Performance Anxiety.
Yeah, Even Writers Get It

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.


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

13 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety.
Yeah, Even Writers Get It

  1. Your post strikes a powerful chord with me due to my long journey with WPA. I have allowed it to hamstring me for a lot of years. Think about it—I discovered TKZ and have been faithfully visiting since something like 2008, 2010 to read all the outstanding writing advice and tips—yet I have never published a book. Granted, publishing was never my topmost priority—I just enjoy the discovery process of writing. But obviously publishing would be great.

    That nasty perfectionism definitely plays a role—have I researched enough? Revised enough? But I think what is going to turn the tide on all that for me is not methodology but aging. As you get older you start thinking “What are my regrets?” Not publishing because I was a chicken is not the kind of regret I want to take with me. There are many things that happen in life we can’t control—an economic downturn, a health crisis. But we have a say in our writing progress.

    It’s interesting times for me because I think the next 7-8 months will be pivotal for me in my writing journey. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on a project with someone—historical, but not my usual time period. And working with someone has forced me to be more methodical, and more diligent about holding myself to deadlines & goals. And we both have busy full-time jobs, so we understand the time constraints we’re dealing with. We’re going through a second set of revisions with a goal of putting it into our betas’ hands by 8/31. The goal is to publish early 2024. And if it were to get any few-star reviews, I figure at my age I will have less years to read any scathing commentary than if I were 20. LOL!

    • I wish you well, BK. I strongly believe that at some point, you have to be brave and get it out there. Think of it this way: You have other stories to tell. There are other books inside you. It isn’t one and out. Well, unless you’re Margaret Mitchell. I really truly believe it is better to finish and publish, whatever form that might be, with the best intentions and courage you have. Better that, than should’ve, would’ve, could’ve.

      And yes, I really get the age thing. Your priorities shift and you wonder, is this worth it? I am going through that right now.

      Best to you.

      • Thanks. Agree with you. This next 7-8 months will be the test. Will keep TKZ posted! 😎

  2. Great post, Kris!

    Which brings me to our topic today: You guys just have to relax!


    I just chose the cover for my second novel-and I’m excited and WPAing at the same dang time. Having a cover means I have to proceed and wrap it around my MS, then, you know, publish the dang thang!

    I think I need one of those Calming Bites we give our dog on the 4th of July…

    • Gettting a cover makes it real. 🙂

      As for relaxing…I envy those writers who never seem to get uptight about this whole thing. I don’t even understand it.

  3. Love the pickle ball pic, Kris! Great form. Good luck in your upcoming matches. (Btw, my post next Monday will compare competitive sports to competition in writing. Stay tuned.)

    Putting it in terms of sports, your post hit a home run. This sentence stood out to me: Performance anxiety is fear about one’s ability to perform a specific task. Fear of failure, fear of looking foolish, fear of someone realizing you’re an imposter. There’s a lot to be afraid of, but another sentence summed it up for me: You’ve got to be brave about letting others see your stuff. Turn the fear into motivation.

    And I’ll be thinking about “masticating metaphors” while I’m eating my oatmeal this morning.

  4. Very fun photo, Kris! Good luck in the tournament and I hope you continue to have a very fun time. WPA is real. I’ve faced it many times. We have to face the dragon of self-doubt, fear of failure, fear of exposure, perfectionism, all part (IMHO) of WPA, each time we sit at the keyboard. Sometimes, banishing it is easy. Other times, not so much. Having ways to get our selves into a fun, performance mindset is so important, and your tips are super helpful. I just got rave reviews from my beta readers on my latest story–I “looked” at them metaphorically as I worked on this novella.

    I’m with Kay, turn fear into motivation. Be brave. Box breath. Let go and dive into the words.

  5. Toastmasters and acting classes have helped me a lot with stage fright. I addressed an EPA forum on three days’ notice. I’ve acted in 17 of my two dozen plays, and I love it. Writing anxiety, however, is still an issue. Often, it’s a sign that I’m writing the wrong thing.

  6. We’ve all had stage fright. My first criminal case, the phone rang and the clerk from a nearby county says “You’ve got __________ on a preliminary hearing in an hour. G’bye.”
    I had no idea what to do. So I get there and Judge Terry Wilson says for me to approach the bench. He hands me a slip of paper he had written on and he whispers “These are the things you’re supposed to say. Now step back.”
    We’ve all had those moments. You take what you know and what you can learn and you go forward because everyone else in the room has had the same deer in the headlights moment.

    You couldn’t have gotten more downhiller than I was that day. I’m sure Brother Bell can back me up on this.

  7. I keep reminding myself that this writing thing is a journey, so it’s okay if I’m not good enough right now. I’m studying and writing and moving in the right direction.

    Good luck in your pickleball tournament!

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