Lovely, beautiful, self-conscious, and brave questioner: As always, George has given you a deeply thoughtful answer, full of wisdom, and with workable ideas to actively manage your inner voices. If what he says speaks to you, that is wonderful. I have something to add here from my personal experience that may or may not be helpful. Ignore my words entirely if I am simply off-base.

You mention that when you are in a conversation, inside your head you are thinking about what to say, and after you speak, you wonder if what you just said was quite right. I used to do this. With certain (if not most) people, I would think about what I was about to say, then I would say it, then I would analyze what I just said—all while the conversation was ongoing. It was deeply exhausting. I think many people do this same thing, but not to the extent that my own head went through these mental machinations. It was like trying to solve sixteen difficult math problems all at the same time, with a teacher yelling at me the whole time, no, no, you idiot, what are you doing???—and pretending that no such thing was occurring. Is this what you mean? If not, then no need to read on. If so, then what I think you may have, dear questioner, is anxiety. And not regular anxiety like many people have, but perhaps the debilitating kind. Anxiety of the kind I am speaking of here can ruin a person’s life. I know because I have been there. The constant analysis—which comes from fear—often left me paralyzed. At times, it was easier to simply stay home than venture out the door and make human contact, where I would invariably fuck up in some way I never meant to. Then, I’d come home, think think think, and start the apologies. OY.

George talks very rightly about sending the voices away and then inviting them back in. But an anxious person has a terribly hard time doing this. It makes writing a kind of personal nightmare. You have so many thoughts—an anxious person has SO many thoughts—and you want to put them down so badly. But the anxiety has moved in and will not budge, no matter how nicely you ask it to leave or how much you accept that it is a part of you, or how kind you are to yourself for being who you are. The anxiety just sucks. And your writing? How can a person write when those voices are mocking and strutting and saying terrible things?

So, how to get rid of it? Grasshopper, that is the million dollar question. Getting older helps, but who wants to wait? I’m guessing you know all of the usual ways: taking a tiny anti-depressant, exercising, meditating, therapy. I’ve done all of these and yes, they all help—sort of. The biggest help, for me, is daily walking. No headphones. No walking companion. Just me and the sidewalk and my legs moving briskly. Yes, my mind goes a bit crazy and ruminates while I walk, but it also gets into a bit of a rhythm with the rumination. The main thing is that when I get back home—I walk for one hour—I have moved my body and now it’s okay to sit for awhile. I don’t have to feel anxious about sitting. I can sit with my computer and not feel like I’m supposed to be doing something else. (I also take the aforementioned teeny medication.)

George suggests you find a way to use your self-consciousness, which I’m calling anxiety. I wish anxiety really were a super power that you could put to good use. But anxiety doesn’t have any good sides. It just does not. You can welcome it and ask it to sit down for tea and you can say, please be quiet please, but your anxiety is rarely quieted that way. To my way of thinking, you need to get rid of it. (I realize this is a radical departure from George’s comments. Forgive me, all.) So this last suggestion may sound ridiculous, but honest to god, positive affirmations help. I read from a couple little books every day—one is from al anon and the other from another twelve step program—and damn if those little daily prayers don’t often speak directly to my heart and help me calm down and love myself. Love is the opposite of fear, you know. Positive affirmations about your own strengths and abilities help. I used to think they were so dumb, but I don’t anymore. You don't have to be a 12 step person to get something out of these little kinds of books, by the way. Reading positive thoughts is simply helpful, no matter who you are.

The other thing that helps is focus. When you reach a true zen state of focus and the world falls away, then the anxiety lifts as well. But how to reach this state when writing? I find that if I approach my writing as a puzzle to be solved, then I can more easily focus. So, any kind of constraint really helps. Telling yourself that in the next paragraph you will insert a certain three words is a good little game. Writing three sentences in a row of 20 words each is a good little game. Writing a paragraph in one long sentence is a good little game. Anything that forces you to concentrate on an additional level to the content of your story raises your mind game and forces away the outside voices. We can only concentrate on a few things at once! And then, later, you can rewrite, delete, whatever. All first drafts suck, that is all there is to it. So inserting little games is helpful and you don’t have to keep any of it later.

Good luck to you. I feel for you. I hope the anxiety drops away and leaves you be. In the meantime, please know that there are so many people out here in the world who deal with anxiety and understand how debilitating it can be to one’s life.

