How To Manage Your Creative Anxiety With Rhonda Douglas

How To Manage Your Creative Anxiety With Rhonda Douglas

If you’ve ever found yourself staring at the blank page or blinking cursor for long periods of time, trying to write but unable to find the right words, you might be suffering from creative anxiety. And if so, you’re not alone! 

This is something all writers struggle with—no matter how many books they’ve written, where they’re at in the writing process, or how competent they are in other areas of their lives. It’s super normal, and it means nothing about your ability to write a novel.

In this episode of the Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast, I’m sharing a conversation I had with Rhonda Douglas about managing creative anxiety.

Rhonda is an award-winning poet and fiction author, host of The Resilient Writer’s Podcast, and a creative coach and writing mentor who specializes in helping women writers overcome their fears so they can finish their books and build the writing lives of their dreams.

In this episode, you’ll hear us talk about things like what it means to have creative anxiety, how it most commonly shows up for writers, and how to deal with creative anxiety when it does show up.  

So, if you’ve ever felt writer’s block or that feeling of resistance that sometimes shows up when you sit down to write your novel, you’re going to love this episode. Without further ado, let’s dive right into my conversation with Rhonda Douglas! 


Transcript: How to Manage Your Creative Anxiety With Rhonda Douglas

SAVANNAH: Hey, Rhonda! Thank you so much for coming on the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. I'm so thrilled to have you here. 

RHONDA: I'm so happy to be here. It's great to chat with you.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, I'm so happy to have you here, too. I already introduced you in the opening of the episode, but in your own words, can you tell my listeners who you are and what you do?

RHONDA: Sure. So I am a poet. I'm an award-winning poet and fiction writer. I live in Ottawa, Canada with my cocker spaniel, Mr. Darcy. And I'm also the host of the Resilient Writers radio show. And at, I help writers, particularly women writers, finish their books and finally get them out into the world so they can have a writing life they love.

SAVANNAH: Love that. I love that mission so much. And we're going to have to talk about the cocker spaniel, Mr. Darcy offline, because my listeners know I'm a huge dog nerd. But I love your podcast. So we're going to link to all of that in the show notes. But the reason I wanted to have you on the show today is that on an episode of your podcast, you talked about creative anxiety. And I loved how you broke everything down. So what it is, how it shows up for writers, and maybe most importantly, how we can deal with it when it does pop up. And this subject hit close to home for me because I'm someone who has dealt with generalized anxiety for over half of my life, at this point. And I know that many of my listeners deal with anxiety, especially when it comes to their writing and their creative projects. So I'm very excited to dig into this topic.

RHONDA: Yeah, it's funny. I didn't think I had anxiety for a long time. And then a good friend of mine is a clinical psychologist, and I said to her at one point, "I think in my 20s and 30s, I think I had pretty bad anxiety." And she's known me a long time. She was like, "Ya think?"

SAVANNAH: She's like, "Actually, yeah, you did."


SAVANNAH: There's a whole thing we could get into about what triggers anxiety, how hormones play into that. We're not psychologists. We're not someone that is going to give medical advice on this. We're just going to share what has helped us and how we look at it, how we help writers through creative anxiety and things like that. So anything you want to add there? 

RHONDA: No, exactly. That's exactly.

SAVANNAH: Okay. Perfect. So if we were to define creative anxiety, what does that look like? Or what does that mean to you?

RHONDA: Yeah, well, I use the term creative anxiety to encompass everything from what I think of as a mild writer's resistance, where we have that, "Oh, I don't know if I feel like writing today," over to the more serious writer's block where we've been avoiding our writing for a week, for a month, for a year, for five years, whatever it is. And maybe we give up on it a little bit because it gets so painful to be avoiding it.

So I think of it, everything in between, that whole range, as creative anxiety. I like to say creative anxiety is the new black. I just feel like an essential part of who we are. I think we all have it as writers at one point or another. I think it was Zadie Smith. Now, I haven't been able to find this since I first heard it, so it might not be her. But I think it was Zadie Smith who said she described something as being the great gap, which is the gap between the glimmering project that you can see in its final finished form and where you are now. And creative anxiety is all the worry that goes into getting from here to there.

