Teachers Write 7.28.15 Tuesday Quick-Write with Mike Jung

Our guest author for today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is Mike Jung, author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES with Arthur Levine Books. Mike joins us today to talk about something that seems to visit every writer from time to time at least — anxiety.

It’d be easy to make a joke about “being a writer” = “being anxious” –
it’s certainly true in my case – but I’m actually a pretty firm believer that
it’s more like “being HUMAN” = “being anxious.” At least part of the time,
you know?

There’s a great post on Alain de Botton’s Book of Life which persuasively asserts that anxiety is not a temporary sign that our lives are somehow in need of repair, but is in fact a sign that we are both human and alive. When boiled down to its essence, the process of writing is about exploring and expressing the experience of being alive, which can, of course, be a smidge difficult to remember when we sit down to actually start writing something and anxiety springs upon us and sinks its fangs into our necks like a slavering demon hound of psychic destruction.

But it’s not truly all that dramatic, is it? It might feel like a red-fangedbeast is using our carotid artery as a drinking straw, but we’re really just having an ordinary, everyday, human experience that’s completely unworthy of condemnation. Maybe we can use that as a springboard to getting started. Think about the anxiety involved in trying to craft some prose, kick around a description of how that feeling manifests itself in your mind, then apply it to something else, something that seems entirely prosaic and unchallenging to you. Then see if that juxtaposition squeezes out any more creative sparks. Here, I’ll start.

There are times when doing this feels like a recipe for certain exposure of my gigantic fraudulence. I don’t relish the thought of even one person discovering what a fake I am. If I actually manage to pull this mess together, I’m sure the first person who sees it will scream FRAUD! YOU’RE A FRAUD! That kind of thing hurts, am I right? But I guess there’s no way around it. I have no choice but to bite the bullet, silence my internal editor, and make the next pot of coffee myself. The new guy in marketing sure isn’t gonna do it…

Your turn. GO!

Today’s assignment: Have a little fun with this one & feel to share some reflections in the comments!

47 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.28.15 Tuesday Quick-Write with Mike Jung

  1. This is so true. Anxiety is part of life. It is what you do with it that makes or breaks you.

    1. It truly is! On a collective level we’re very judgmental about it, and we expend huge amounts of energy trying to eliminate it, but it’s one of the things that make us human. I’m a big fan of acknowledging and accepting it, which makes it significantly easier to manage it.

  2. First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed your writing style! It means so much hearing (can you say hearing if you’re reading it? Hmm) a published author admit how anxious they were. That feeling of being a fraud haunts me even in teaching sometimes! I try to write for myself but I worry about people reading it, so I don’t even write the first time. Not sure how to get past it!

    1. Sue, thank YOU! You are definitely not alone, and I’ve definitely experienced that feeling of fraudulence in areas beyond writing. You don’t need to commit to showing your work to people right away, or for a long time, or ever. There is tremendous value in it, of course – as a published author, having other people read my work is part and parcel of the work – but you’re allowed to define your own boundaries around this. That said, you’re clearly able to overcome that fraudulence syndrome in your work as a teacher, so maybe you have more tools for overcoming it than you think. I also think often of some advice my brother Doug (who’s a Hollywood screenwriter, he’s currently writing the script for the next Star Trek movie) gave me years ago. He said when you start doing something new, especially if it’s something challenging (as writing is), you’re probably going to be bad at it. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s essential. It’s okay to feel like a fraud; it’s okay to doubt yourself. And it’s also okay to do the work while you feel that way.

  3. I read this post and thought about it as I walked down to the lake. Having a supportive group such as Teachers’ Write has really helped me to write and share. Sometimes I submit without editing or rethinking, just share and then re-write as the supportive comments come in. Here’s what today’s post inspired:

    I walk to the lake
    stop on the bridge
    to frogs
    deep thrumming
    first one side of the bridge
    then the other
    yellow throats bulge with the sounds
    back and forth
    the song of the marsh
    one frog, then another
    sometimes 2 or 3 together
    no one stops them
    asks, are you certain?
    no one tells them to begin again
    I listen in gratitude
    ah, the music of frogs.

