I remember the Spring of 1981 when I used to stare at the blank sheet of college-ruled paper, pencil in hand. The minutes ticked by. The hours, too. Eventually, I would give up and go outside, basketball in hand. One hundred free-throws later, I was no closer to inspiration. I was petrified of failure. So, I would go for a run. Usually about five miles, sometimes longer. Back then, I hated writing. I preferred the familiar pain of running to the mocking laughter of failed prose. So, as a 16 year old kid flailing my way through 10th grade, I failed the required creative writing class. Not because my writing was that bad, but because I never turned in any work. Indeed, I never wrote any of the five required five-page papers. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think it had any relevance to my life.
In the second semester of my Junior year I attempted the class again, approaching it with a new attitude. I tried. I wrote and I turned in all of my work. I don’t recall what I wrote. I have vague memories, and I am sure they were not publishable efforts. But I tried. I received an A in the class. It was a turning point in my suffering academic career and in my writing. I realized that with hard work and a positive attitude, I could do it.
It has never been smooth sailing since that time. Each season has been hard. The key difference is I have never given up. I have had articles ignored and rejected. I have had my writing called the worst that a seminary lecturer has ever seen. I have had an essay for a test mocked with a satirical cartoon by a former college instructor. But I never stopped.
The difference for me now is that I am no longer blessed (or shackled) by the burden of academic writing. No one cares if I write another word. It is incredibly liberating. And daunting. In some ways the process mirrors the tentative stops and starts of my life beyond the writing craft.
Then I recall those things which propelled me forward during formative seasons in my journey. My high school writing teacher who gave me timely encouragement, both verbally and in print. The memory of my second grade home room teacher who tried to get me to read, and eventually succeeded, although she probably never found out about it. The college English teacher who worked so hard to help me grapple with basic grammar. The seminary professor who spent hours with me, helping me develop and polish graduate level writing skills. My family who believed in me.
Angst is part of my journey in writing. I want my words to count for something. Something beautiful, sometimes haunting, or funny, or thoughtful, but always meaningful. I hope the same for my life so that I may show others the love of Jesus, even if it means unveiling parts of my flawed, insecure, prideful heart.
Maybe that is the true difficulty with crafting good prose. I prefer to keep my flaws secret and focus only on what impresses others. So, I impress for a moment and distance myself from my intended audience in the process. The readers move on and I am left alone with a cursor as it blinks insistently in the top left hand corner of my Word document.
Surely, I am not alone in wrestling with writer’s angst. I only know of one antidote. Write. Write some more. And then edit, trying new approaches, lines of reasoning, story arcs, and so on. But most importantly, write in ways that mine the depths of human frailty. In so doing, the likelihood of connecting meaningfully with my audience will increase.
What about you? How do you deal with angst in your writing?