SAVANNAH: Yeah. I love that you said gap because it does feel like that. It feels like an insurmountable gap from A to Z. We all read books, so we hold them in our hands, we look at the finished product, the beautiful covers, the beautiful prose, all that. And then we forget that we have to learn how to write books because we've never done it before. We have to practice our craft and get better. So it's like it is apples to oranges. We compare something at the starting point to something at the finish point. And it makes total sense we have creative anxiety about it.

RHONDA: Yeah, absolutely. Also, we pick up a book and we love it, and we don't know that it took eight drafts or 12 drafts. Or that it took 12 years or 10 years or six years or three years to write. And we are three months into a draft and worried we're never going to be finished, and it doesn't look as good. I'm like, "Is it supposed to?" So some of it is unrealistic expectations about the different stage of the process, and I think these are fostered by online life. I try not to buy into that in my own online life, but it can be really hard. If you watch any movie about a writer, there they are, typing away. And then they just pull it out of the typewriter and lay it down. That's page one. And there's this stack of pages just growing next to them. And then they shuffle the pages and they're done, as though that's how you make a book. 

SAVANNAH: And they're usually in a cabin in the woods, and they have the agent who's super supportive and all that stuff.

RHONDA: They don't have to stop because the dog is vomiting. Or they don't have to stop because they suddenly had to work more. Or somebody...

SAVANNAH: Had a baby.

RHONDA: Exactly. 

SAVANNAH: And I love how you're describing that. I love bringing us down to, what is reality. And the reality is we all face this, at not only at different stages of where we're at as writers, in different stage of the process. Sometimes it can be in different parts of your actual, that one book. So it's different every day. It's something we all deal with on some level. Even professional authors who have published, they still with it.

RHONDA: Oh, yeah, exactly.

SAVANNAH: So I think it's really important to talk about and just break it down. What does this look like? And you said earlier, you like to look at it of a spectrum of things. So I'm going to assume this includes perfectionism, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, all of that stuff that we contribute to writer's block. Put under this umbrella of creative anxiety, which I think is really, really smart.

RHONDA: Yeah, include all of that. Absolutely.

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And so we talked about a little bit of what it looks like and something you said on your podcast is that it's really this thing that's rooted in fear and it's all focused on the future. So can you talk about that a little bit more?

RHONDA: Yeah. I feel like, for me anyway, it's always triggered by the thoughts in my head about either the current project that I'm working on and/or myself as a writer. Maybe I'm comparing myself to a writer. What I find is super ironic is that the cure to the anxiety is to be writing. And so when I'm actively writing, I am not as anxious because I'm in the work and I'm actively shaping it or whatever. But when I'm worried about when this book gets published, what if people don't like it? What if I get a one star review on Amazon? What if it gets panned in a newspaper? Not that newspapers review many books anymore, but what if they hate it? I had a friend who had a book, came out and finally got a review in the New York Times and they trashed it. It's all of that.

It's like, "What if I finish my memoir and my mom won't talk to me anymore?" All that kind of stuff. And it's all future. It's not about now and what's on the page in front of you. It's all future. You don't know that it's going to happen. So, A, it may not be true, and B, you may have control over or influence over how some of that happens, if it does happen. And in all likelihood, even if the worst happens, you're probably going to be able to deal with it. Yeah. My friend who got the bad review wrote another book. This is what we do.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, no biggie. She lived, right? It is a big deal. We have feelings. Those are valid. But she was able to go on and do the things she loved.

RHONDA: You have feelings.

SAVANNAH: Exactly.

RHONDA: You have your feelings, you process your feelings, and then you decide, you know what? I'm a writer, so let me get on it. Let me get the next book. 

SAVANNAH: And I like how you said, "When you're in the writing, you're present so that you're not worried about the future when you're in the writing. And that's how you get through it is by doing the work." Also, I feel like a lot of our fears come from the unknown. So I don't know how to fix this plot hole, or I don't really know where I'm going to go in the middle of my outline. I don't really know where I'm going to go in this scene or whatever it is. That also can be fixed by writing. And it's super hard for us to get over that hurdle of, I might know that logically, but then how do I actually force myself to show up at my desk? 

