Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 20, 2023

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Uncertainty in Writing

by Jenny Hansen

Tony Robbins Quote on Uncertainty

Most writers I know tell me the absolute hardest part of this crazy life we've chosen is the uncertainty. Publishers come and go. Ditto with agents, editors, and distribution partners. The writing day can be agony or ecstasy, depending on your mood, your muse, your health, or your Wi-Fi. You're in control of your story (mostly), but not always every single aspect of its journey after it leaves your hand. And it drives a lot of writers cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs crazy.

Don't be the frog in the pot.

You've heard the story of the frog in the pot, right?

Frogs have medium-ish survival skills. For example, if a frog is dropped in a pot of water and it is boiling, the frog will save itself by jumping right out of the pot. But... if the frog is put into a pot of room-temperature pot of water, the result is very different. If the water is slowly brought to the boiling point, the frog will stay in the water until it dies.

Frog peeking out from behind the leaves
That lil' froggie doesn't have the gift of discernment.

The frog can't tell when it's in an environment that becomes increasingly hostile and dangerous to them.

Cultivate your own discernment so the ever-changing writing world is less likely to sneak up on you like the water sneaks up on the frog. Learn to recognize when the proverbial temperature has shot up beyond what is healthy for you. Climb out of the pot you're in, or find a new one.

How do you live with the uncertainty?

First and foremost with acceptance. Know that this writing life you've chosen is an incredibly chaotic and unpredictable one. Know that the rules will constantly change for everything from social media to technology to employees at any company you interact with.

Know Your Nemesis (Nemesii??)

I have a friend whose nemesis is technology. It's hard for her to embrace it in the first place, and she feels like every time she masters something, somebody moves her cheese. When the menus (or the algorithms or the rules) of platforms like Facebook change, she gets frustrated. When places like WordPress change their dashboard, she wants to break things (or cry).

When I told her she had to learn more about Amazon's author dashboard, she threw up her hands and hired some help. Amazon was her breaking point, but she'd been considering help for a long time. She just finally figured out that, for her, she'd rather spend more time writing and pay someone else to keep up with Amazon's rules.

We all have our nemesis, our kryptonite, our wanna-throw-ourselves-in-traffic task on the business side of writing. I'll bet you know exactly what yours is!

Tools in Your Uncertainty Toolbox

Wooden toolbox on the table

There are some habits, people, things you can put in place to help you manage any anxiety around the writing uncertainty in your life.

1. Build your community in the writing trenches.

Perhaps it will be the group you critique with weekly, plot with quarterly, or a place where you ask questions daily on Facebook. Perhaps it is your local writing chapter that meets monthly. Maybe it will be blogs like this one where you can ask questions and play in the comments section with people who are in all different phases of their writing careers.

Wherever it is, be sure you cultivate some writing communities. They'll make you feel better when you cry over things like e-book formatting or your Amazon dashboard.

A recommendation...

I recommend you make sure to interact with a mix of writers. Find people who know more than you, and who are willing to share their knowledge. Then turn around and share knowledge with someone else who is newer to the writing life, and needs the answers that you can provide. That's the cycle that keeps most writers sane.

Note: Remember that everyone's journey is different, and respect their boundaries and decisions. Also, remember to thank them for sharing their time with you, even if you don't plan to take their advice.

Further reading:

2. Understand that your creativity is the only thing you can control.

Sometimes a story runs away from you, but you can get it back. You've learned the writing craft and you are the one putting time in with the page. You know your characters. If you don't, you will soon.

When the business of writing drives you cray-cray, the way to move forward is to focus on the job that only YOU can do. Write the current story, or the next one. If your story is as good as you can make it, then you have done your job. If your story isn't yet as good as you can make it, learn some new writing craft skills and make it better.

Everything in your writing life starts with a story. When the uncertainty creeps up the back of your neck and gives you anxiety, just know that at the bottom of it all, you have one job that rules all the others:

Finish your story. Then start on the next one.