    1. I love this! It makes a beautiful point that nature just does what is naturally in it to do. We need to do the same, not questioning every move. As one who is a master of micromanagement, this is definitely my goal and my biggest struggle.

      1. Thank you all for your comments and encouragement. By all means use thrumming and more importantly write and share-sometimes I will write something and mail it to a friend on a postcard and write it nowhere else. Writing out into the world.

    2. I like this a lot, Pamela. I have to confess that I have a metric ton of fear/anxiety/insecurity about writing in verse, especially free verse – something for me to work on, since I’d actually like to write more in verse. Thanks for taking the lead.

    3. Great post today…..anxiety is SUCH a part of all our lives. Either dealing with it from the inside or the outside. And, what a wonderful angle into our characters…what makes them anxious?

      Did you see this today? It’s a funny kind of self-absorbed anxiety I think is PERFECT for YA. Don’t know what I’m going to do with this….but for sure it’s going into some writing somewhere.

      Keep writing! I have not read your book. But, they sound perfect for my MS audience. Love that you popped in to chat with us today.


  4. Ah, anxiety. I know it well.

    This was a fun exercise as it got me to think about what holds me back from writing. After I wrote the following, I went back to a story I started a few weeks ago and allowed myself to just write, knowing that it was okay if it wasn’t perfect. It felt good!

    I hesitate to start, now knowing exactly where to begin or how to proceed once I do. I want the finished product to be perfect, a thing of beauty that will inspire others to ooh and ahh. But I fear I am incapable and my efforts will be found to be severely lacking. Sure, there will be some who will say, “Good job,” and smile encouragingly. But will they really mean it? Or will their kindness only feed my delusion, propelling me to continue to make a fool of myself? I sigh. Regardless, it is a task I need to do. No sense in beating myself up about how well I may or may not do it. This laundry isn’t going to fold itself.

    1. I thought this was fun also. Giving a voice to the feelings we sometimes allow to stay trapped in our thoughts is very liberating. Now that I think about it, I have told some of my students at different times to write about the fact that they couldn’t figure out something to write about when they hit a block, yet I never took my own advice.

    2. Amanda, that’s it exactly – the fear of judgment is terrible, and the fear of potentially insincere praise is even more terrible in its convoluted way. And the disparity between the perfection of the idea as it exists in our mind and the lumpy imperfection of its execution on the page is an unavoidable bugbear of frustration. It’s worth the effort to get past those things, but it requires real effort.

  5. Hi, Mike.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with anxiety today, and for posting the link to The Book of Life. That’s interesting stuff! I have to say I agree with what he has to say, however the following quote caught my attention:

    “Because we have insufficient information upon which to make most major life decisions: we are steering more or less blind.”

    I think this is true for younger people, but not necessarily for anyone over the age of 40. Many middle-aged (ahem) people have had LOTS of life experiences that give them the necessary information to make decisions. It’s just that sometimes we (they) have TOO much information, and tend to run the different scenarios through their brains, trying to come up with the “best case” solution

    The feeling of anxiety that comes over me when I’m faced with a fresh page is like the time in high school when I drew a complete blank on my trig final. I knew the formulas, the “how to” and all, but I couldn’t find the information in my mind. I also knew that once I unlocked the correct door, it would all spill out and I’d be fine. It did and I was.

    Writing is like that trig final for me. I worry I’ll never have another thing to say, and that if I manage to spill something out of my stubborn brain, it won’t be any good anyway. But then part of me knows I’ll be fine once I get going.

    My biggest worry is that, no matter how much research I do for my historical novel, I will get something wrong and be discredited. That is, of course, if it even gets published to begin with. And that is another anxiety-provoking thought altogether.

    1. I can relate! My piece is a historical novel also and I don’t want to give misinformation, but my biggest fear is I also don’t want to recreate characters that always show up in novels during my time period. I want them to be familiar but authentic. I look around me and see so much diversity in our world today regarding the issues we face and I don’t want to do injustice to those in the past by creating the same old narratives written with a new group of characters. Yes, I can so relate.