Huge apologies if I am off base with this comment. You may not be anxious at all! xo

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I’d also recommend writing by hand. Something about the rhythms, and the way the words don’t glare back at you crystal clear like they do on a computer screen (unless you have ultra discernible handwriting) has always proved helpful for me. Also, as an added bonus, if some part of you doesn’t have or feel the energy to translate it, it’s usually less an indicative sign of laziness I’ve found as knowing that the stuff you’ve written lacks that heat, or fire, or passion. In which case, just throw it away!

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Answers like this from George -- his tone, his gentleness, his patience, his sharing of (often painful) personal experience -- make Story Club invaluable to me. I see myself in every question and in every answer.

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Aug 18, 2022·edited Aug 18, 2022

The idea that we "contain many different writers" is a little bit ground breaking for me, and made some old wall in my mind come finally, fabulously tumbling down! Specifically, that there is no singular, specific "voice" in there that I need to find or hone through conscious excavation and control, but that instead, "voice" is like a chorus of all these different writers in me singing together. That's an especially helpful answer to something I've been struggling with as a person who exists at the crossroads between a lot of different identities (I'm mixed race, raised by immigrants, and working/creating in a wildly diverse set of industries), so I'm often not sure who the "writer" is in all of that. When I'm self-conscious about it, it feels like I'm bouncing around between selves, but if I take a step back to read with - as you say - the visceral part, I can see a voice emerging that is really a symphony of all those different pieces of identity and expertise... and there is a kind of magic in letting that happen. :)

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Lately, I keep writing the same comment over and over here in Story Club, "these questions and answers are so good!" I had these questions as well, but didn't even know I had them until I read them.

Humor goes out the window when I get anxious, I freeze up. It's a real bummer, but...I do appreciate hearing that other people experience anxiety. "Appreciate" isn't the right word, but it helps to know others are dealing with this. Hope I can take self-conscious and keep trying to turn it into awareness.

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Excellent advice all around. I suppose we all suffer with self-doubt when it comes to our writing. I know I do. (Will anyone like this; will they read it? How come no one leaves any comments? Am I any good?) I think the biggest freedom I've discovered for myself was when my mother died two years ago--I now write things I never did before. I suppose I was always holding myself back, thinking, What would Mom say if I wrote a sex scene? Stupid, I know, but it was probably something in my own psyche that was holding me back. Now, I write for myself. I edit, and hack, and chop, but I don't think about what the reader wants. I feel that someone out there will like what I write--and that's good enough for me.

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Aug 19, 2022·edited Aug 19, 2022

Oh questioner! I feel you. My own "method" is painful and offends me, greatly. It is slow and sporadic and plagued by self-doubt. And I'm not really sure if what I write is ever "quite right." Some days I have to employ all kinds of trickery just to keep going! So it feels like madness to say that writing is still my favorite thing to do, that it matters and is important and worth all the time and effort (and self-doubt). Even if it goes nowhere, even if I never write anything worth sharing.

My own self-consciousness stems from a belief I've carried with me from childhood, where imperfection = failure = shame and judgment. I desparately wanted to avoid shame/judgment, which meant I had to be perfect. I've indulged in all kinds of self-sabotage, knowing that perfection doesn't exist. In high school I was a master procrastinator, waiting until the last minute to start on papers and projects (not group projects at least, because of my other great fear: letting other people down). If I got a bad grade, I could say well, that bad grade had nothing to do with my intelligence or ability--I merely didn't give myself enough time! But most times, unfortunately, my minimal efforts still worked out. I say unfortunately because in the long run, that tendency to procrastinate has done much more harm than good. The other thing I did (or do, because I'm still working on myself) was . . . nothing. I didn't even try. I have so much regret over this, over opportunities I've turned down in my life because I was . . . scared to fail? I'm glad Mary G mentioned anxiety, because anxiety's been a constant companion in my life and has had a hand in all the (poor) decisions I've made. But it's a chicken and egg situation for me. Am I self-conscious because I'm anxious, or anxious because I'm self-conscious? I don't know, and it doesn't matter. What I DO know is that everything I've done in my life that makes me proud was hard and took courage. And writing, without a doubt, takes courage.

