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On Stress Writing

Sep 20, 2021

By Christine Carron

I am not much of a gambler. Once I was in Las Vegas on a business trip and went with some colleagues to play blackjack. I giddily explained my novice status to our dealer, a white woman so brown and wizened it looked like she spent every non-working, waking hour in the sun, slept in a tanning bed, and got spray tans on her lunch breaks. 

She was not charmed by my admission. There may have been some subtle eye rolling involved in the look she gave me. She dealt the cards, and a few minutes later I lost twenty bucks to the house. That one game drained my gambling budget for the evening and kiboshed any heady, in-the-moment dreams I may have had about becoming an overnight card shark sensation.

Despite my dismal gambling skills, the concept of tells—reliable, unconscious actions that reveal the strength of a gambler’s (or a dealer’s) position—has been on my mind. Not because I want to take up blackjack again, but because I’ve been pondering the difference between writing confidently and writing under stress, along with the ancient Greek maxim: Know thyself. 

During the very last round of revisions I did before sending the manuscript off to a friend for a final readthrough, I was under stress. The specific cause of the stress is irrelevant. What is relevant is that when I’m triggered, it is sometimes hard to get back into balance. I am not alone in this. Such is the human condition. 

Anything we can do to help ourselves identify when we are under stress is a first step to getting ourselves back to even keel. How might we identify when we are under stress? Tells. 

Gamblers have tells. Writers have tells. In an article on five common poker tells on, Giovanni Angioni tells beginning poker players to find tells in their own game first, before trying to assess the tells in other players. Know thyself. 

I doubt anyone could make a list of five common tells that a writer is stress writing, because writers’ processes are so different. I am convinced, however, that writing while intensely stressed takes us out of flow, and out of writing with our true voice. At least that is my experience. If I am correct in that, then that truth directs us back to the importance of knowing ourselves and uncovering our tells however we can.

Here is what I generally know about myself when writing, and specifically revising, under stress: I get too mechanical, too analytical, and a bit emotionally tight on the page, i.e., too emotionally controlled to edit gracefully and loosely. I am sure you noticed the repetition of too in that sentence. Revision absolutely requires some order and analysis and some emotional distance to make good editorial and story decisions, but in my case, under stress, the pendulum swings way too far. 

After this latest pendulum swing of mine, a specific tell I noted is that I latch onto a supposed “bad” word and then plough through my manuscript line-editing sentences without full context. This time around, the supposed bad word: just. 

In my stress-filled state, I read another writer’s post where she bemoaned her over usage of just. I don’t even think I got all the way through the end of that post. I opened my manuscript, used Search to find out how many times I used just, and then proceeded to jump to each instance and obliterate it. As if just had become Evil Incarnate. 

I probably removed about 95% of the instances of just in my manuscript but, in retrospect, am guessing only 20% of those justs really needed to go. When I get the manuscript back, along with reviewing and integrating my reader’s suggested changes, I will allow myself to introduce any justs where my now calmer mind senses they rightly deserve to be. 

Even if I don’t get all the deserving justs back in place, I am not going to stress over that. Because let’s be real, I doubt any publisher who is truly interested in a story is going to say, “I would have bought it, but the author just used just way too much.” 

So the good news is that all is not lost even with one under-duress revision. And it is probably wise to add just to my list of words to watch out for, which is way different than obliterating the word. Plus, I now know that stress searching on a “bad” word and feeling that it must be completely ousted from my manuscript is one of my stress tells. 

Knowing the tell is the first step. The next step is standing down when you catch yourself doing that tell in the future. Which is hard, of course, but certainly much easier once you have an awareness of the pattern. 

I cannot often quote song lyrics from memory due to a musical literary that is as subpar as my gambling literacy, but I actually know a line from a Kenny Rogers song that seems apropos to this post. You gotta’ know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run. That applies, in my experience, equally to a gambling table and to your manuscript. Under stress . . . run. Your story will be waiting with open arms for your calm return. 

The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  • Have you ever noticed a difference between your writing experience and/or output when you are under stress versus when you are feeling the flow? 
  • How would you describe your writing styles and patterns when you are calm and confident?
  • Think about times when you have written under stress, did any of your normal patterns change? If so, those might be indicators of one or more of your writing-under-duress tells.

Just one more step . . .