Getting Out of Writing Overwhelm and Into Action

Let’s talk about writing. And overwhelm.

First, a story. 

When I was a kid, my parents used to take us on high Sierra backpacking trips. They were hard. We’re talking about high-altitude, have to hit 10,000 feet before you get to the lake kind of hard. With backpacks. On super steep trails. In the blazing sun. I was also prone to altitude sickness, so there wasn’t a lot of incentive to go higher, other than the incredible beauty of the alpine lakes and the satisfaction we had once we reached our destination. 

Which was actually a hell of an incentive. 

Every summer my sister and I would slog up the steep trails, managing the weight of our packs on our sore shoulders, the blisters forming on our feet, the headaches creeping in, the tiredness, and the whininess that would sneak into our voices. My dad always brought up the rear, even though he was the fastest and strongest hiker. 

In every trip, there were always points along the way where I begged to stop. I’d despair that we’d ever get there. My dad was my coach at those times. Giving up wasn’t an option. He was always patient, calm, and quiet. He’d just wait with me until I was ready to get up and keep going. 

He’d say, “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t think about how far it is to the top. Just look at the trail right in front of you, and focus on getting to the next bend in the trail. Then the next, and the next.”

And bit by bit, we’d get there.

Overwhelm In Writing

As writers, we often hear the line from E.L. Doctorow, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Usually this quote is used to describe the process of figuring out a story and how we find our way through it, bit by bit. But we can also use it to describe and understand the entire process of writing, from first draft, to rewrite(s), to publication, and to marketing, including dealing with any and all overwhelm at each of those stages. 

When we’re writing, the big gap between here (where you are right now) and there (where want to end up — done! finished! published!) can feel pretty darned overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that you might be wondering if you’re even capable of making it. 

Underlying Causes & Solutions for Addressing Overwhelm  

Let’s dig a little deeper into where you might be feeling overwhelmed, and then look at some solutions to help you find your way through.

6 Underlying Causes of  Writing Overwhelm

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, no matter what stage of writing you’re in, here’s what might really be going on:

  1. There’s so much left to do, and it really is overwhelming. Writing a book is a long haul project. So is a screenplay, when you consider the many drafts a script often goes through before it’s produceable and marketable. There’s a ton of work left to do, and it’s easy to feel disheartened when staring up the face of the enormous mountain you’re attempting to scale. (Hint: You’re looking at the mountain, not the trail.) 
  2. You’re scared to put yourself out there. Writing a book can trigger self-doubts, fears, procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance. When you’re conscious of it, you can feel overwhelmed by the enormity and responsibility of it all. When you’re less conscious of it, you can get stuck in writing overwhelm as a kind of “safe haven.” It can feel easier to go around in circles than to take the risk of fulfilling your big dream. 
  3. You’re doubting that you’re up to the challenge. Hand-in-hand with #1, above, you might not even feel sure you have what it takes to write at the level required to succeed. You might be losing confidence in yourself, your book, and your ability to write. If you’re in this place you may be so overwhelmed that you’re considering giving up on your book, or worse, giving up on writing altogether. This is the kind of overwhelm that comes from a crisis of confidence. 
  4. You’ve lost your way. Sometimes you can end up feeling lost, like you’re not sure how to solve the story problems you’re facing (or even to figure out what the problems truly are), or you’re overwhelmed with a sheer quantity of content and disorganization, and you can end up going around in circles, feeling paralyzed, dazed, and confused. The fear here is that you’ll never find your way.
  5. It feels like you’re running out of time. Many of us have this ticking clock inside our heads about when it’s okay and when it’s too late to “arrive” on the scene with our finished books. The fear here is that it’s too late for you, which creates a sense of overwhelm around trying to fit way too much into too little time.
  6. You’re feeling overwhelmed by life, too. We’re busy. All of us. Our culture, our world, and our lifestyles seem to be busier than ever and only getting worse. Finding time to write seems darned near impossible when you’re juggling a job, kids, friends, pets, family, spouses, and more. The fear here is that you don’t have the time and space in your life to actually pull off making time to write, which again leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

6 Solutions for Moving Past Overwhelm and Into Action

Here are six solutions to help you overcome the overwhelm and move into action with your writing.

