When I started writing this I tried to Google “performance anxiety” and most of the articles I found were about erectile dysfunction. I'm not really sure what it's technically called, so I'll just refer to it as performance anxiety/stage fright until I can find a name with a less sexual connotation (or figure out what the actual term is).
To get a better picture of what I mean, pretend you're back in school giving a presentation. You did all the research and prep work, and you know your stuff. Still, you sit there with this sense of impending doom as you wait for your turn. You don't even hear what your classmates are saying because your heart is pounding in your ears. Maybe you're on the verge of vomiting if you haven't already. When they say you're next you feel like you've just been shot. As you approach the podium you might ask yourself, Maybe I should take the F? Is this worth it? Why the hell am I doing this? Your voice cracks and shakes as you talk and you fixate on how many uhhhs you use. Sweat rolls down your forehead and you're gulping air, but you don't feel like you're getting enough of it. When you finally finish you retreat back to your seat shell-shocked and wonder how your teacher does it every day.
I'm not a psychologist, and don't have any training outside of a high school education and one college course I study-buddied through with my second ex-boyfriend's sister, but I would think with most fears, you'd need to figure out the underlying cause. Fear of rejection? Afraid of embarrassing yourself? Worried it won't be perfect? Scared you won't please everyone? Is failure a strong possibility?
Fear of rejection? Most of us wallpaper our homes in rejection letters. You're not a bad writer just because one or two places won't buy what you're selling. Many authors have had their work rejected repeatedly and still live to tell about it.
Afraid of embarrassment? Been there, done that. I stupidly submitted a short story to a reputable literary journal in New York that was riddled with typos, continuity issues, and even plot-plausibility errors because I was so self-conscious about what I wrote I couldn't even proofread it. Needless to say, I was rejected and embarrassed. I continue to humiliate myself to this day. I'm not the only one. It's an inevitable part of writing and putting yourself out there—just don't dwell on it.
As for perfectionism, in Anne Lamott's essay Shitty First Drafts, she says your draft isn't going to be totally flawless the first time around. While you stew in quiet envy over that book, film, poem, song, or story that seems to get it all right, keep in mind that what you're seeing is the finished product. Most of the time, we don't get to see the bedhead or smell the morning breath of someone's first draft. We hear there's a process, sure, but we don't always get to observe the transition. In other words, try not to make the mistake of comparing your first draft to someone else's final.
Failure is a tough thing to accept and come back from. This deserves its own article, but for now, you really need to define what failure (and success) is to you and how you plan to bounce back. People think failure happens when things don't go according to plan, but I think you really fail when you don't try.
Still this is hard given some people are critics for a living (and not all of them get paid to do it). Criticism has its role to play in your performance and the stress it causes—but that's an article for another day. The best snip of advice I can offer is to sift through legit advice from the unjustifiable disapproval and use what you can to make your work better without tearing yourself apart.
Over halfway through this it dawned on me that I might not be the best person to write an article about overcoming performance anxiety. I haven't overcome anything. I've spent the last ten years trying to write a book that's nowhere near finished. I abandoned my dream of becoming an artist because I didn't think I was good at it. I almost walked out on my LLC brother and our publishing company three months in because I thought I my ideas were shit and that I wasn't qualified to run a business. I didn't make it as an artist because I didn't want to do the work and possibly fail, and now I'll never know if I would've made it. This time, I want to see Long Shit Books through so I don't have to wonder what will come of it.
Bottom line, we all get in our own way.
I can't prescribe an antidote. There's no 10 Steps, In 30 Minutes or Less, For the Convenient Price of $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) solution here. This isn't something a tablespoon of coconut oil or an apple cider vinegar rinse can fix. It also isn't exactly something that happens overnight or something being published can fix. From my experience, and the advice of many creative folks I know, the best way out is through. That poster in your guidance counselor's office that says, “Life begins outside of your comfort zone,” has some truth to it.
In other words, sometimes you gotta say, “Fuck it.”
When people ask about my religion, I tell them I was raised Christian. That seems simple enough, and leaves room for ambiguity. First of all, it would be a lie to commit myself to any school of thought beyond my own. I'm not good enough at following directions to belong to any dogma. More importantly, though, it revokes any accountability that the religion and culture would have for my actions. If I provide that partition between what I was raised to be and the person I've become, that lets a lot of people from my upbringing off the hook. I come from a very religious family. I love them, but I'm not the same as them. We have two very different approaches to life, and I don't wanna cramp their style.
Most Christians I know are too well-conducted. Their shirts are unstained. If you zoom in on their profile pictures, you won't find that their visages are dotted with blackheads. I can't relate to that. I'm a dang mess at all times. I can practice my song every night and still hit the same wrong notes every time. A few months back, my ex called me erratic. I was like, well, yeah. What else is old? Even at my best, chaotic good is not orderly. You throw enough darts, you're bound to hit the board every now and again, even if you're taking shots in the dark.