RHONDA: Yeah, exactly. And isn't it awful that the solution is the thing that you've been avoiding? I wish there was some other magic thing, but it is how it works. So what's fascinating for me about creative anxiety and that space of uncertainty, and I don't know how to do it, is I think you do know how to do it because most writers begin to write because they were readers, because they love books. And so you've been stewing in story since you were a little kid. With the flashlight under the book covers.

In you, you know when a story is finished, when a story isn't finished, what makes for great dialogue, what doesn't make for great... You have all of that in you. Every book you've ever read is still a part of your experience and a part of who you are. And so I think, especially for the draft, I feel like we can really trust the history of reading that we bring with us, that we know enough. So I often teach people when you're in that space of, "Oh my God, I don't know what to do next." Just do anything. Just do something. Write whatever, any old thing, and just let it flow from there. And anything that isn't perfectly working, you can fix in revision. That's why we have revision. That's the fun part of revision.

SAVANNAH: Right. And I think that's such a good point. In my courses and in my membership, we talk about having courage versus confidence. So it's like what you're saying is what you bring this instinctual knowing of story to it, you might not have the confidence yet because you haven't produced a finished draft. That's okay. It will come once you're there. So you have to say, "Okay, I'm hearing Rhonda and Savannah talk about, I have this instinctual knowing in me of what makes a story or when it's done or whatever. Can I have the courage to show up to the page, even though I'm not feeling a 100% sure? Is it worth it enough to be uncomfortable and have the courage and take that step?" And for most of us, if we frame it that way, it probably is. 

RHONDA: Yes, exactly. I also think there are things you can do. I think of it in two ways. I think of it as preventative and curative. So for preventative, I try to teach my brain that writing is the best part of my day. That it's like my little sanctuary space from the world. I am holding up my candle. I light a candle. I have a mug that is in the theme of the current novel. If I'm writing by hand, I draft by hand. Gorgeous notebooks. I'm about to pull one out, but they'll all fall down if I do that.

SAVANNAH: Who doesn't have a stack of beautiful notebooks, right?

RHONDA: Yes. So a beautiful notebook, a gorgeous pen, a shawl nearby in case I get cold. I play music I love. I even have a little candy nearby. And when I start writing, I give myself a little chocolate or a Werther's caramel.

SAVANNAH: Love that.

RHONDA: So that my brain gets an immediate dopamine hit. And I want my brain to associate writing with pleasure. And I'm training myself over time. I'm not saying this happens overnight, but I train myself over time. So my brain goes, "Let's do that thing that feels really good." 

SAVANNAH: Yes, exactly.

RHONDA: And that's the preventative part. And the other thing I do is a little tiny, tiny little exercise to ground myself before I start writing. So if I have a 45-minute session, I'll put three minutes of deep breathing on the front. Or three minutes of adult coloring. Or three minutes of guided meditation on YouTube. Just three minutes. And then I'm into it because I'm trying to trigger my body into just total relaxation and an absence of anxiety and just so that I feel really grounded. And then I write. The curative part is that sometimes I'll write, and then you get the little thoughts. It's like this or this, what are you doing? This is no good. And then from there, I often go, I leap. This sentence I just wrote isn't very good. The book isn't any good. I'm terrible.

What am I even doing? I'm wasting my life. I just leap, leap, leap. The brain loves to set us up that way. So the curative part is, if I find that happening to me in a session, I stop and I go back and do three minutes of my grounding exercise. For example, just taking the deep breathing. If you do really deep breathing for three minutes, just into your belly, it's super simple. It's just in through the nose, out through the mouth. You're hitting a system, the parasympathetic nervous system, you're just triggering. It can't not relax you. And so then I'm into it again.