Further reading:

What formed my own zen?

Like many writers, I had a chaotic childhood. I learned pretty early to "suck it up, Buttercup," and that "this too shall pass."

Those childhood skills have served me well recently as I've navigated the experience of triple-negative breast cancer. If you can't keep your sense of humor and develop some mental fortitude during your cancer journey, it will try to take over 100% of your life and make you cry a lot.

Cancer is unpredictable, sometimes painful, and chock full of uncertainty.

Cancer will make you miss important events, entire days, and just about every deadline you try to aim for. It will constantly present you with an array of decisions that suck, and you will have to pick the one that is least sucky for you at that moment. In return for all this discernment and fortitude, you get to stay alive.

It's not such a bad trade-off when you think of it that way.

My cancer journey has definitely increased my calmness and roll-with-it Zen. And let's face it, embracing uncertainty and making those hard decisions gives you a lot of confidence.

Case in point: I'm writing this post two days before having a surgery that can kill me. But if I don't have the procedure, my long-term survival rate is 30%+ lower. Since I have a daughter to raise and books to write, I'm embracing the Big Scary and having the damn surgery. I'm confident that 15 years from now, I'll be really glad I did.

What are the advantages to embracing uncertainty?

There are advantages to embracing, or at least being able to cope with, psychological uncertainty. There are gifts and opportunities that come from the unexpected. Remember, growth and resiliency usually walk hand-in-hand.

Since the pandemic lockdowns, a ton of attention and research has been focused on this topic. HelpGuide.org offers five not-so-easy-to-follow tips (see below). To their credit, they break each tip down with a full section of actionable advice.

(Cuz it would be unfair to say, "Learn to accept uncertainty," and not provide some sort of roadmap, amiright?)

  1. Take action over the things you can control
  2. Challenge your need for certainty
  3. Learn to accept uncertainty
  4. Focus on the present
  5. Manage stress and anxiety
Further Reading:

Final Thought

We can do the hard things, in both our writing and our everyday life. We just have to be willing to try. They say there are two best times to plant a tree -- today and ten years ago. I say, put on those titanium underpants and go for it! 🙂

Be brave. Plant the tree. Write your story, even if it is only for 20 minutes.

I would love to hear about your personal journey. Is uncertainty agony or ecstasy for you? Which part of the writing life causes you the most anxiety? Tell me all about it down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides brand storytelling, LinkedIn coaching, and copywriting for accountants and financial services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

Find Jenny here at Writers In the Storm, or online on Facebook or Instagram.

Article images from Depositphotos.

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35 comments on “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Uncertainty in Writing”

  1. When the water gets too hot, actually, frogs will do their best to get out and will die trying, if they can't. Which proves that frogs are smarter than humans. It also proves that when urban legends are told often enough, they become assumed truths, never questioned.

  2. Well, it's been twenty-three years since I started writing Pride's Children, and I published the first volume in 2015 and the second in 2022, and I'm working on the third.

    Right now I'm in the detailed plotting stage for the third volume, dealing with the aftermath of health problems, and itching to get to the writing - which may occupy the next five years (hope it's less). But I am just rereading the end of the first volume, and know where it's going, and find that it's enough. I have no idea what I'll do when it's published, beyond the 'as read by author' audiobooks.

    It's only agony when I forget how I do what I do; I think I'm past that, for the third time - but it's still a skeleton and not a fleshed body. I'll get there - I've done it before. That confidence was hard to earn, and is worth it. The blocks - "You can't do this" - can't survive being reminded I've done it twice before, and it was work, and I actually like the work writing brings.

    1. Alicia, you are the poster child for fortitude and perseverance. I believe you WILL finish the last book, and the audio books! And we will cheer for your accomplishment!!!

  3. Important article, Jenny! I loved the reminder that we all need community with us in this venture.

    Surviving cancer! Big hug! I’m in awe. You rock!