    2. Wendy, that is a valid point – life experience matters, and gives us the ability to practice a kind of self-guidance that may be impossible in our youth. That said, I think there truly is an unknowable element in all of our major life decisions, simply because we can’t predict what will happen. I got married (and subsequently divorced) in my twenties, then remarried in my thirties, so I had some experience with being in that kind of relationship, but that experience couldn’t tell me what my second marriage would be like, or how successful or unsuccessful it might be (it’s been a success, for the record). And yes, anxiety can definitely throw up a blank wall in front of knowledge and expertise that we DO have command of. It’s my favorite thing. #irony

    3. Hi, Wendy!
      I love the connection to the trig final. How many times have you prepared for a big event (test, speech) and then you second guessed yourself at the end (because of the pressure)? It’s good for us.:)

      Don’t second guess your WIP. When you are ready to show it to your writing friends, find someone that knows the era (historian, history teacher) and see if they will read it. Even if they don’t read the whole thing, you can ask them to read the parts that you are unsure about.

      Happy writing!

  6. Good morning, Mr. Jung and TWer’s!

    Thank you for the post. I often tell my students that anxiety and nerves can be a good thing. Unfortunately, when they hear the word “anxiety”, they automatically think that the person that is anxious (or themselves) needs a pill or a counselor. Being anxious every second of your life is not a good thing, but being anxious about a test, a project, a big game, or a swim meet is fine. I get a little worried when they are not anxious when doing these types of things. To get the students ready to practice writing a narrative, I have them pick an event in their life to write about. I show them this example:

    Introduction paragraph:
    The alarm clock rings at 3:00 AM on the morning of Sunday, July 24, 2005, and the biggest day of my life has finally arrived. As soon as I awake, the butterflies in my stomach cannot be controlled as I envision competing in my first Ironman triathlon, which consists of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running within a seventeen hour time limit. Within hours, I find myself in downtown Lake Placid. As I watch the volunteers scramble to construct the finish line and place hundreds of road barriers leading into the transition area, I believe that a successful swim will lead to a successful day and the biggest accomplishment of my life.

    *Body paragraphs contain the tension before the big race.

    Closing paragraph (last four sentences):
    The butterflies in my stomach start to churn as I realize that the crowd consists of nearly 20,000 people, but as the cannon blows (starting the race) the butterflies dissipate. Two point four miles of getting kicked and punched as I look, with two thousand other athletes, for open water to swim in. As I exit the water from the swim, the clock reads fifty-eight minutes and I am one of the top one hundred athletes out of the water. This is going to be an unbelievable day!

    After accomplishing a big feat (one that makes a person anxious or nervous), a person now has the confidence to go after another big feat. This is the message that I am hoping to send to all of my students. This is also the message that I have to remember when I am about to give up on my WIP.:)

    Thank you again for the lesson. Happy writing!

    1. Hi Andy, yes, that is a great illustration of the process. We definitely carry our successes with us, and I don’t just mean successes in terms of clearly delineated victories – in terms of writing, for example, just sitting and cranking out a few hundred words, regardless of quality or end result, is a legitimate success. Just making the effort can be a very real success, especially in a context where we find it terrifyingly hard to make any kind of effort at all

  7. One hurdle I realize that I have is that I don’t see myself as a writer, but as a teacher who teaches writing. TW Summer Camp this summer has helped me to see the greater potential that lies within. Now this is coming from someone who constantly attempts to make my fourth graders see themselves as authors, not just fourth grade writers.
    This came so easily and felt so good once I got it out! Thank you Mike for this exercise that pushed what was on the inside out!

    To start or not to start, that is the question! What direction do I want to go? What am I trying to say? Did I spell that word correctly? What punctuation goes there? Is that the best word to use to express that emotion? Hold up, did I feed the dog yet? It’s pretty hot outside, maybe I need to put ice in his water bowl? Maybe I should stop and fix myself something to eat. No I’m actually on a roll and if I stop, I’ll have to warm up and start all over again. But what have I truly done so far? Maybe a cup of tea will soothe me as I watch TV or maybe read a book. I should probably research that sentence, I’m not sure if it really goes…no, it’s good; ugh, but I’m not sure. What do I tell my students constantly when it’s their time to write? Take a deep breath, close your eyes, envision your story, “see” what you want to write. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it’s okay to scratch things out, don’t even erase! Just try to get something on paper. I know writing is a challenge, but the biggest step is getting started. You can so do this! If giving advice was as easy as taking it, life would be so simple! Guess I have to eat my own words, bite the bullet, and just write! Okay, the- biggest- step- is- just- getting- started…