SAVANNAH: Yeah. So you're grounding yourself, getting yourself in that present moment and saying, with those little rewards, you're saying, "Writing is fun. I just need to make sure I stay in that and not let the worries take over." The other thing you talked about on that episode was using cognitive behavioral therapy to get yourself out of those moments, which is something I do for my own anxiety where it shows up in all parts of my life. So I thought it could be fun. Again, we're not therapists or anyone who's medically licensed to give advice on this. We're just sharing what works for us. I thought it could be a fun exercise to walk through how you would retrain your thoughts with cognitive behavioral therapy. 

RHONDA: Oh, let's do that. Yeah.

SAVANNAH: So if you want, I can play the part of the writer who's having a hard time. You can guide me through the process of, what we're basically trying to do is say, "Okay, we acknowledge that a thought is there, that's not super helpful. It's causing these feelings and actions. What do I do to stop that in its tracks and shift the thinking?" 

RHONDA: Great. Okay.

SAVANNAH: So let's pretend I'm writing and I've just written a sentence that I think is absolutely terrible, and I put the pen down and I'm like, "I suck."

RHONDA: Right, right.

SAVANNAH: That's the thought.

RHONDA: Yeah. The way I use it, I use something taught by, I think I learned it from Brooke Castillo in the Life Coach School of it's called The Model. There's a fact in the world, and then you have a thought about it and based on the thought, you have a feeling. And because you had a feeling you take or don't take an action and you end up with a result. So what I would ask you is, where is the fact? And we go back to the fact. And the fact in that instance is, it has to be a pure fact. So you don't get to say, "I wrote a sentence that sucked." Actual fact is, I wrote a sentence.

SAVANNAH: And something I say to my students is, "Would this hold up in a court of law as true?" So you just said it's not factually true that my sentence is terrible. It's only true that I wrote a sentence on a piece of paper. 

RHONDA: It's completely subjective. I read a book recently, it was an airport thriller kind of book, and I picked it up and grabbed it. And I thought, this'll be fun. And it was fun/ but it's not an award-winning, lyrical description. I don't know, historical novel or anything. All books are different and all writing is different, and it all has its place. So I think that the subjectivity that goes with sucking, if you strip that away, you're left with the fact that I wrote a sentence.

So when we say, "God, that sentence sucked. I suck." To me, that feels heavy in my body. It feels despairing. It feels like there is no hope for me because, for me anyway, suckage is a permanent state. I'm always going to suck. Oh my God, this book will always suck. It's awful. And then because I feel that sense of despair and hopelessness, I avoid my writing. And because I avoid my writing, the book doesn't get finished and get out into the world. And that's the result. So if I go back to the fact and say, "I wrote a sentence." And then I have a thought about that, I wrote a sentence. I wrote a sentence today, that's my whole job. What's my job? Writing sentences? I did my job today. That thought says, "Hey girl, look at you. You're great."

SAVANNAH: Making progress. 

RHONDA: You're making progress. Even small progress is great progress, all of that. And also you're making something out of nothing. That sentence did not exist in the world before you wrote it down.

SAVANNAH: And it doesn't have to be perfect.

RHONDA: It doesn't have to be perfect. We're just drafting. All of that. Any of those sentences gives you a lighter feeling in the body, and there's hope. You can work with it. From there, you get to an action that is staying in the chair. Writing another sentence. Just getting one more sentence down, getting one more paragraph down, getting one more page done, which ultimately, eventually, results in the book being finished and out into the world. And so I think that the trick with it, for me, and I don't know if you're like this SAVANNAH:, but I have to find a new thought that my brain will accept as true, because I can't go from this sucks to my book is brilliant. My brain is like, "You are lying to yourself. Stop it." But I can go to, "That's okay. I can fix it later."

SAVANNAH: Yup. And I think for some writers, it's the difference between you have mantras and those might work, like the future pacing vision board things of, my book will be a bestseller. That's great to dream like that. But in the moment when you're having these negative thoughts, it's really hard to believe yourself sometimes when you go from zero to 1000. So I'm the same way as you. It's what's just a constructive or more growth oriented response I can tell myself. And sometimes it helps to write these things down, too. So if we're on this thought process of, "My sentence sucks, so I'm going to be a terrible writer and I'm never going to finish this," write it down. And then either think about how silly does that sound that I'm so taking this to the extreme, it's not really true. Or look at it from the outside and say, "Would I ever say this to another person?" And chances are you would not. So why are you saying it to yourself? We need to be a little bit more compassionate and kind to ourselves. 

