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)