"Panic Room" by Carolyn Parkhurst

I’m very good at giving writing advice. I know how to be practical and inspirational all at once; I know how to make it sound easy. I don’t have anything revolutionary to offer, just the basics: You have to write through the bad to get to the good. You don’t have to write every day, but the longer you go without working, the harder it is to get back in. All of it boils down to this: just write. Write anything; fill up the page. Don’t worry about whether it’s good, or even if it makes sense. Set a timer, or give yourself a goal: one page, 200 words, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Just get something down. One word after another: this is the way that books get written.

But here’s the thing: when it’s time for me to write, it’s as if I’ve never heard any of this. My first impulse is to avoid it. I never open a document on my computer without feeling a moment of pure terror at the sight of the blank page. And whatever truths I know about writing, they’re gone from my head. I know that I always feel better on a day when I’ve written than on a day when I haven’t. I know that the only way out is through. But I have to learn all this again every single day.

I’m not talking about writer’s block. This is smaller, more mundane, but also more pervasive. I think of it as writing panic. And I give in to it far too often. I know hundreds of ways to waste time online, and I love them all. I relish the relief of an unavoidable errand or a child home from school.  When I speak publicly, people invariably ask me about my process. I tell them that I have terrible work habits, and they laugh, just as I mean them to. But it’s a real problem, an impulse toward self-sabotage. There have been repercussions: missed deadlines, missed opportunities.  Real-life consequences that I’ve brought on myself.

Sometimes, the only way I can write is to trick myself into it, approaching my work from the side, like it’s a temperamental beast I don’t want to startle. I come up with ideas while I’m driving, while I’m walking the dog, and I make notes on my phone or on little scraps of paper. Sometimes, this is the only writing I’ll do all day.

What am I so afraid of? That the ideas won’t come, maybe. That my work won’t be good, that I’ll get it all wrong, that I’ll create problems I don’t know how to fix. That my books won’t get published; and if they do, nobody will buy them; and if they do, they’ll hate them and mock me online. 

Well, so what, right? Any writer will tell you that you can’t think about any of this while you’re trying to work. I know it, too. But still. There it is.

So why do I continue to write? It’s not just because I don’t know what else I would do. It’s because of what comes after the panic, if I’m brave enough to sit there until it subsides. There’s pleasure in the work, hard-won though it may be. Telling stories has been with me since I was younger than I can remember. It’s the longest continuous line on my life’s map. When else am I ever so purely myself?

My origin story as a writer takes place in the back seat of my mother’s car when I was in the third grade. I was writing a story for a school assignment; I called it “Ruffles, the Scottish Terrier.” I still remember how it felt, the thrill of bringing new characters to life. The way the story slid out of me, bursting forth from some secret corner of my mind. This was something completely new in all the world, and I’d made it all by myself. How could this ever bring me anything other than joy?

It’s still there, if I look for it, the wonder I found in that moment. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still there, waiting for me. But I have to do my part.

Here is what I learned today: the only thing to do is to sit down and write. Tomorrow, I’ll learn it again. I might write badly, and I might get it wrong, but I can’t spend time worrying about that.  Like every writer, I’m a work-in-progress. And if I don’t like what I write today, I’ll try again tomorrow. There is no other way.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Write a word, and then another word. Go. 

Carolyn Parkhurst is The New York Times bestselling author of four novels, most recently Harmony. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" blog, The Washington Post Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

Posted on September 19, 2017 .