RHONDA: Yes, absolutely. And also, I love what you said about growth, because, for me, that's something I've come back to time and again, which is I'm a writer who learns and grows. And so that helps when I get in that space of, I don't know what I'm doing. I come from, all my training and background is in literary tradition, poetry, short story, literary novel. And I decided during the pandemic to write a historical mystery. Never done one before, but I love to read them. I thought, "Hey, it'll be fun. Let me just have a bit of fun here." And I was constantly, "I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing." And it really, for a while, was shutting me down. And so I had to go to, "That's okay. I am a writer who learns and grows. I'm learning how to write a mystery novel. Isn't this fun?" You really can reframe it if you try. The other thing is, you don't reframe it once and then you're good to go.

SAVANNAH: I wish. Right? 

RHONDA: I'm constantly, even now, I've got books out in the world and they've been well-received, and I write regularly and I am always in the middle of a writing session. There's a little voice that says, "What the hell are you doing? Or you don't know what you're doing. Or Are you sure that's how you should do it?"

SAVANNAH: You've already peaked?

RHONDA: "Does it even work? Does it even work? Is that too simplistic? And oh my God." I was two-thirds of the way through my mystery novel when I realized I had the wrong murderer.


RHONDA: For a mystery novel, kind of big. And so don't do what I did. So then I was like, "Okay, well, that's just going to need fixing, and I've got a really good red herring here now." That's the one that people are going to believe might be the murderer. So yeah, you're never done. You're always going to have to work with yourself. And I think that's true in life, at least for me. So it definitely is when I'm trying to make something out of absolutely nothing on the page.

SAVANNAH: And I love what you said about realizing you had the wrong murder, and you're kind of like, "Oh my gosh, this is a pretty big deal. I'm writing a mystery." 


SAVANNAH: It happens with plot twists. It happens with the purpose of characters. It happens with so many things. And I try to tell writers, "Don't look at it as something that you did wrong, to get to that point." You've got to this point and you learn that something isn't working or is working or you had a better idea. That's how you get to the gold of what is going to make your story cool. 

RHONDA: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

SAVANNAH: It's just a reframe. And it all starts with how do you recognize that negative thought in the moment? And that also takes practice.

RHONDA: It does. Yeah. That took a long time for me because I used to think that everything I thought was just true. It was just reality. And I could find evidence. So if I said, "Oh, that sentence sucked," and you challenged me on it, you'd be like, "Well, it's subjective. It's not really a factor." I'd be like, "No, look at that. It sucks." And I couldn't get out of it because I could see evidence that it might be true. So I thought, therefore it must be true. Those are not the same things. And also there's many things can be true at the same time. I can write a sentence that sucks and write a better one later. So I think it's really important to understand that all of your thoughts are not true. I think they say we have something like between 60 and 70,000 thoughts a day.

SAVANNAH: Oh, my gosh.

RHONDA: Some of them are just stupid. They come nowhere. And the next thing you're thinking about, I don't know, mini eggs that comes to mind this morning.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, funny. Well, and it's like you said, multiple things could be true at once. So even if you do end up with, let's say, a terrible sentence in your finished draft and your book goes to print, your book could still be great with that terrible sentence. So there's so many levels of things. And you hear all the time. I just read something on, I don't know what social media it was on, but someone was talking about Twilight, and they were like, that book was terribly written, but look how many people love it. So it's art, first of all, which is subjective. And then second of all, there's a story out there for everybody. Certain people are going to relate to different things. So sometimes we just need to take the pressure off. I am going back to that thing where we're in the moment, we're feeling these negative thoughts because I know there are people out there that are thinking, "Well, how do I even go about catching the thought?"

