my creative friends, my take is that performance anxiety IS a real and probably quite frequent contributor but not the only cause. When I am simply too tired or distracted by a major event, my writer’s block isn’t always caused by performance anxiety. I strongly believe I need to show up to write but I also know there are times which aren’t conducive and sometimes I need a break too.

There also ensued a wide and sometimes contradictory range of strategies to deal with either/both, often in combination. There was a lot of overlap so I haven’t referenced them but broadly they include:

  • Set a deadline(s);
  • Set an achievable goal eg just write for one hour or x many words;
  • Commit yourself to write;
  • Schedule or quarantine time ;
  • Have a routine;
  • Be flexible;
  • Take a break;
  • Try to force yourself NOT to write;
  • Do something else creative;
  • Plan what you will write – from sketching out that day’s writing to the complete body of work;
  • Stream of consciousness/ free flow writing;
  • Writing exercises;
  • Write anything;
  • Eliminate distractions;
  • Set yourself free – Write for yourself and don’t worry about what others think (personally I think this is essential for a first draft to let your true voice develop);
  • Acknowledge it may not be your best material but just get something down;
  • Positive affirmations (e.g. “I am a writer”); and
  • Examine your issues/blocks.

Yup, it’s a long list, probably incomplete, with a number of opposites. Obviously different things work for different people. Interestingly none suggested feigning excitement… If excitement was mentioned, it was around how exciting it is to overcome writer’s block.

So what the hell, I thought, let’s give it a go… I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I sat down and told myself that I was excited to have found the time to write. That much at least was true. “I am excited,” I thought.

And in my highly scientific (not!) experiment with a sample of one, it worked. I couldn’t stop myself when the time came to do something else and I finished feeling genuinely excited by what I had achieved.

But acknowledging the bias that I was perhaps excited to have found a topic that inspired me more than some of the others I was considering, I decided to hold off publishing this post in order to try it again, this time on my Work in Progress, a novel.

I felt a little more confident starting as I had made a few notes around where I thought I might take it as they had occurred to me since I last wrote. Surprisingly I went to a completely different place in the story. When I stalled or after I was interrupted I reminded myself that I was excited and pushed on. I don’t know if this might have happened anyway nor do I have an independent assessor to tell me if I performed better but I feel that I did. My new mind-set on trial was a significant change. It felt like a powerful strategy to call up.

My experiences concurred with the study’s practical implications as Brooks describes:

“My findings demonstrate the profound control and influence we have over our own emotions. The way we verbalize and think about our feelings helps to construct the way we actually feel. Saying “I am excited” represents a simple, minimal intervention that can be used quickly and easily to prime an opportunity mind-set and improve performance.”

I know I’ll be approaching my writing with more excited thinking in future. Even if an idea isn’t bubbling I can create excitement around just making the time, and I hope the results are… exciting.

As Brooks indicates, there are many opportunities for further research. It is such a simple strategy and I think it would be fascinating to see if it translates to increased success when handling any confronting situation or change, be it thrust upon you or a choice. Perhaps tackling a new job, stopping smoking (or another habit), starting an exercise program, changing to a healthier diet or possibly any task about which we hesitate.

Have you ever tried telling yourself that you are excited to overcome your writer’s block and/or performance anxiety?

If you have (or you are willing to test it out now,) how did it go?

I’d love to hear how you get on. Actually I’m keen to know your thoughts on anything related to writer’s block and/or performance anxiety!

With best wishes for your creative health and that of our community.

Jacquie

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© 2014 Jacquie Garton-Smith (Image Copyright: Vector Image by StockUnlimited)

14 thoughts on “Is excitement a new strategy for writers?

  1. Interesting take on it! I can see how anxiety about one’s writing can inhibit creativity. The key is to dismiss the critical editor, especially in the first draft, but I’d say, almost at any stage where you’re still trying things out to see how they fit.

    Personally, writer’s block happens for me when I’ve written myself into a corner or I don’t like what I’ve written — I know I have to fix it and that will require a LOT of work. It’s not really ‘writer’s block’, as in I haven’t lost the creative urge — it’s more that I know I have a shitload of work ahead of me to fix it up!

    Good luck with your WIP!

    • Oh Gosh Louise – I so well know the heartsink of that written into a corner feeling! Although I think editing something already written on the whole is easier, making a major change is often harder than writer’s block as it is hard to reverse and find your way, invest the time and energy to correct as well as to give up on parts you have written if they need to go. We do need to know when to tune into that critical editor as well as when to dismiss it! When writing the manuscript for my first novel I completely free wrote the first draft. The second I am interspersing some blocks of editing into the free writing as I go along and am finding this has taken it in different directions – as I reread a bit that I realise needs more development it is quite rewarding to do it straight away then can interweave into the next bits with less undoing (although there will be plenty of that in edit mode!). How’s your novel going?

  2. Thank you so much for this interesting post. This really adds something to my existing knowledge about these subjects. I can relate to it very well, not only writing but especially concerning stage performances and such. Love the word reappraising. Actually I used the idea behind of it already when trying some NLP techniques, but I thought of them as “relabelling” instead of reappraising. Reappraising sounds so much more positive.