    My nemesis is marketing. Because of my family needs I have very little time and find I fall down the social media rabbit hole too easily. I don’t seem to be able to focus on both writing and marketing at the same time. Both require creative energy, time, and thought. So I tend write write write and then do marketing, marketing marketing.

    I haven’t found my Zen on that. But I will try. And I liked your advice to do the one thing we can do, which is right the next book.
    Great article, THANK YOU for your thoughts.

    1. Kat, from the outside looking in, YOU are worthy of awe. You've been focusing on the right things, and doing the work to make your stories as good as they can be. Those are the make a great career.

      Even though marketing is important (and nearly every writer I know HATES it), you have to have something to market. The website it important, but you have to offer something on it -- speaking, writing tips, and most importantly to us writers...BOOKS.

      You can get virtual assistants, or even a local college student, to do the marketing. Truly. I know lots of people who do it, and I make my own living mimicking (sp?) the brand voices of others and ghostwriting their stuff. I can guarantee you that maybe 15% of the experts on the Forbes Business Council are actually writing their own articles.

      My point is -- Keep doing what you're doing! With the exception of the things that suck you dry. 🙂

  4. Wonderful article, Jenny.

    The five point roadmap to self-help is tough, and they're all interwoven!

    My biggest issue is convincing myself that worrying about things over which I have no control is a waste of time and sanity. I work on that a lot.

    Reaching out to others in the writing community helps for more than just writing. There are many friendships to be had.

    Here's to embracing the Big Scary-- in whatever form it takes.

    1. Thanks, Ellen! And here's how I think about worry nowadays. ..

      Anxiety releases cortisol, and ups the inflammation levels in the body. Inflammation is one of the leading causes of cancer (and dozens of other diseases).

      Therefore, worry and anxiety are terrible for your longtime health.

      Perhaps that perspective will help. 🙂

  5. I had a diagnosis in 2010 that was all about uncertainty. I was given the choice to enter hospice or travel to a different state. The second choice worked, though it was a seven-year battle. Always fight.

    Despite coming from separate families of means, my childhood was all about uncertainty. That's led to having to work hard to manage anxiety. That, in turn, means I'm in-touch with my strengths and weaknesses. There are so many aspects of writing that have stress-inducing potential, but the one that's most a challenge for me are the technical aspects of self-publishing.

    I know, though, that if I manage it correctly I can overcome the anxiety. After all, I've mastered Scrivener and other apps. I do, though, threaten to unravel when I have computer issues. That means giving myself time and space.

    1. I'm so glad you traveled and fought, Christina. I am a believer in putting in the time and energy for good health. One of my dearest friends had to go from LA to Omaha to have any hope at all of getting a new liver. After 5 months, he got one. Almost 10 years later, he is thriving.

      The self-pub life has a ton of moving parts. But you learned Scrivener, and you will learn the other things too.

      Iam a huge fan of virtual assistants when the workload gets overwhelming. 🙂

  6. Thank you for this brilliant article, Jenny. Like you, my childhood had lots of chaos and I learned to live with uncertainty. And you are so right that being flexible, accepting uncertainty does give one a level of confidence. The thing about uncertainty is that it finds new ways to make you feel uncertain, new areas to worry about.

    The recent death of my husband caused a bunch of uncertainty. My community of friends and family were a lifeline. And the confidence that I could live in uncertainty, no matter how difficult, to feel all the emotions, no matter how overwhelming, got me through that time. And that brings me to the only thing I would add to your article.

    My nemesis has been to soldier through no matter what. Sometimes that soldiering means I hit the same brick wall over and over and over. My journey has been to realize I need to take a break, to look back once in a while and see how far I've come. I need to take a moment and celebrate that I've gotten this far, regroup, and then soldier on. So my advice: remember to celebrate the fact that you weathered (are weathering) the storm. It can be difficult to celebrate when you in the midst of uncertainty, but even a small act of recognition that you are doing the hard work through uncertainty is immensely powerful.