And so for me, when I was first starting to learn this, I would notice the feeling. So the feeling that comes way after the thought or the action. I might get up and totally walk away from my desk and feel upset. And then I say, "Okay, let me... I don't like this. Let me see if I can unwind where this came from." So sometimes it's just that. You're not going to catch it right away. Maybe an hour or two later you'll catch it or whatever. So it's noticing it and saying, "What could I have done different? How could that thought change?"

Sometimes you might catch the thought and then you can just list out the thought and the other options of what else could be true to be true. I do that one a lot because it's like, "Okay, that could be a result that happens." Let's say I'm about to query agents. And it could be true that in querying I'm going to get 50 rejections. It could also be true I get 50 full requests. I know there's statistics and things like that that say you're going to get more rejections, but I feel like we need to give the positive results equal playing time. If we're going to be thinking of all these what ifs, throw some positive ones in there too.

RHONDA: Yeah. And that's been a big thing for me because I feel like all of our brains are geared to the negative. The brain's job is to keep you breathing. And when it's done that all day, it's like, "Look at me. I did a great job. I kept her alive."

SAVANNAH: It wants to keep you safe. 

RHONDA: It wants to keep you safe. And it does that by saying, "Avoid all these negative things. Danger, danger, danger." And it doesn't do a great job of noticing and celebrating what's great or what's possible. And I think that's even more important in today's world and the time that we live in, which can be, for some of us, if you're a sensitive person at all. And many of us are, because we are artists whose medium is words. So we are responding to the world around us, and it can be hard. So I think that I need to find the hope. I need to look for the hope. And so I'm always asking myself, "Okay, but what's a more hopeful thought? And what else could be true?" And that thing that you've said of giving the possibilities, the positive possibilities, equal airtime. If I've spent 25 minutes down a little rabbit hole of how horrible I am and how no agent's ever going to want to pick up this book, and even if it does get published, it's not going to be successful and blah, blah, blah, blah.

I need 25 minutes of dreaming about, I find the perfect agent and they really love the book and they're able to sell it in really well. And maybe one of the big five or one of their imprints picks it up and it gets... All of it is theoretically possible as well. I let myself go down that road. And then the other thing that I love about writing, and this is true now more than ever, with all of the options around self-publishing, indie publishing as well, and the options that we have to build an audience for ourselves is that the most powerful thing about writing, I find, is connecting with readers.

And there are readers who love every kind of book you can even imagine. I didn't know there was dinosaur romance and werewolf erotica and all this stuff. And there are people who love that. And I just really feel like your book is going to reach your readers. You have total control over that. You have a lot of and a lot of influence where you don't have control. And so the odds are that your book is going to get out in the world and find the readers, and they're going to connect with it and be like, "When's the next one coming?"

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And it's all a sliding scale too, that sometimes it does depend on the effort you put in and the time you put into marketing your book and finding those readers. It does depend on that, right? Not sometimes. But you can also control that. So on the flip side, there's two things I want to say. I talk to writers sometimes who it's not the fear of failure sometimes that is bugging them. It's more like, "What if I do become the next JK Rowling and my life changes and that's not what I want?" I don't know, there's just a whole range of the thoughts you can have, positive and negative, and the worries that come up. But I think, even for the people who are like, "Oh gosh, all this sounds hard. I don't know if I can catch and control the thoughts." And yada yada.

We can't help the thoughts and the feelings that come in. And like you said, it's a lifelong process of catching them and reframing them. But I do think that we can choose what to do with them when they appear. Sometimes it's learning the discipline of like, "Okay, I can allow myself to sit in this muddy feeling of I'm never going to succeed. Or I'm worried about querying agents." Or whatever it is. That's not really fun and enjoyable at all. So it's like you said about the control thing, what can you control in that moment? You can't control how an agent receives things. You can't control if the world likes your book, but you can control how you show up to your desk. How you present your materials. So it's just focusing on what's in your control and choosing. Are you going to show up to the plate with fear or are you going to show up with love for your project and more in that growth mindset?

RHONDA: Yeah, I'm really glad you said that. I actually think the thing that I know I have control over is my writing process. And so for me, it's sacred. I want to be loving my writing, no matter what happens with the books out in the world. I want to be loving my writing from now until they take the pen from my cold dead hand. This is how I want to live my life. And so when I think of all the things that could happen, I also know that over the course of my life, good and bad things have happened already, and I have managed them.