    Seriously, getting that out felt good and when I hit my block, I have it to look back on! Awesome reboot to the midday 🙂

    1. I KNOW, RIGHT? The swirl of confusing, hesitant, self-doubting thoughts can be so paralyzing! The mental noise, I do battle with it constantly. But expressing those things has value; externalizing them can be really useful. I’m glad you successfully rebooted your day!

    2. I face the same hurdle, but I find that I am a better writing teacher when I’m writing. The same holds true for reading. Sometimes during this summer, I don’t get to writing (WIP, writing journal) because of long days at work and driving the kids around, but I am just happy that I responded to the lesson and writing prompt at Teachers Write. I take each little success in stride!:)

      As for your written excerpt, I loved it. You nailed the mind wandering aspect (maybe I’ll go mow the lawn, join my son shooting hoops, take the van to the car wash) that gets in the way of writing. I smiled all of the way through your excerpt. The best part is that you can count that as your writing for today (even if no other words get on the page).

      Happy writing!

    3. Von,

      I really did laugh out loud at, “I should probably research that sentence.” So true! Historical fiction is so fun and frustrating at the same time.

  8. Mike – Thank you for being with us today and sharing your words of wisdom on anxiety. Also thanks, for the link to “Book of Life”.

    Here are a few of my words regarding my anxiety:

    What if my word choice isn’t perfect, I am their teacher, their mentor, and their motivator. What if my descriptions don’t paint colorful pictures? Worst of all, what if I “eat Grandma!”? I guess I need to take a deep breath, relax, and try. How else will they learn or be inspired to go out on a limb. After all, it’s only a white page and some blue lines. Then, multiple loops and squiggles that we recognize as words. When all is said and written, they will return tomorrow, allow me to help them and we will all continue to grow. In retrospect, even the Webster dictionary has gone through multiple revisions!

    1. Sheila, have you read THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING, Simon WInchester’s book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary? Talk about an involved editorial process…

      Writing most definitely involves going out on a limb – creative choices always carry psychological and emotional risk. Vulnerability, honesty, transparency – when we write, we practice all of those things, and without guarantee of affirmation or approval. And yes, we set an incredibly powerful example for our kids by being vulnerable, honest, and transparent. They will learn from, and be inspired by, our example. We can and will be there for them!

    2. Sheila,

      Let your students help you revise. My students have improved with revising and editing by finding the errors and flaws in my stories. No one is perfect. Use your writing to teach them ideas, voice, flow, dialogue, and conventions, and if they find a flaw, they are learning.

      If you can share here, you can share with your students.:) Just from the words written in this post (your worries), you can tell the kids are learning.

      Keep on writing and teaching!

  9. Here’s what I dislike the most about anxiety: it not only creeps up into my head and stifles my creativity, but it also makes me a gigantic, CRANKY jerk to those closest to me. I spent the morning doing some internet research for my creative project as well as for this upcoming school year, and then I felt those demons you mentioned: anxiety, then doubt, then fear and insecurity – It takes a lot, but I have to force these demons to the back of my mind – lock them up and keep moving forward with confidence. I found myself getting moody and irritated for no reason and knew I had to cool it. So I switched from researching to doing some doodling as per Elizabeth Dahl’s post yesterday, and just as I began to doubt my drawing abilities I stopped, took a breath and said to myself, “This is YOUR vision for YOUR story. No one can tell you it’s not good enough, it’s what YOU’ve created from your own mind.” And wouldn’t you know it? It worked! I was able to storyboard a page or two of my story into my sketchbook. The power of positive thinking is something that is difficult to obtain, but wonderful once you master it! Thanks Mike for allowing this venting session on anxiety! It’s just what I needed today!