I don't know if your issues with self-consciousness are anything like mine, but the fact that you catch yourself wondering what's the "right" thing to say in conversation makes me think: perhaps. When I'm nervous I babble and wind up putting my foot in my mouth. So I try to slow down, be more careful, but then I wind up sounding flat and inauthentic (or so I think). The same thing happens when I'm drafting. The editor/perfectionist second-guesses everything. Exercises help. Writing by hand helps. Setting a timer, like George mentioned, really helps! Though I confess: I often don't know what to do with the fragments that result from these sessions. Writing first thing in the morning, when my schedule allows it, helps. The inner editor is still sleepy! Also, and this is a tip for procrastinators, it helps to get the hardest task for your day (which, for me, is often writing) out of the way first. I've read that if you want to wake up and go for a run, you're more likely to actually do it if you leave your running clothes out and your shoes by the door. So I leave my notebook and my pen out at my table, ready to go.

But these are just some tips for getting words on the page. Overcoming self-consciousness . . . I don't know. I love George's suggestion of bargaining with that aspect of your Self. It's so gentle! But George's "self-conscious" mind is more gentle than mine as well. Mine's a total asshole who is rooting for my failure. I don't want to accept it as part of my existence! I'd much rather hunt it down and flog it into a corner somewhere. I will share one more thing (I promise) that helps me, when I'm striving for perfection and getting bogged down by it. I remember that the qualities I most love in others, the traits that most endear them to me, are their quirks, their idiosyncracies, their "imperfections." All those moments when they were most vulnerably, authentically themselves, not covered up or smoothed out by self-edits (this is what I love most about Story Club comments). I suspect that "Perfect," whatever that is, is not very interesting, or lovable. And so I let my idea of "perfect" go (for thirty minutes, at least :)).

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Congratulations on the audiobook, George! It was wonderful to hear you read 'Liberation Day' - there is always something surreal about hearing an author narrate their work, like peeking behind the curtain and finding the Great Oz and seeing other layers of meaning and nuance.

I was also very happy - or, you know, less defeated - to read that your inner critic hits full volume at the 3/5 mark! It's exactly the same for me - I get to that point and I look back and my inner critic says, 'What is the point of all this? What have all these words accomplished? There is nothing unique here, nothing profound, nothing...' etc, etc, etc. I think it's partly because the novelty has worn off (I've been with the story and voice and characters for so long and the honeymoon period has worn off and whereas once they felt full of colour, now they feel kind of beige), partly because there's a weight and a bulk to what has already been written and my grand plans and ambitions and aspirations for this story haven't exactly come to fruition, and partly because it's at that point of the story where it all has to come together and make sense - the carnival ride is over kid, now you gotta walk on your shaky legs down those stairs and back to the ground. The journey is nice and all, but the destination is what you've paid the money for. (I'm pretty sure you've touched on something similar before - the punchline to the joke: the set-up is great, but it's the punchline they'll remember (which is why I'm forever stuffing up jokes much to the exasperated and wry amusement of everyone I know)).

Maybe, it's also partly that I start getting impatient towards the end. The new story ideas I've put aside are calling louder, I'm craving the 'new romance' of a different story and characters and voice, I'm tired by constantly wrestling with these other characters and story threads that just wait around for me to figure out their lives like ungrateful children (sort yourselves out! I'm tired!) - and I feel myself starting to maybe just dial it in. My writing gets lazier, which frustrates me, which puts the brakes on writing another sentence until I discipline that lazy sentence and force it back into shape. And maybe the laziness stems from that original 3/5 thinking of 'this book isn't great/as great as I hoped it would be', so why am I wasting time on it? Plus writing the ending is harder, which takes more discipline, when my writing discipline is already ebbing. Ah Yossarian, another Catch 22.

I like how your post encourages our visceral side to step forward. I think that's a big part of the solution - to find enjoyment in the story and in the writing, and to follow the threads that maintain that enjoyment. Maybe I just have to fall in love with my story again.

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Aug 18, 2022·edited Aug 19, 2022

Dear questioner--thanks for your interesting question. I agree with George--20,000 words a year toward a novel is pretty good, probably about average for literary work. My own novel (82,000 words) took me about four years to write, and I wasted a lot of that time fretting about the process instead of just getting on with it. What you're referring to as self-consciousness sounds like something akin to doubt, a feeling endemic among creative people. George, as usual, has given great advice about embracing the feeling and learning to use it. I wish Story Club existed four years ago.