I have survived them. I have thrived with them. And so I think that I'll be able to manage whatever comes, good or bad, I'll be able to deal with it. Some of that certainty in knowing comes from knowing how I manage, how I feel about my writing in the moment, that I can do the work to set myself up to have a good, quote, unquote, writing session by centering myself, by doing all the little tiny rituals that I have that go into making it a pleasurable experience.

And as long as I'm doing that, I'm doing my job. And then the stuff that comes with the market, I can influence that, I can't control it. And so I'm going to spend less time on it. That's another thing is, the things I don't have control over, I'm just not going to spend time worrying about them. And one of the things I tell myself is, "I don't have control over that. That's okay. I don't have control over that." And I set it aside. That does take some practice. I didn't wake up. I wasn't born being able to set that aside. But knowing that you can't control it, to some extent, just makes it that much easier because you do everything that you can and then you just release it. There you go, you've done it.

SAVANNAH: And sometimes I like to zoom out and think of, because this does relate to life totally. But for me, I live in California, so we deal with earthquakes. I cannot control whether an earthquake happens. I can control how prepared I am. I can control my thought process around being prepared and what will happen if an earthquake comes and making plan and things like that. 

Sometimes I like to just look at those examples and say, "Okay, yes, writing is a creative project. It's not an earthquake, but the thoughts and the worries can feel similar." So if I can have a positive association or feel prepared with an earthquake, surely I can do that for writing. Sometimes it's just zooming out and being a little more objective. The other thing you talked about too, which is going to bring this into, we've talked about practical things, but this is really practical. You said on that episode, "Breaking your projects down into smaller pieces," which is something I talk about a lot too, because of course you're going to have fears if you're like, "I have to sit down and write an 80,000 word draft that's perfect on my first try."

And you can break things down into as small of pieces as you want. Maybe today you're outlining act one. Maybe you're focusing on one paragraph. It can be anything. And every day could look different.

RHONDA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, I honestly, until I learned to break my work down was in a constant state of near paralysis all the time. I would go from feeling totally paralyzed and avoiding my writing to finally will-powering it out, getting myself to write 500 words, and then I might not write again for three weeks because I'm back to paralysis again. And so I very much break my writing down into the drafting phase, the revision phase, the publish phase, and the promote phase. 

And break it down further within that. And for revision, I have a whole process that I go through. And I love to remind myself to stay where I am in the process. So for example, I believe that structure is a revision task. So anytime I'm in the drafting stage, I'm like, "I don't know that this is structured right. I feel really icky about the structure." I can fix it in revision. So that really helps me. Now if I'm in revision and I have a 12-step thing that I go through. And so if I'm on step three, I try to stay on step three. And so when I start worrying about a thing, I go, "Oh no, that's step nine. I don't have to worry about that right now."

SAVANNAH: Future Rhonda's problem. 

RHONDA: Yeah, future Rhonda's problem, exactly. And I'll know how to deal with it when I get there. And that's true of life as it is writing. When we get there, we can figure it out.

SAVANNAH: And sometimes thinking of the 80,000 word draft problem or that thing that feels overwhelming, we both see a lot of writers go through the process, and there's things that you just don't or can't or won't know until you get through it and get to the end. So it's like no matter how much you sit there and wait for some brilliant idea or some plot puzzle to fix itself or whatever, you probably won't figure it out until you get through the draft. 

RHONDA: And I think it's important to know that that is the nature of the creative process. Our brain can't hold an 80,000 word work in our head in its entire detail all the time. And you can spend a lot of time, and many people do, getting the perfect outline. I know writers who do beat-by-beat outlines. And then they sit down to write and the creative process takes over and they're writing that scene in which this is going to happen. But then, uh oh, all of a sudden a new character walks into the room or something else happens because the work of the book is done in the moment as you're writing. You can't think your way to a perfect book in advance. I wish you could.

SAVANNAH: I do, too.

