Unwinding the Anxiety and Joy of the Writing Process

An old adage you often hear in writing circles is that “writers write because they have to.” There’s this idea that true writers don’t write for any reason other than that they are called to. They were born to write. Like all the arts, there’s the romanticized idea of the starving artist, someone who does it purely for the love of it, no matter the cost.

I’ve always had an uneasy understanding of this concept, even before I became a literary agent. My internal drive to write comes and goes. I grapple with whether or not I’m a true author. Despite having written two full manuscripts, novellas, and a short story collection, I doubt myself. So when my daughter was born, and I found it too hard to keep up the habit, I let the idea that I was a writer go. I believed I just wasn’t wired that way. I wasn’t born to write.

Maybe I was born to read. After all, it was always almost effortless for me. As a child I read almost the entire children’s section at my local library. In high school I could read a book a night. Postpartum I joined a book club and didn’t take a maternity leave from agenting. I inhale books like a kid with birthday cake. So a career as a literary agent feels natural, like it was what I was meant to do. I never doubt my reading ability, reading is a comfort.

When the pandemic hit, I further explored and expanded that comfort. I found fresh joy in editing my client manuscripts. I discovered a surprising new love for nonfiction, immersed myself in musings on firebombing a woodchuck den and the origins of our discontents. Particularly I was drawn to books that dug into how the brain is wired. I made tiny changes and really began to understand how hooked I was. This attraction to learning more about neurology wasn’t surprising, as even before this anxiety-inducing pandemic, neurosis is an old foe of mine. I was diagnosed with PTSD in my early-twenties, and have struggled with anxiety-related problems since then. Add a global pandemic, well it’s not hard to imagine my state of mind in 2020, as many of you felt it too.

So when browsing the nonfiction new releases section, a specific book caught my eye. Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD. With a healthy dose of skepticism and hope, I dug into it. To my delight, I found it offered wonderful tools to help rewire my brain’s knee-jerk anxiety and rethink how I approach stressful situations. I suspect it is a great audio book, and have been recommending it to friends with anxiety from all corners of my life. It’s not a cure-all, but I found it helpful.

But what does this have to do with writing?

A lot actually.

I was struck by a particular line: You need to find a reward that is more rewarding and doesn’t feed the habit loop through mere substitution of a different behavior (165). What a great line. To put in context, your brain is reward-based and its default is to operate on habit loops. Negative loops can’t be broken by simply changing the reward. To break negative loops, one must step back and examine where the anxiety is coming from.

I wondered if those authors that were “born to write” in reality had found a positive internal reward process for their writing habit. (I was validated soon after in chapter 22 where Dr. Brewer explains his own writing process.) And those who gave up writing, maybe found they couldn’t break out of the negative anxiety cycle that comes with writing, submitting, and publishing.

As a literary agent, I can support this in practical terms. We all know the intensity of writers who want to be published. You’ve heard the urban legends of manuscripts slipped under bathroom stalls, mailed with expensive bottles of booze, etc. I’ve been pitched on the beach, in an airplane, even at a lab while getting my blood drawn. It’s pretty wild. Looking through the lens of Dr. Brewer’s thesis, it becomes more understandable. Obviously being published represents a big reward, validation of the writing process. And maybe that’s what is needed for a person to continue writing. It’s not that writers are aggressively desperate to get published for fame and fortune, but rather their writing habit is at risk. Because, for whatever reason, financial, mental, energy, timing they need outside validation that their writing is worth it. If the author feels good about writing, the author writes more, the author becomes a better writer. But if the author feels bad about writing, well what then? Hence this belief that getting published will solve that anxiety.

In theory, along with publication comes financial support, accolades, film interest, an audience etc. All factors that should feed the writing validation loop. But what writers can be faced with, once they are published, is the results do not meet their expectations, does not validate them in the way they believed it would. For many reasons. The book could not sell well (or at all), the reviews could be bad, social media could dogpile it, etc. Maybe the editor or the agent wasn’t a good fit. Maybe the author finds being on deadline to be draining and so on. This feels especially poignant currently, with pandemic burnout and increased levels of anxiety seeping into all aspects of our lives. Now the author is fighting bigger and meaner obstacles to feel good about writing. They may be dragged down by a negative feedback loop cycle, causing unhappiness, stress, disillusionment, or even paralyzing them from writing more. They might convince themselves they don’t have what it takes, because even when they achieved the dream, they aren’t happy. So then they think, maybe this means I wasn’t born to write. I’m not a writer after all.

Which of course is not true, it’s their anxiety controlling their thoughts (side-eyes my own writing insecurity). My favorite advice for writers is to breathe, look forward, and focus on the next project. Because, just like being on submission, publication leaves a void in your writing process. Your project is out of your hands, out of your control, giving anxiety an opportunity to step in. Dr. Brewer calls this feeling, a hungry ghost. Like big empty stomachs, voids don’t feel good; your brain, when faced with one thinks, Do something! Fill this! This is terrible! I’m getting sucked into this awful pit of despair. But you can’t fill a void–by trying to fill it, you just perpetuate the habit loop (171). His answer to a negative feedback loop is a combination of mindfulness, curiosity, and kindness. Rewire the cycle, so that the reward is not anxiety, but something positive. Perhaps joy and pleasure in the act of telling a story, sharing your thoughts, processing life itself. Maybe these ”born authors”, whether it be through privilege, passion, or perseverance, have hijacked their feedback loops so that the act of writing itself is the reward for their writing habit.