      Okay, I actually do that every single day. It’s a miracle I don’t live in a van down by the river. Personally I don’t lock up the feelings of anxiety, fear, and insecurity – I need to cozy up with them and learn to coexist, because for me they’re permanent cohabitants. That doesn’t mean anyone else has to do it the same way, though, and if this post was just what you needed today, I think the credit for that goes not to me, but to you. And being willing and able to switch between different activities is something that helps me in the exact way Elizabeth described it, so it’s great that you could make that work too!

  10. Anxiety, that niggling feeling at the back of my brain that says “what if”. What if people laugh at me? What if people think I have no talent? Worse yet, what if they think I have no skill to learn it? What if they don’t like what I write or how I write it? For me the “what ifs” have been a part of my life. Todays visit to my thyroid doctor was one of those what if days. I sat anxiously waiting and wondering the entire time, “what if I haven’t lost enough weight.” “What if things are worse?” The fear of the unknown whether it is an answer to a question, what should come next in my story plagues me until I push it away and just do what I must do. Then I look at those “what ifs” and think about how silly they were. When we just “DO” instead of worry about those “what ifs”, things work out.

    1. Yup, contending with that whole “what if” thing can be a real struggle. On the other hand, “what if” is also one of the questions that a lot of authors I know use as a writing prompt during school visits, or in their own creative processes. One side of that coin is definitely more attractive than the other at first sight, but I suspect they’re quite symbiotic. And personally I try not to think of those hesitation-inducing what if questions as silly, because heaven knows I’m already very good at being judgmental of my internal experiences. I try to accept them as part of who I am, part of my process of living, part of my humanity. 🙂

  11. Somehow my response to Mike got stuffed into the responses to Pamela’s lovely poem.
    I REFUSE to be anxious about this. Mike, my main message is YOU ARE NOT A FRAUD…..if anything….letting us know that successful writers are so human is really encouraging. Keep writing!

    1. Well, thank you Linda, I really appreciate that. For all my big talk about accepting and normalizing anxiety, encouragement, support, and affirmation are HUGELY important. Thank you!

  12. Mike – Thank you for today’s exercise. It was a good day for it. Probably every day is a good day for trying to flip anxiety on its head?

    Owen shifted from foot to foot on the front porch of the house that served as the town animal shelter. His teammates were talking loudly on the sidewalk. Someone was objecting to the smell of dog.

    He didn’t know why the others hadn’t rung the doorbell. Maybe they had. There were there before him, but were now standing on the sidewalk. Why were they arguing down there? Maybe no one had answered the door. Maybe they didn’t like dogs. Maybe the doorbell was broken. Maybe they were waiting for him to ring the doorbell and then they were going to make fun of him. Owen scanned the sidewalk without looking at the other kids, skimming over them without focusing, as if he were watching a scene in a different room.

    Maybe they were trying to decide who should knock on the door. Maybe they were going to change their minds and not do the project. He wished they’d make up their minds and stop arguing. He chewed on his collar. Owen never argued and even being near people arguing made him want to hide under his covers and think about fans. It never did anything. No one ever changed their mind or became nicer or agreed with anyone else at the end. Arguing was like pulling legs off of spiders: cruel and pointless.

    Owen spat his collar out and rang the doorbell. The others stopped arguing abruptly.

    1. <3 Owen!
      Spitting out the collar works for me! I want to know what the other kids were arguing about…..and why Owen is not in the group of other kids.

    2. ROCK ON, OWEN! YOU GO! Terry, you’re very welcome – I do tend to think every day is a good day to spin anxiety on its axis, yes. And this is compelling stuff with Owen and company, well done!!

  13. Such wisdom! Thank you so much for this prompt. I had stepped away from TW, largely due to the overwhelm of trying fiction and writing daily. I love coming back a week later to having fun with something that can feel so daunting!

    1. Dawn, “wisdom” is too big a word to ascribe to me, but I’m flattered by it anyway. Thank you. I don’t condemn you in any way or to any degree for stepping away from TW when you needed to, but I’m glad you came back!

  14. Oh my goodness! This was the best, best, BEST exercise/lesson to read today, along with all the TW camper posts! Thank you, Mike, for sharing your thoughts on anxiety. I also need to accept anxiety as a cohabitant. But, the “just doing” part that Sandra Stiles mentioned is definitely key. Also, Sandra, the “what ifs” can be paralyzing for me, too. Amazingly, today’s quick-write ties in with the book I finished today, and it’s by Kate Messner! I love when ideas unexpectedly converge. If you all want to experience a character that deals with high levels of anxiety (lots of what ifs!), and uncovers some choice bits of wisdom along the way, read All the Answers. I will be sharing this with my students in the fall and I will be returning to this lesson and these posts when I have to fight my fear demons.

    TW camp has helped me to feel more like a writer, but like Von Sanders, I see myself more as a teacher who writes than as a writer. The encouragement I have received here has helped me to believe in the possibilities, but I’m fairly terrified to take the bigger plunge. After posting on this past “Friday Feedback” and reading the positive responses I received from Gae and Caroline, I thought I would revisit that piece of writing and capture more of my experience in a series of pieces. Instead, I have done a lot of in-my-brain writing that hasn’t reached paper, some of which has now reached the “uncapturable” ether.

    I will use Mike Jung’s wisdom, and the posts of you campers, and Kate Messner’s book (especially her character, Ava) to propel me into “just doing” rather than focusing on the anxious thoughts that keep me worrying about what will or won’t get onto the paper.

    I’m off to write!

    Thanks, All!


      Sincerely, I’m glad this post helped, although I think the participation of your fellow campers is clearly the more meaningful part of this experience. Yes, Sandra is 100% right that we have to actually step up and do the work at some point. It’s fantastic that you’re doing so, and hearing that my words dovetail with the work of someone I respect as much as Kate is, well, so flattering as to be nearly farcical. Thanks so much!

  15. Dropping by late… Thanks for the helpful reminder, Mike. It dovetailed nicely with a book I just finished: Mindful Learning by Craig Hassed. I’m wrapping my head around the idea that I can acknowledge feelings — anxiety, say — without those feelings spiraling destructively. Here’s what I wrote:

    I do most of my writing in the summer when I have four reservoirs on which to draw: time, patience, head and heart space. Each August, however, a sizable public works project commences, during which massive pipes with failsafe valves are installed. Their purpose is to re-direct the outflow from all four reservoirs. Ideally, to my students. I’ve experienced this infrastructure overhaul enough times that it doesn’t distress me much. There’s a bit of resentful teeth gnashing when the shunted flow, at first, hiccups in less than smooth fashion. I might feel slightly wistful, a brief bittersweet pang. Those feelings prove temporary. Just like anxiety may be part of the human condition, the coming changeover in my writing life feels like part of the rhythm of my teaching life.

    1. Brian, I really, really like the way you articulate the seasonal changes in how you use your internal resources – it’s evocative, clear, and so, so relatable. I have those hiccups myself, sometimes during larger reconfigurations of my time and energy, sometimes during the course of a single day. And yes, acknowledging anxiety as a daily companion is different from allowing it to go into a destructive spiral. Clinically recognized anxiety disorders are very real – I’ve been diagnosed with one myself – and they merit a different level of consideration from the kind of anxiety I’m talking about here, so I think it’s valuable that you (and others in previous comments) have touched on that difference. Thanks, I hope the approaching changeover goes well – I suspect you have both familiarity with and master of that process. I also suspect your students are very lucky to have you as their teacher.

  16. Hey campers, thank you for being so responsive and so willing to step up and engage with my thoughts on the writing life. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know with this next statement, but you all play such a vital role in the lives of our kids, families, and communities – the work you do is truly some of the most important work being done by anyone on the face of the Earth, and you do it despite the deplorable amount of diminishment, devaluation, and disrespect that’s thrown your way. I fancy myself a contributing member of society – children’s books are hugely important, and you obviously agree – but teachers? Teachers are heroes. You have all of my respect and admiration; it’s an honor to share this experience with you. Thank you for having me.

  17. Dear Mike, and all-
    I’m working backwards today, trying to catch up. Getting behind and playing catch up has happened to me the last two years in TW (for different reasons each summer) and I would beat myself up for not keeping up to date with the postings. Your thoughts today were a perfect connection. I have tried to keep that internal critic at bay all summer!

    I love the style of your writing and appreciate you cheering everyone on! Thanks for being you!! I’m ready to keep moving forward…