RHONDA: I wish you could. But it's just the reality of it that when are you're creative, unconscious is at work, when you're in it, it's going to throw you up some surprises. And you have to decide what to do with those in the moment. For me, that's the fun part of it all. But it can also be nerve wracking because you're like, "Wait, what? Where does this fit?" That's not my job today. My job today is to write this new character that's just appeared, and I'm going to figure it out later.

SAVANNAH: And in my course and membership, we call this the discovery draft because what you're doing.

RHONDA: Yeah, totally.

SAVANNAH: So you're discovering your story, you're exploring all the different things, and it's not the job of you, while you're doing that, to have the perfect solution. Again, to zoom out and think of a totally different example. When you're baking a cake, it doesn't come out fully decorated and perfect. You have to mess with it. When you're building a house, it doesn't come out fully decorated, and you don't run into zero problems. There's things that happen, you have to adjust and things like that. You might get better ideas as you're in the process because you're seeing it. So our writing is not different.

RHONDA: I can remember being someone who tried to make birthday cakes that were stacked and wondering why they slid. And then I watch YouTube videos and they put these rods down the middle of them, and I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" I do feel like you learn new things. You grow in your skills. And sometimes the problem that you experience, you're in the state right now, the phase with the problem, but it really is future you who's going to figure it out, because by the time you get to the stage where you have to figure it out, you have more skills than when you started. You know your story better, way better than when you started.

SAVANNAH: And I know it's hard for people listening to believe that if they've never experienced it. But hopefully you can trust Rhonda and I that we have seen this so many times with people where if you can't trust yourself and believe and feel the confidence yet, maybe trust us and just hold onto that and go through the process and see what happens.

RHONDA: You can just borrow some of our belief for a little while.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, borrow our belief. We've seen it a lot. Okay, so I love that we talked about what creative anxiety is, how it shows up, some different strategies for dealing with it. Any last thoughts or parting words of wisdom to share?

RHONDA: I would just go back to creative anxieties, the new black. And I really want to normalize it because I think a lot of writers feel really alone with it. They feel like if other writers experience this, then they don't have it as bad as I have it. We tend to internalize it and make it mean something about us. And I think it's just a normal part of the creative process, and we learn the skills to deal with it because we're going to have to deal with it for the rest of our lives. So let's get good at it.

SAVANNAH: I think it's actually more abnormal that people don't have it.

RHONDA: Oh, so true.

SAVANNAH: Let's say, I'm just making up a number, but let's say 98% of us have it because how it feels, maybe even more. 98% of us have it. We don't talk about it, so it feels like when we have it, we're that one to 2%, and it's not true. It's the opposite. So I'm glad that we're recording this. Hopefully, it sheds some light on things for those listening and makes it less of a shameful or less of a meaningful thing. Because like Rhonda just said, it doesn't mean anything about your ability to write a great book or a book, period. It is what it is. It's part of the process.

RHONDA: Absolutely. Yeah. This is so great, Savannah. Thank you so much.

SAVANNAH: You're welcome. Can you let people listening know where we can find you around the internet?

RHONDA: Sure. So probably the best place to interact with me would be on Instagram. I'm at Resilient Writers over there, and then There's a section where you can go to resources and get some resources to help you wherever you are in your writing process right now.

SAVANNAH: Perfect. Well, we will link to all of that in the show notes, your podcast, where we can find you on Instagram, and your website. Thank you so much, Rhonda, for being here. I know this is going to be a super popular episode because, like we keep saying, everyone deals with creative anxiety. Thank you so much.

RHONDA: Thank you, Savannah! It was fun.


Final Thoughts

My favorite takeaway from this episode was how Rhonda suggested taking measures to prevent creative anxiety from happening each time you sit down to write. This is so smart! And I love how this kind of habit can look different for every writer, too. You can meditate for a few minutes. Light a candle and get cozy at your desk. Brew a cup of tea and gather your snacks. Or whatever you want, really!

If you want to learn more about Rhonda, you can connect with her on Instagram @resilientwriters, listen to her podcast called The Resilient Writers Radio Show, or check out her website here.

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →