Writing Wednesday: Don’t Panic or What Writers Can Learn From Astronauts About Combating Fear

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We’re now in the second month of 2016 and really getting into the swing of things! As commitments pile up, the days get busier and busier and it’s hard not to panic when I think about all the things I want to accomplish this year.

I worry about a lot of things. I worry that I won’t be able to find enough time to write. I worry that I’m never going to be good enough to be published. I worry that perhaps I’ll never be a good writer, that I’m wasting my time and my lifelong dream has already crashed and burnt without my even realising it.

It’s really easy for writers to spiral into the fear zone, because, really there’s not much opportunity for validation, especially as an unpublished writer. But when the insecurities start crowding in, that’s the time to remind yourself: Don’t Panic and Just Keep Writing.

Now here’s a little bit of how writers can learn how to combat fear and panic from (fictional and non-fictional) space guys.

I’m reminded of Matt Damon’s character in The Martian when he talks about how he didn’t give up when he discovered he’d been abandoned. On Mars.

He said, “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you. Everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

It makes sense. Don’t panic. As easy and as understandable as it would be to just go stark-raving mad with fear, the smarter thing to do would be to take a deep breath. To keep it together and, rather than look at the big old scary picture all at once, to concentrate on what you can do. Evaluate your writing. Make a list of what you think you’re lacking in when it comes to your writing. Then make a list of how you can fix that. Then tackle the issues, one at a time.

This in turn made me think of what the (non-fictional) astronaut Chris Hadfield said in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life about how astronauts are trained to face life-and-death scenarios.

“Our training pushes us to develop a new set of instincts. Instead of reacting to danger with a fight-or-flight adrenaline rush, we’re trained to respond unemotionally by immediately prioritizing threats and methodically seeking to defuse them. We go from wanting to bolt for the exit to wanting to engage and understand what’s going wrong, then fix it.”

Hadfield then went on to cite how a fire alarm woke him and his fellow astronauts up one night while they were on the International Space Station. As Hadfield noted, a fire on the space station is extremely dangerous as the astronauts have nowhere to go if the blaze got out of control. It would be really easy to start panicking and running around, just throwing the first thing that came to your head at the flames. But through long years of training, the astronauts knew exactly what to do in a situation like this.

“‘Working the problem’,” Chris explained, “is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen.” So instead of yelling and rushing around, each astronaut calmly began to perform the task they were trained to do in the case of a fire. “To an observer, it might have looked a little bizarre, actually: no agitation, no barked commands, no haste.” Eventually, they figured out it was a false alarm and everyone headed back to sleep.

So how can writers learn from this? Well,let’s face it – we’re never going to be in danger of suddenly combusting if we don’t write a good book. But we could learn something about how astronauts combat fear and apply this to the fear that immobilises us and prevent us from getting words down on the page. Fear that we won’t be good enough. Fear that we’ll never get published. Fear that we’re not meeting our goals as a writer. Fear that we’re just wasting hours trying to write a book that will never be good enough to see the light of day. Fear that we’re just wasting our life away chasing after an impossible dream.

But instead of letting this fear immobilise us, we can work through this. We can push the panic aside and instead concentrate on breaking down our fears and beating them. So if it’s grammar you’re worried about, pick up a couple of grammar and style books and study them cover to cover. If you’re afraid you’re not setting enough time aside for writing, reevaluate your weekly schedule and block out a couple of hours where you will do nothing but write. No other appointments. No ‘I’ll just clean the kitchen and make the beds first.’ Turn off that phone and start writing.

And keep writing. All those hours of writing stories that never get published or aren’t good enough, all those novels-in-the-bedside-drawer that never see the light of day, they’re not just there for nothing. They’re little markers in your progress as a writer, but you just can’t see it yet because you haven’t reached your destination yet. The more you write, the better a writer you become. It’s as simple as that.

So, to take a final quote from (fictional) space guys, remember the two words on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and ‘Don’t Panic.’

Don’t Panic.

And just keep writing.

One word at a time.

One sentence at a time.

Don’t worry about the future.

Don’t worry about writing publishing-worthy books.

Focus instead on writing what you love best. Focus on honing your craft. Focus on telling stories that excite and challenge you.

And just keep writing.



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