    1. Ohmygoodness..."brilliant article" certainly brightens my week!

      I really hear you on this one. Growing up in chaos and/or uncertainty means you are conditioned to "wait for the other shoe to drop," because it always DID.

      I think that developing that pattern (Pause - Breathe or Rest- Acknowledge) is smart, and incredibly healthy in the long run. See my comment to Ellen.

      Community is so vital. It absolutely took a village of family, friends, prayers, and wonderful mental and physical health practitioners for us to make it through this cancer journey. My husband and I have both marveled at the kindness and compassion we've been shown.

  7. Focus on joy. That's what I try to do. Joy is a little word that makes such a BIG difference. Rather than dwell in the ditch, I try every day to sit in the sun, think happy thoughts and eat some chocolate.

    What does that have to do with my writing career...especially since I just wrapped up a novel with the bombing of Hiroshima as a backdrop?

    My character chooses hope in a truly hopeless situation. That's her choice and my message. And that underpins all of my stories.

    After a long and joyful...but sometimes absolutely miserable (to the point of dashing off to the ER thinking I was dying)...career in corporate marketing, I found a new sort of storytelling. Stories that I want to tell, that will entertain me as a reader. Not what's trendy. Not what's formulaic.

    I have no notions about being a NY Times bestselling author. I have no goals of making a ton of cash or being recognized as I push a cart in the grocery store.

    For me, storytelling is deeply personal...but it ironically leads to connections with complete strangers who read my stories. That's the magic of writing at this point in my life.

    Do I get anxious? Sure. Do I hope for ecstasy but know that some agony paves the pathway to get there? Absolutely.

    My days with Disney taught me to keep a smile on my face and to be reassured knowing that there's a great big beautiful tomorrow ahead for each of us. Dreams come true. Wishes are granted. Love changes everything.

    I choose joy.

    1. I love this!! Choose joy. Choose hope.

      Singing my song brother! In the dark dark times cling to hope and search for joy even in the little things.

      Even the weeds in my backyard have the sweetest little purple flowers.

      Thanks Christopher!

    2. Love this comment, Chris! And you, my friend. I keep joy at the forefront, even during cancer. I might only have energy for 10 minutes of "not cancer" on some of these days, but you can bet your ass, those 10 minutes are filled with joy. 🙂

  8. Oh, wow, Jenny, such a great post! I can fully relate to the frog in the pot. I've made a number of changes that now work for me, rather than my trying to duplicate what everyone else was doing. What they were suggesting wasn't getting me the same results, so why was I doing it?

    Been following your cancer journey. You're a rock star! You've got this. Best wishes for a quick recovery.

  9. Wonderful post, Jenny! You’ve given us a true gift of insight around uncertainty. My own writing journey has been a long one, beginning in the 1980s, submitting short stories to science fiction magazines while in college, coming to understand that selling a story was out of my control. As you note, what *is* in my control is doing the best I can on the story, finishing it, and putting it out into the world. Such was the case when twenty years later I began taking writing classes and workshops, studying the craft of writing, and reaching a point where I began, finally selling short stories.

    When I committed to self-publishing novels a few years later, I learned again about the uncertainty in whether or not readers would buy the book, review it, email about it, etc. I worked hard building a newsletter and running promos on Book 1. Getting BookBubs felt like winning an award, but in reality, it was a marketing opportunity, and how the book does at that point is out of control.

    When I decided to jump from fantasy to mystery, there was so much uncertainty in that. My first mystery novel is out and has found readers, and now I’m in the middle of my second one, but again, the only certainty in all this is my own control over my own writing.

    The same is true for life in general. There is so much uncertainty, and challenging my need for certainty and coming to accepting, even embracing uncertainty, is key to enjoying the writing journey, and life in general. I’ve been studying Stoic philosophy since 2020, and accepting uncertainty is part of that. I can say, “I want to publish this book in six months,” and add, “fate willing,” which acknowledges the uncertainty.

