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What I Learned From Writing Under Stress

10 October, 2008 Posted by Joanna As Reflections

We get used to thinking about stress as a bad thing.  A negative to be avoided.  And I’d probably agree - in fact I’ve turned my life round to get away from intolerable levels of stress that I just didn’t want to live with any more.

But I think those negatives only apply to some forms of stress: the sort that eats away at you, day after day, week after week, pressure building up, anxiety crawling round your insides, making you feel small, and powerless and like everything’s on top of you rather than the other way round.

There is another sort which can be exhilarating, creative and maybe even fun.

I was thinking about this when I was trying to work out what on earth to write for this month’s What I Learned From… group writing project.  The theme is stress, and I, like you, have been through plenty of stressful experiences in my time… but I wanted to find one I could relate to writing.  (I’m sad like that.)

It got me thinking about some of the most stressful situations I’ve had to write in.

My previous job included writing speeches that would be delivered by politicians (our government ministers).  Most of them were fairly mundane affairs: openings of projects, responding to a policy report, providing the introductory remarks at conferences.

But there were a couple of occasions when the speeches were for highly charged political debates, to be delivered in the Parliamentary chamber, which meant they had (had, had) to be finished to a deadline so the material could be circulated to the other parties and relevant authorities.

Of course this also meant the speech wasn’t finalised until the last possible minute, right down to the wire.  Which leads to a situation where there are about 10 or 12 people in a small, badly ventilated room, reading through the speech, coming up with new ideas, arguing about old ideas, dictating new material and generally starting to squabble more as the clock ticks ever faster.

One of the people in the room is the poor soul who has to deliver the speech once the well-wishers and advisers have disappeared.

One of the other people is me: hands poised over the pc.

Now at face value this had all the ingredients of a stressful situation: too many cooks, not enough time, high stakes, fraught atmosphere, inadequate resources to do the job…

And yet, when I look back on it I realise that I enjoyed writing in that pressure cooker.

Why?  Well I think it’s to do with focus.

My job was to keep focused on the words, the writing, the flow of the speech.  I was responsible (sorry, had to fit that in!) for making the writing work.

I found that I was able to tune out the background noise and focus on:

the deadline: making sure we’d worked through the whole text on time

the sense: reading it through to make sure the speech would work for those listening in the chamber

the patterns, rhythm and flow: ‘listening’ to the way the words fell to make sure it could be read out loud

common sense: telling someone (even someone ‘important’) that a bad idea needed to be dropped, quickly

the words: however crazy the process the words still had to work.  The speech still had to hang together.  And it was my job to make it so. Finding the ability to tune out the noise and tune into the writing was an experience almost of stillness, of focus and concentration, even in the eye of the storm.

I’m not saying this was the best writing I’ve ever done. In fact I’d probably squirm if I were to look back on the material now - and yes at the time, as I listened to delivery there’d still be points where I’d think “ouch! that sentence just doesn’t work!”

But the process of writing under that kind of pressure?  It definitely brought its own form of enjoyment.

A sense of power, control and responsibility.  Getting into that ‘zone’ where you’re focused on the job that needs to be done.

And turning away from the sound and the fury to the writing, to the words, which still need to have meaning, and structure, and pattern, and flow, however much hot air we blow.

What do you think?  Are there some forms of stress that are good for the creative process or that can help us to write?

This piece is a contribution to this month’s What I Learned From… project, on the theme of stress. If you’d like to join in you’re very welcome.

It’s a stress free way to meet new bloggers, attract new readers to your site, generate some comments and conversation, have a bit of fun and/or do some serious reflection and learning.

To avoid stressing Robert Hruzek out too much though you’ll need to have your entry with him by midnight on Sunday (12th).

Thanks Robert for organising another thought-provoking project.

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

Photo credit: Day 79 - focus by margolove on Flickr

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Categories : Reflections

Brad ShorrNo Gravatar October 10, 2008

Joanna, It’s wonderful you can write under pressure and actually enjoy it. The way things are now, politicians must be rewriting their speeches every fifteen minutes to adapt to the latest news!

Brad Shorrs last blog post..Welcome to the Sexy Sixties

Robert HruzekNo Gravatar October 10, 2008

Great example of how one person’s stress is another’s fountain of productivity. I’m glad there are some who prosper in this arena.

I’ve had the same sortof thing happen to me when I write. Sometimes it’s like a wrestling match getting the words to come out in a sensible way. Other times, it just flows out on the screen as if I’m taking dictation.

That’s when I experience that “focus” you’re talking about. Wish I could get it to work all the time, though!

JoannaNo Gravatar October 10, 2008

Brad, it’s interesting, there was a lot of stuff I had to write under medium-high stress that I didn’t enjoy doing at all… but when it got really hot the process took on a different kind of quality. That being said, I’m glad not to be doing rapid re-writes in current circumstances!

Robert, if we could only work out how to get those processes sorted out to order! Although, if that happened we’d probably stop enjoy writing…

Thanks again for organising such an interesting group writing project

Lillie AmmannNo Gravatar October 10, 2008

This is a fascinating look at an experience totally unfamiliar to me. It’s interesting that you found the stress of this particular situation productive.