My issue with a lot of Christian art today is hard truth tends to be traded out for platitudes. The depiction of a struggle to sustain fidelity is left alone in the corner of the bar while false promises are courted on the dance floor. If we're so dang perfect, what good is God? Real talk, you will turn your back on morality in life. You will excuse yourself with relativism. It doesn't have to be religious. You'll covet someone outside of your relationship. You'll bump Tupac even though you ride for Biggie. That's human nature, and it sucks. If you don't believe that we were willed into creation, then that's why we invented God. The human mind alone is a labyrinth of deceit and false narratives. We're the best, but we still suck. Morality isn't about being a perfect example; it's about honest effort.
I believe in sin, but I cling to the concept of forgiveness. If not for that, I'm in a heap of trouble. I'm also OCD, so I have no choice but to believe in some narrative to life. A world without purpose sounds to me like an unwanted gift that you only keep in your possession because it was already given to you and the effort to return the dang thing just doesn't seem worth it. Even if we belong in Pandora's box, at least we have that context to contain ourselves in. When I was promoting my fifth book, e-Mo, I called it post-Christian fiction. That was neat, because it upset everybody that heard it. Atheists I knew didn't like that it implied there was any place for Christianity in the modern world and Christians didn't care for the fact that it implied we are approaching if not living in a world beyond a Christian majority. The book's confessional nature, using social media as a new form of prayer, though, was to show that humanity cannot replicate objective morality. You might be well-reasoned, but you cannot appease the mob. Others might be no more human than you, but they ain't any less human, either. An agent that I submitted to once said that Bret Easton Ellis was feminist enough to show women done wrong. I don't think that enough religious writers challenge themselves to confront the world their beliefs are rooted in. The Bible's got more crazy antics than any exploitation movie I've ever seen.
I don't have a good zinger to end this on and I feel like I'm straining too hard to invent one, so I'll just say I'm happy with what I've got here and contentedness isn't something I'm used to feeling. IDK. See ya.
Write A Book, You Wimp!
What are you working on? What have you done? Real talk, what haven't you done and why? Did you think that not writing a book is going to get books written? Does talking a big game qualify as productivity by your standards? Are your ideas too perfect for a mortal (wo)man such as yourself to translate to the written word? Are you letting the critic inside your head dismiss them before they even have a chance to live? So, here's the thing. That's stupid. It's better to have written a dozen bad books than none at all. Do you think Stephen King gives a shit if every book he writes is The Shining? I dunno. He probably hopes so, but at least he's willing to risk blowing hard. Sometimes, we need to write The Tommyknockers in order to get to The Gunslinger. (I don't really know about the timeline of that, nor do I care.) Watch Dead-Alive, then Lord of the Rings. So what if I love Dead-Alive and have never seen Lord of the Rings? You get my point.
Your first book is going to suck. That's beside the point. Plus, who do you think you are? Bret Easton Ellis? You might as well leave that fear at the door. It isn't about the product. Of course, you need to do absolutely everything in your power to prevent the inevitable suck, but accept the futility of that. Without mistakes, how can you learn? You shouldn't be insecure or necessarily uncertain about your work. This isn't about extinguishing hopes; it's about exorcising fear. Yes, fall in love with your own writing. Be excited about it. Brag about yourself, at least to yourself. Just don't distract yourself with insecurity. Don't be ashamed to embarrass yourself. The opportunity to make a fool of yourself isn't something to take for granted. Sometimes it's better to say too much than to leave too much unsaid. If losing your virginity is your sexual apex, then you've got a long an unexciting road ahead of you. After the awkward fumbling of your first time, though, you'll walk a little taller. With time, you'll learn what to do and what not to do.
The thing is, finishing your first book, be it a novel, anthology of some sort, or just finishing whatever the fuck it is you've been meaning to do, is a necessary stepping stone to becoming the person you want to become. You don't build muscles watching TV. It takes effort, and principles. The lessons you gain from writing are like a moral code you develop as you live and learn. It's not always easy, and there's a lot of cruddy shit you'll wish you didn't have to live with, but you can't have tomorrow without today. You'll be a little more confident, a little wiser with each notch in your bedpost. (I'm actually a hard line monogamist, so don't take the sexual allegories as anything more than trash talk. I'm playing up my Mick to your Rocky, here.)
Here's something most men won't tell you about lifting weights. It turns you gay, just a little. That's probably where the term, “no homo” originated, but I'm no historian and that's not my point, here. See, once you see another dude whose got the bulge (in his biceps!), you're not jealous or intimidated; you're just a fan. You know, at least to some extent, what it took to get him to that point and you respect and admire that. Writing a book isn't too different. Once you get a taste for it, you can begin to gauge how to approach a project. You can choose to see other authors as teammates or competitors, but at least they're on even ground. The only difference is that they're wealthy, successful, and can therefore afford to be more attractive than you. Unless this is all just an elaborate, subconscious way of me coming out of the closet, in which case disregard this entire paragraph.
You're not a writer until you've written, so get writing. If you don't believe in yourself, then believe in those who believe in you. If you're some kind of friendless freak with no family and no one else believes in you, then I do, and for once, you can take my word for it.