  1. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, just like my dad taught me. The most basic antidote for overwhelm is to take the smallest possible steps, one by one, to move through it. This means making a plan for how you’ll approach your writing (or rewriting), and working on it in the smallest possible pieces until it’s done. In fact, the more resistance, fear, or doubt, you’re feeling, the smaller the chunk you’ll want to work on (even if you spend all day working on small pieces). If you keep your focus on the next step right in front of you, you can get through to the end.
  2. Get mad. Resistance is a smothering force. It paralyzes you and bogs you down, until you begin to feel hopeless and like you’ll never succeed. Anger, on the other hand, holds the powerful energy of action. When resistance gets you down, get mad. Use the energy of being a little (or a lot!) pissed off that resistance is trying to beat you to get fired up and get back to work. When I feel discouraged, my fighting spirit rises up in me and says, “No way! I’m not letting resistance win.”
  3. Use a map, aka, remember your Big Why. When you’re lost and overwhelmed, remind yourself of your Big Why. Think about (and write down, for next time) WHY you’re writing this book. What do you love about it? What are your deepest reasons for wanting to write this book? Reconnect with your passion and love and energy for the book. Pair that with the energy of anger to light a fire inside yourself.
  4. Get help for the climb. Sometimes, you need help to reach the top of the summit. This could look like working with a coach, joining a writing group, or partnering up with a buddy. Someone who will be patient, supportive, kind, and compassionate without giving up on you for a single second. 
  5. Make a push of progress on your book. A nifty trick for dealing with overwhelm is making a focused, concerted burst of progress on your story. Writing solidly, with focus, helps you regain your sense of identity and your confidence in yourself as a writer. This is what Tony Robbins calls “massive action.” And though I generally advocate for regular daily writing as the primary antidote for resistance, sometimes we need to take powerful action to restore our confidence, energy, and momentum. You can do your own focused writing intensive or join mine to help you make that happen.
  6. Remember your ultimate destination. Not only are you writing this book or screenplay right now, you’re also working to fulfill your overall writing career goals. This project, right now, is part of the map you’re using to get there. While this might sound like contradictory advice, holding the big view of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it can help with taking the small steps along the trail.

The reward?

Reaching that ultimate destination. Seeing the world you want to see, from the great heights you’ve earned, step by step.

 

Join the next Deep Dive Writing Intensive.

Find out more and register here: https://calledtowrite.com/deep-dive

 

 

 
 
1. Featured image by AJ Yorio on Unsplash
2. Unsplash

Get your ‘But’ in the seat and write

One of my all time favorite quotes about writing comes from Steven Pressfield, author of what has become my bible for writing, The War of Art*. In it, he says:

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

As a writing habit and motivation coach, I work with writers all over the world who face and tackle this resistance every single day as they struggle to sit down to write. Very often that resistance takes the form of the word “But”.

  • But I don’t have enough time.
  • But I don’t have enough training.
  • But I don’t know what to write.
  • But I’m not inspired.
  • But I’m not a good enough writer.
  • But I’m not in the right mood.
  • But I need to take care of all these other tasks first.
  • But I’m not making enough money yet to justify taking time to write.
  • But I don’t have a laptop.
  • But I’m tired, I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
  • But I’m too busy.
  • But my day job takes up too much of my time.
  • But I don’t have a private space.
  • But my kids will interrupt me.
  • But my mom might call and need me.
  • But I’m bored with this project.
  • But I can’t decide which project to start with.
  • But I’m stuck.
  • But I have writer’s block.
  • But if I was a real writer, it would come easily to me.
  • But I have to deal with this crisis/emergency/major life issue first.

Guess what?

All these Buts are just stories. They are coming up for a deeper reason.

The deeper reason is fear.

Fear is what truly stops us from writing. The Buts are just the surface level rationalizations for fear. They are convenient excuses to keep your butt out of your chair and doing other things so you don’t have to face the discomfort of taking on your dream.

Pressfield also says:

“Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.”

It turns out that actually DOING the writing is fairly easy. Most of the writers I work with find that once they are actually putting words on the page, they forget about the inner struggle and just do the work. In the Writer’s Circle we run five weekly group writing sprints to help our writers overcome the resistance to sitting down to write (and to curtail the sense of isolation). My other favorite trick is to write first thing in the morning with a timer running. Pushing the start button gives me a “GO” that gets me into gear even when the Buts are loud and pernicious.

The thing to notice here is that fear is a beacon. It guides you exactly where you need to and even want to go, though you may not be aware of that wanting yet. The thing is, if it wasn’t a big, big dream, you wouldn’t be afraid of it.

No, I’m not talking here about naturally protective fear that keeps you safe from lions, tigers, and bears — that’s GOOD fear — I’m talking about the kind of fear that’s a holdover from when you were a kid, the kind that’s trying to keep you safe from any kind of personal humiliation or risk. This is also the kind of fear that’s keeping you “safe” from achieving your dreams.

I didn’t quite mean for this to become an ode to Steven Pressfield, but he has so much genius on this subject I can’t help sharing a few more of my favorite quotes from him about fear:

“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

And:

Figure out what scares you the most and do that first.”

So it’s time.

It’s time to stop listening to the Buts, the fears, the doubts, and the rationalizations. It’s time to site down and do the work, to coax yourself through the fear with lots of support and promises of rewards, to feed your own well of creative inspiration so you feel consistently nourished and ready to write, and to learn whatever you need to learn so you feel equipped to do the writing. But above all else, it’s time to write.

Build the habit to overcome your own resistance

Join the Writer's CircleIf you’re a writer struggling to overcome your writing resistance, join the next session of our Writer’s Circle. We’ll help you build a regular, consistent habit of writing so the battle to overcome resistance each day gets easier. Plus, you’ll have a great community of support, working alongside other writers committed to showing up and doing the work. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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