Karen SwimNo Gravatar October 10, 2008

Joanna, I love the way you tapped into positive stress and the writing process. I suppose that when we really think about it all stress has an energy and we can use it to be productive or we can allow it to eat away at us. Your old job sounds fascinating and I can only imagine the surge of energy you must have felt while writing in that environment. This was fun to read and such a great entry!

Karen Swims last blog post..Stress - Screeching Strings or Beautiful Music?

--DebNo Gravatar October 11, 2008

This is a great post, Joanna-showing me the bright side of the kind of situation that I avoid like the plague. I hate highly stressful deadlines like that, but never really thought about them having an upside-so thanks!

-Debs last blog post..Business: It’s All in the Cards

JoannaNo Gravatar October 11, 2008

Lillie, I’m glad you found it of interest. I wouldn’t want to be working like that every day of the week, but once in a while, it was fun.

Karen, I liked the way we both went for the positive dimensions that get the strings to play :-) The point about stress & energy is important - if we don’t have enough stress we can feel lethargic and demotivated. I think you made that point in your own submission too.

-Deb, I wouldn’t advocate a constant pressure of deadlines to write under, I think that would get you down, but some intense pressure once in a while - well it was surprising to see how the creative/writing side of my brain enjoyed working that way. I’m not sure I should admit this but I think it was partly because the other people depended on my words working - so there was a bit of a power buzz going on too!

Ulla HennigNo Gravatar October 11, 2008

Just this week I had a very similar experience. I am responsible for an inhouse monthly newsletter for all the employees, and as it turned out, I was the only one who could write the articles. Last Thursday was the absolute deadline. When I went to the office on thursday morning, I felt quite unwell, feeling the pressure very much. And then I sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote. After that I finished the layout, and on friday morning it was published. It was high-level stress for me, but afterward I felt extremely proud of having dealt with the whole matter successfully.

Ulla Hennigs last blog post..Autumn in Berlin

PaunchinessNo Gravatar October 11, 2008

It seems like everything I write for work is under some bit of duress. I write all of the proposals for our advertising agency and most of them have to be compelling enough to get people to pay large sums of money for our services.

Thank you for the article. I’m going to chill out and give myself a bit more time to write things in the future.

Paunchinesss last blog post..Fall in love again

Jean Browman--Cheerful MonkNo Gravatar October 11, 2008

I’m a great believer in optimizing our stress. I keep this graph in mind to keep me in the right area: It makes the process a lot simpler.

Jean Browman-Cheerful Monks last blog post..What I Learned From Being Tortured By a Dentist

Cath LawsonNo Gravatar October 12, 2008

Hi Joanna - I think giving yourself a deadline definitely helps you to get work done, whether you’re writing or doing something completely different.

I must admit, I’ve done some of the best work ever, if I’ve felt pressurised to get it finished.

DamienNo Gravatar October 12, 2008

I totally agree that writing under some levels of stress can create the best writing you can do. I guess the key is knowing when that stress needs to be harnessed and when you need to lay the writing down until you’re refreshed. Great article.

Damiens last blog post..Looking for a Death Certificate?

JoannaNo Gravatar October 12, 2008

Ulla, it’s hard writing when you feel unwell and under pressure - but it sounds like it’s given you a high degree of satisfaction. Congratulations on your achievement :-)
Paunchiness - I think everyone’s different on this one. Some people find it easier to write to tight deadlines whereas others hate it. If giving yourself more time works for you then go for it and enjoy chilling out!

Jean, thanks for sharing the graph - it’s very helpful. One of the things I’m not sure about is the difference between long term / low level stress, and peaks of intense stress. Do you they have different impacts on us? Or is everyone different in the way they react - which means we all need to work out our own ways of optimising stress?

JoannaNo Gravatar October 12, 2008

Cath, it’s strange because when everything’s a deadline I end up doing a lot not particularly well, but when there’s one important project with one clear project… you’re right, it helps to get things done, and produce good work. I guess like Jean says it’s a question of trying to optimise our relationships with stress

Damien - I think that’s right “the key is knowing when that stress needs to be harnessed and when you need to lay the writing down until you’re refreshed” (sounds easy when put like that doesn’t it?!)

Alina PopescuNo Gravatar October 12, 2008

Joanna, I’ve written quite a few articles, projects and the like under lots of pressure. And you are right, it does feel really good. Up to a point. Up to a certain level which depends on each of us, stress and/or pressure can act as a moral, creativity and productivity booster. When you actually pass that point, stress turns into what we all fear: something that threatens our health, our self-confidence and our ability to get things done. The trick is to know where that point is, at least approximately, and be able to then identify and prevent everything leading to stress being a little too much.

Alina Popescus last blog post..Romania Has a Big Marketing and PR Problem

JoannaNo Gravatar October 12, 2008

Alina, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head then. It’s learning how to manage our relationship with stress that’s all important. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of Robert’s project to see how others have managed it!

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