How to Stop Worrying & Keep Writing


There's a picture of me as a little kid that tells it all. I'm slumped in a church pew, my eyebrows bent in a look of unbridled worry. My childhood is full of scenes where I'm ruminating and my mother steps in to tell me to stop worrying about it. But what if this? I would ask her. What if that? When I was old enough to read it, she dug out her worn copy of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie and gifted it to me. Never mind the strange 1940s writing style or the religious undertone, I could swear the old man with the horn-rimmed glasses on the jacket cover had written that book just for me.

I worry less these days, even if there's more to worry about. I have offspring now, a job that immerses me in the lives of wily and struggling teenagers, and lots of writing to do. But in my daily life I keep it (mostly) in check, in part because I keep that worn copy of Carnegie's book on my desk as a steady reminder, in part because I married a guy who is always philosophical and easygoing, always gazing over to the bright side and nudging me to do the same. In very large part because I might be better at recognizing that in the grand scheme of the world these days, my troubles are piddling.

Or maybe I haven't been cured of it, but now I just dump it into my writing. Last year, a good friend read a draft of my novel then joked that I wasn't so sunny after all, that she understood where I funnelled all my darkness. The book is about a missing woman, about abuse and addiction and loss - no hilarity ensues anywhere within it. I write about dark things, and I worry as I do it. I frown and bite my nails as I write, regressed to that kid in the photograph with the furrowed brow. I worry this is not the right word or that sentence is too long or I'm not quite telling that bit like I want it to be told. Sometimes, I worry at once about every book I'll ever hope to write, and my heart rate will actually pick up at the magnitude of all the pages yet unwritten. But mostly, I worry about my characters and what will happen to them. This one confounds me. It's stupid, right? Worrying about the characters in your own novel is sort of like worrying about how your food will get chewed once you put it in your mouth. You have full authority over it! Just chew!

Writers talk all the time about flaky stuff like our characters existing outside of us, how we are capable of loving them and hating them and worrying about them as though they walk the earth alongside us. It's like parenthood, but with way more control at the outset- you pick not just the name but the hair and eye colour, the tics and the inclinations. You chart their course as you please, conjure up their friends and family, decide where they'll live and what they will and won't eat. You have all the control, indeed, yes, at first you do, but you know that soon the characters will become someone not-real-but-real, they will step away from you somehow, morph into beings with immutable strengths and foibles, and so every choice you make for them now will limit the choices you can make for them later. You can't just have your vegetarian eat meat or dye her hair pink; she is too steadfast for that. You know it's a bad idea to send her on that solo kayaking trip or to hand her that loaded gun, because you've already pegged her as lonely or prone to rage or both, and who knows if she'll stick to the plot/plan? So you worry about her. I do. I worry about her! I want her to be okay.

It's true that I probably worry more because I am in the midst of writing a series. Some of my characters will migrate from the first book to the second. As I work away at the final edits on this draft, my worries can be encapsulated in the notion of a leather briefcase. It goes like this: I can't decide halfway through book two that my main character carries a leather briefcase. She needs to have had it all along. She's not the kind of character who goes shopping for briefcases. She hates to shop. What if she really needs it? If she's going to need a briefcase, I have to put it in her hands now, in book one. Or at least mention that she's got it in her car, a gift from her mother. But wait, her mother's dead. That makes the briefcase sentimental, and we don't want to get into that. It's just a #*(&@)$ briefcase.

It took only one or two meetings with my editor Martha before she caught on. Sometimes, as we're hashing out a character or a plot point, I'll hear echoes of my mother in her response. Don't worry about that! What's the point in worrying about that now? Stop it! I've thought of lending her Carnegie's book just so she can gift it back to me. Just like my mom, she's firm but kind in her delivery. Do I doubt my ability to write these characters? No. This story? No. Then why worry? Right. But what if she needs that briefcase? Then you'll find a way to get it to her. Yes. I will.

(Really, there's no reason she'd ever need a briefcase.)

A fellow writer pointed out to me recently that, especially in the face of good things, like, say, the publication of one's book, you should only work hard. Worry is indulgence. Toil away at the writing with your head down and be grateful for the opportunity to do it. When the what if bubbles up, crush it with time and effort and a lot of ruthless editing. The fact that my novel will be out in the world someday soon is an excellent thing, the thing of dreams. The characters will be fine if I take them seriously and tend to them. They will survive whatever I throw at them. And when it comes down to it, if I really need one, briefcases are easy enough to come by. Stop worrying and start writing, as Dale Carnegie (or my mom, or my editor) would say. Start writing and keep writing once you've begun.