    • Hi Karin. Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting! Wonderful to read your thoughts. You make a very interesting observation around NLP. I have to give Alison Wood Brooks the credit for the term reappraising. I also like that it sounds very conscious and perhaps at the next level from relabelling?

  3. Hi Jacquie, an interesting perspective. I agree with you that much of my own writer’s block has nothing to do with anxiety, but some of it does. Particularly, commencing on my second novel is being blocked mostly by anxiety. I’m not sure if the plot is going to work itself out… (I say “work ITSELF out” because I seem to have very little control over my novels, they do their own thing, at least in the first draft!)

    As for recasting anxiety to excitement, when I do public speaking these days I might refer to the fact that I’m sleepless the night before due to “excitement”. Once upon a time I would have said I was nervous. There’s been a change in my level of nerves — they used to be debilitating whereas now I harness them to add an intensity to my speaking. But did the change in the nerves come about simply because I got more experienced, or did it come about because I renamed the physiological symptoms in my mind??? Or both?? A chicken-and-egg situation.

    I’m certainly going to tell myself I’m excited when I next sit down to write, and we’ll see what happens! 🙂

    • Hi Belinda

      Wonderful to read your perspective! I empathise with the feeling of the novel that has its own ideas… it is exciting but also strange to give over control (to our subconscious perhaps?) and go with it.

      Funnily I speak in public fairly frequently for work and don’t feel especially anxious – just normal burst of adrenaline I’d say – but I was asked to take a session at my son’s kindy about ten years ago and was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to keep the interest or a bunch of 3-4 year olds for half an hour! As for work, I prepared carefully and it went well but if I suffered from that level of anxiety every time I spoke (or wrote) I would have to reconsider…

      As you say it is hard to know which is the chicken and which the egg – I do think we can learn to tame our performance anxiety with experience – you get feedback and then start to trust yourself +/- intuitively rebadge.

      I have noticed more since I wrote the post that I do sometimes get a little flutter when I sit down to write – maybe more analogous to that slight adrenaline spike – and I will be watching how it responds over a longer period.

      Thanks again for sharing your observations. I’d love for you to share how you get on! Happy (or maybe excited?) writing.

  4. Hi Jacquie, I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking and the fact that we face a choice about how we respond to things. It makes sense that this can be applied to writer’s block, although I’ve never experienced that as anxiety. Frustration, yes! I have to agree with Louise that sometimes the block directly correlates to how much work is required to rewrite and keep going! But even that can be reframed in a positive way, so thanks for the extra motivation. Cheers, M

    • Hi Mairi
      Thanks so much for visiting and sharing your thoughts.
      I am sure there are many writers out there who don’t identify with anxiety but do with frustration! I am betting that has been felt by everyone at some stage.
      I too think there is a lot of value in harnessing positive thinking and am interested in ways that we can do so authentically.
      I am looking forward to your next post!

  5. Does the feeling of excitement help performance – or indeed, does it motivate you to get what you want?

  6. Great to come across a fellow GP writer, Jacquie. I tend to write medical things rather than fiction, although if I’m not careful I have been known to unwittingly write both at the same time! However, I did write a play once, and still remember the delight at hearing the audience laugh at lines I had written three years previously.
    My method for overcoming writer’s block is having a deadline. Not a particularly clever method, I admit. It usually requires a newspaper or magazine editor giving me a submission date. My words-per-day curve starts flat as a tack as I accommodate every distraction, then takes a sharp upward slope just before the deadline. Actually, in the final hours it technically goes into the negative zone, because the finishing touches are almost always cutting words out. I tend to submit after midnight.
    This rather dodgy writer’s-block-beater unfortunately does require: an editor or potentially annoyed third party; an expectation of publication; a short article rather than a whole chapter or book; and a bit of luck. The last of these is because I always assume that on the last day I won’t be sick, have an emergency, and the computer and internet won’t crash.
    Although I wouldn’t recommend it, it seems to work for me most of the time! When it doesn’t, I wish I’d read the wise words above this post.
    Cheers
    Justin

    • Thanks so much for visiting and sharing your experiences Justin. Your comment about writing both at the same time gave me a good laugh! Well done on the play – a feat to step outside the old comfort zone. I’m good with deadlines for paid work – perhaps what I need is an advance for my novel! While I dream on, I’ll try to set myself stricter deadlines for my fiction… I look forward to reading more of your posts and articles.
      Best wishes
      Jacquie

  7. Getting started is the hard part, whether a board submission or an article. The enforced dead line is great way to put words to paper, once they are there you can see how they should be moved about or re addressed to fit the message you need to deliver. How you say it is maybe not as important as what you are trying to say. Having an unclear message can bury you in a quagmire of words. I find bullets points help ratify the message. Once that is clear the rest seems to be easier.

    • Hi Wendy
      Love your comment “Having an unclear message can bury you in a quagmire of words.” My guess is that many have experienced that.
      I couldn’t agree more that defining what you want to say in the first instance is helpful and that bullet points can be a fantastic way to help clarify this. There was also a comment on FaceBook about finding reverting to pen and paper being helpful for one writer to avoid writer’s block which resonated – I have a desk with multiple notes containing lists of dot points scrawled around different topics and projects.
      I enjoyed your post on trying to get a screenplay optioned! I too write fiction with visual images running through my head.
      Jacquie

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