    Thanks for the advice, tools and tips today. May your recovery from surgery be trouble free and fast.

    1. What a tremendous writing journey you've had! I too wrote for a long time before I got any training or craft at all. The knowledge of craft definitely streamlines the journey. 🙂

      I loved this line of your comment: "There is so much uncertainty, and challenging my need for certainty and coming to accepting, even embracing uncertainty, is key to enjoying the writing journey, and life in general."

      So so true. Recovery is going slow but steady. And best of all, the pathology report was 100% cancer free.

    1. Thanks so much, Denise! Those prayers are so valuable to me.

      Fear of failure, and really fear in general, is so paralyzing.

      The best science fact I've learned as an adult is that fear and gratitude live in the same part of the brain. You cannot feel them both at the same time. Which means the best way to overcome fear is to shift your focus to gratitude about what IS working.

      If you try it, I'd love to know how it turns out.

    1. Awwwww, thanks Karen! As you know, the hard choices when it comes to saving lives stop for NO ONE. It's wrenching to make those hard choices, but we're always grateful when they're in the rearview mirror.

  10. Oh, Jenny, thank you for this post, and you have my continuing wishes for everything Best as you continue your journey. Wow.

    1. Thanks so much, Jeanne! I am happy to say that my cancer journey is almost complete. I just have to heal from the surgery, and then do the occupational and physical therapy to get my body fully functional again.

      The full journey will have encompassed about 18 months. Then it's just ongoing check ups and scans.

      I will be happy to move back towards my regularly scheduled life. 🙂

  11. It's good to see you back, Jenny!

    And the words of wisdom on taking control of what you can is key to keeping our creative lives grounded. It can be a struggle for sure.

    My current struggle is mostly about taking on too much. 🙂 So, I'm heeding your advice on delegating some of the tasks to others who can help me in order to free up my time for more creative work.

    Letting some of the tasks I thought are important go, even if for a temporary time has also kept me grounded as I adjust my writing schedule and other responsibilities.

    Thanks for you continued support as well. I'm glad to see you healing up well.

    1. Thanks, Kris! And a lot of what I see you taking on are things that will be super beneficial for your career long-term. In other words, you're taking on smart stuff...not just saying yes to things that don't get you closer to the mountain, as Neil Gaiman likes to call it.

      I think some of your offloading of full responsibility for things like social media, website updates, and image creation will really free up more time than you think.

      Go you!! And I too am happy to be closer to the end of the cancer journey now, than to the beginning. WITS would not still be so vibrant and fun without the contributions of all the rest of the team...because it certainly hasn't been me this year!

  12. Another courageous, life-affirming post. Oh, and there's terrific writing coaching in there, too.

    My own story is more troubled than in the past. My wife has lost the sight in her left eye and no longer drives, her mobility is impaired so that she uses a walker and there are other things, too. As what she calls her Uber my writing time is impacted, oh, hell, it's taken a major hit, so your post came at a perfect time. It was and is just what I and other writers need to hear.

    Thank you again, Jenny. I and all your WITS readers look forward to you next contribution.

    1. Thanks, James! And I really hope that you and your lovely wife are able to settle into a pattern that meets both your needs. It's hard when you are on the merry-go-round of medical appointments AND you are the Uber.

      Perhaps little conveniences like grocery delivery and online shopping and the periodic DoorDash can gain you back some writing time? I have really depended on that to pick up the slack during cancer treatment.

      I hope y'all get into a better rhythm soon. *Hugs*

  13. Hey, Everyone! I want to make sure you know I am reading and loving every comment. But I am sleepy and slow after this surgery, and I seem to get through only 2-3 at a time (because I get tired and/or sore).

    I am answering, and enjoying the heck out of these comments though. I'll get there. 🙂

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