If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But then I wonder: is the key to that magical performance because of the fear? — Stevie Nicks
By PJ Parrish
So I competed in my very first pickleball tournament on Sunday. How’d I do? Eh…
About as well as I did the first time I had to play the piano in front of real people. Sweaty hands, dry mouth, pounding heart. Then lots of dumb little mistakes, missing the notes, not watching Valerie, my violinist friend I was accompanying. So it was at the pickleball gig. Hitting too hard, no soft touch on the dinks. Too hung up on the folks watching me. And the worst — feeling like I was letting my partner down,
I kept flashing back to that piano performance. I was so sure I was going to screw up that I forgot to just stay in the moment and have a good time.
Which brings me to our topic today: You guys just have to relax!
By you guys I mean all of us crime dogs. We’ve got to get over our performance anxiety. Yeah, we get it, just like actors, dancers, speechifiers. I mean, look at the clinical definition: Performance anxiety is fear about one’s ability to perform a specific task. People experiencing performance anxiety may worry about failing a task before it has even begun. They might believe failure will result in humiliation or rejection.
Sound familiar? No matter where you are in your writing career, long-published to working on your first manuscript, you’ve probably had feelings of doubt. And you may have even (like me at several points in my decades-long career), worked yourself into a lather over the idea that you will be rejected, or worse, humiliated.
We writers don’t get stage fright of course. But WRITERS PERFORMANCE ANXIETY (WPA…I made that up) can manifest itself in some very real and harmful ways:
- Fear of confronting the daily task of writing itself. (God, this is so bad! What am I even thinking? That I can actually write something someone wants to read?)
- Fear of letting someone read your stuff. (I can’t face feedback from a critique group. I don’t want anyone to see this because they’ll know I’m a fraud)
- Fear of finishing. (Because what comes next?)
- Fear of sending your work out into the world. (Because that opens you up to possibility of…)
- Fear of rejection.
Is WPA the same as writer’s block? I don’t think so. Writer’s block is a temporary lull in your momentum. It comes usually because you’ve plotted yourself into a blind alley or you’ve lost touch with your characters. It can be fixed. You can go back and find the true path. You can delete. You can rewrite.
But WPA goes to something deeper, I think. It comes from a fear that what you’ve made isn’t good enough. And, by extension, that who YOU are isn’t good enough.
And lest you think you’re unique in your WPA, get a load of this confession from novelist Anne Lamott:
I love readings and my readers, but the din of voices of the audience gives me stage fright, and the din of voices inside whisper that I am a fraud, and that the jig is up. Surely someone will rise up from the audience and say out loud that not only am I not funny and helpful, but I’m annoying, and a phony.
So first, you have to separate you and your work. I know, I know…that’s tough because your work comes from your heart and soul. But you’ve got to get away from the idea that this is personal. If your book isn’t working, it’s not because you’re not. If your story is flawed, it isn’t because you are.
Second, you have to let go of the idea of being perfect. (Trust me, I know a lot about this one). We all try to write something we hope everyone will love. We sweat every sentence, masticate every metaphor, spinning our wheels in mid-rewriting muck instead of moving forward. We try to be too writerly, too clever, too neo-whatever-is-popular-now. We forget that our first task is to tell a cool story that connects with readers.
I love this quote from screenwriter Robert McKee:
When talented people write badly, it’s generally for one of two reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.
Okay, so maybe you’ve got WPA. What do I think you should do about this? Well, to be blunt, you’ve got to grow a pair. You’ve got to be brave about letting others see your stuff. We’ve said this here at TKZ a million times but here it comes again: Find someone you can trust to tell you the truth. Listen to them. Then go back to work.
When you’ve finished — and I mean really finished, like your seventh or twelfth draft, and you’ve turned it into a beautiful manuscript with the best grammar and formatting you can manage — send that baby out into the world. Playing the piano alone in your little room is what amateurs do. Writing just for yourself is pointless. You’re a pro. You need an audience. They’re out there. Go find them.
I’ll let the therapists have the last word here. Because I think the “treatment” they suggest for stage fright is good for us writers.
- Stand in a relaxed but confident pose. (You the writer need to relax, then face that blank page every day with faith and conviction)
- Make eye contact with the friendliest faces in the audience. (Find a great beta reader!)
- Maintain momentum rather than dwelling on mistakes. (Don’t keep rewriting the same chapters. Move forward through your plot and go back only if you really need to correct something that is making forward momentum impossible. And remember that REWRITING is where the hard work is done)
- Focus on the act of performing rather than the audience’s reaction. (Try to remember why you got into this weird business in the first place — the joy of putting words to paper and making readers feel something.)
- Visualize success. (Your slot on the bestseller list? Your book cover-out at Barnes & Noble? Hordes waiting for you to sign your book? Okay, how about your finished book, with a good cover, finally up for sale on Amazon?)
And remember: As Stevie Nicks says, a little rational fear is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes. Just don’t let it define you. Or ruin your game.
Postscript: Yesterday, the second day of the Friendly Pickleballers Charity Tourament, my partner Keith and I won our game, 11-4. Things are looking up. I’m visualizing a trophy. Stay frosty out there, friends in the heat zones.