PS: It took William Gass twenty-six years to write his novel, "The Tunnel."

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Dear questioner - it’s really a great question and George provides a sensational answer. I love writing process - it’s my jam as they say. If it takes you a year to get your 20,000 words then so be it. There are so many factors that could make that output more or less. But you’re in the game and producing. I’m not a fast writer myself and I work in an industry where people crank out words far more quickly than I do. Sometimes I’ll get up and say, “okay, today I spit out 5 articles” and it’s like the day before. Just 1, or half of one and an outline for another.

But here’s what I’ve learned about process (prewriting, outlining/planning, drafting, revising, editing) - you can’t park your car before you drive it. Editing is about getting that car placed just so. Drafting is the driving. Prewriting and planning are kicking the tires and revving the engine before throwing it into drive.

I used to have to have all my thinking in place before placing a single word on the page. I’d Painstakingly produce a “perfect” introduction and then write frantically because the deadline was upon me. I always had just enough time to rewrite that carefully produced intro to match the hastily rushed paper. So much for all that careful planning and thinking.

It took a while. But I’ve learned to play early in the process of writing. Now writing is fun. Revising is where the writing really happens for me. And editing is a more technical challenge and equally as fun.

I always love chatting writing process if you care to get in touch.

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George's account of the death cleaning discoveries reminded me of a poem I am fond of, which I will write here in case it gives pleasure to others:

Who was he that lived my life and now

is some Other? Who was the little boy

asking questions? Who the teenager asking

who the little boy was? The yellowing photo

remains, and the hand holding the photo. The photograph,

the hand, the image of the boy, the hand's image.

Claes Andersson

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I am hugely struck by how different we all are, yet how the same. Maybe that's what our writing struggle is - to use our difference for something original but then use our sameness to connect.

Like many here, I'm a walker, but for different reasons. Reading Mary G's comments on anxiety, got me thinking about my own neurodiversity - I'm bi-polar - this seems to manifest in the opposite of anxiety, or even self-consciousness, with my writing. A similar challenge for different reasons. I storm away, loving what I'm writing, launching off on tangents, revelling in my characters complexity and wit, do a quick edit, which it doesn't need, because it's brilliant, and send it off. Only to be faced with complete disinterest or confusion. Wonder why...

The same in conversation, unlike our brave questioner, (I'm jealous of your self awareness btw) I'll launch confidently into any conversation, missing the point, alienating people and generally messing it up, sometimes only realising years later.

So George's writing, these comments, and Story Club in particular have helped enormously. Helped me to recognise I need to nurture my quiet, calm, rational editor self, helped me to understand that seeing things from the other perspective, be it reader or audience, is vital. I need more awareness, not less. Like others, I walk to get away from the bit of me that comes easily and find the bit that is more illusive.

I hope one day to get to the point where I don't end up explaining my work, but can just listen to people talking about what it means to them.

Noticing my reader self is new for me, and I've learnt that here. Listening to George's excerpt, I allowed my confusion to sit quietly and wait, and as I got less confused, I felt myself wanting more and more to laugh, until the pennies all dropped at once and I laughed out loud.

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Fantastic advice, thank you George! Much to mull over, and to PLAY with. (I forget sometimes that it all works better if only I would check my serious demeanor when I pick up the pen and just, like, play, like I’m still a child—oh, wait...I am still a child! I should make the most of that!!)

And great to hear you reading the intriguing opening of “Liberation Day.”

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Maybe it's because I'm handwriting my draft or maybe it's a personality thing, but my problem is a little different. I can turn that self-conscious voice off while writing or successfully ignore it. But once I put the pen down, it's paralyzing. The voice makes it so hard to pick the pen up again. Any thoughts or suggestions, Story Club community?

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Aug 18, 2022·edited Aug 18, 2022

This was SO helpful: Thank you, George! I especially appreciate the different parts inside, and the visceral, the knowing in your body intuition and the generosity—YAY. I love this approach to riding the emotional roller coaster not only of writing, but of being human. Is there a Story Club book being put together? A sequel to "Swim in a Pond"? Or one focused on Writing Advice for Living?

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Also for me, something about pencil to paper makes the writing flow. I try to write by hand for the first draft and any time I feel stuck.

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