This would mean that I wasn’t born to read, but rather the rewards for reading throughout my life have been high, so my reading habit loop is dug deeply into my brain. Reading was my comfort, I could escape a lonely childhood, not fitting in, social awkwardness, toxic relationships, a traumatic event. It rewarded me with knowledge, wisdom, empathy, a career I love, insights into worlds I never dreamed about. And the joy I find in reading and editing my clients’ manuscripts have allowed me to weather the ups and downs of literary agenting, even in a pandemic. Dr. Brewer refers to this joyful approach to a habit as Loving Kindness Practice (209). It has many names and, as he acknowledges, it stems from ancient practices.

I use this practice with my clients, although I didn’t have exact terms for it. I started to see early in my career, that by championing my authors in all aspects and phases of their writing process (even if that process is not writing at all for a time), and sticking by them if they struggled, they had a validation feedback loop. Make no mistake, they are doing the work, but they have more incentive and breathing room to keep writing (often they also have writing groups that can deepen this needed support). And watching their writing blossom when working together is incredible. The longer I’ve been doing this, the more I’ve developed my client list around this idea. It takes time and patience, it’s not the right fit for some writers, and it’s not always exciting or newsworthy, but it seems to work for my clients, who hopefully feel they have stability and support in an ever-changing chaotic industry and an increasing anxiety-laden outside world.

So what about my own writing?

Back in March I was interviewed on the Middle Grade Ninja (episode airs June 26). The host Rob was wonderfully warm, and we had a lovely chat about publishing and how I work as a literary agent. Near the end he took me off guard with the question, “do you still dream about being a published author?”

I blurted out, yes. Surprised the hell out of me too. But it wasn’t my old dream of getting the big book deal and becoming a household name (not that I would turn that down). Rather, as I tried to clumsily explain, it was a quieter dream. I dream of writing a novel in which I truly enjoy the process of putting words to a story. When I think about the first time I found joy in writing, it was because I wrote about my trauma and subsequent PTSD under the thinly veiled guise of a fantasy novel. I reframed my narrative into one that gave me power and one I could love.

I thought I had lost that joy somewhere along the way, but then why do I continue to blog? Blogs are outdated, writers don’t really need yet another literary agent advice blog, and each of my posts garners no more than a few hundred views per year. I’m not even sure my family and friends read this. So I’m not exactly getting outside validation. (Thank you my handful of loyal readers, I see you.) Did some internal appreciation of simply writing the posts sneak in there? I’d been so distracted by my own negative feedback loop that I had missed the possible positive reward signals. That I am still writing. I am a writer. As Dr. Brewer states, Awareness is also required in order to affect or change behavior: you have to become aware of or wake up to being in the middle of a habitual behavior before you can do anything about it (162).

So for those of you struggling with the writing process, whatever stage you are at in your career, know you are not alone. Maybe you took a few years/decades off. Maybe you pivoted from being published with the big publishers to indie. Maybe you don’t have the privilege of time or financial support right now. Maybe the agent query process is really draining you. Maybe you are burnt out. That’s okay. That doesn’t make you less of a writer. Be kind to yourself. Respect yourself, starving artist or not. Don’t write at all costs. Meditate on what about writing gives you pleasure, and find your way back to its joy.

UPDATE: March 15, 2021

Remaining Closed to Submissions

I have made the difficult decision to remain closed to submissions for the foreseeable future. My client list is really tight at present (as is my attention span given the current global situation). I’m a bit burnt out in general, as I imagine we all are, so I’m also pulling back my professional social media engagement. Bottom line, I want to ensure I can give my full attention to my current list.

My colleagues Lisa Abellera and Dorian Maffei are up and coming agents at our agency, who have very similar taste as mine, and who work closely with me, so I urge you to consider submitting to either in the interim.

I would like to reopen in the fall (hopefully along with the rest of society) and will re-examine when the time is closer. Until then, wishing you all a safe and healthy spring/summer!

Editing The Big Picture

First. It’s Black History Month. Before reading my words, please read this post I Couldn’t Be Prouder – Reframing What It Meant To Be A “Slave” by my client Donna Washington.

Pre-order The Unbroken by C.L. Clark and Bacchanal by Veronica G. Henry. Both are incredible fantasy novels by talented Black voices that I am super proud to represent.

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The past year was indefinable in so many ways. I struggle to find the words, as I’m sure many of us do. Personally, politically, socially, spiritually it’s been. . . something. But the readers of this little blog are interested in my professional perspective. So: let’s talk about the publishing industry. Could it survive the pandemic, political upheaval, social unrest of 2020? (Reader, it did).

It made some questionable (i.e. *shitty*) moves, with the acquisition of books like American Dirt, Apropos of Nothing, and Troubled Blood. There was a reckoning with the Black Lives Matter movement, which resulted in calls for more Black voices, but many argue and agree that the lack of diversity in publishing and the industry’s performative response to it, is a never-ending cyclical issue. (To be clear, I am pro-diversity, pro the dismantling of systematic racism, and I believe publishing needs to do better.)

And closer to home, agent scandals erupted at a pace as if a global pandemic didn’t exist. Literary agents and agencies saw increasing demands for transparency and ethical behavior. Some may not (or should not) survive in the industry as a result. Individual agents faced backlash on behalf of their clients. My peers publicly parted ways with established clients for problematic behavior such as sexual harassment, racism, and gaslighting.

Much of this was fast-moving, forgotten-after-the-next-controversy-broke, but the ripples had an effect. There has been an undeniable increase in anxiety seeping into all corners of the industry. Including into the already nerve-wracked minds of the hundreds of thousands of querying authors. How can you trust agents? How do you know an agent will be there for you long-term and won’t be at the center of some Twitterstorm/unearthed as a terrible professional/person? And how can you trust yourself that you are making good decisions and won’t find yourself facing the mob?

Since a tiny percentage of this group are readers of this blog, I’m sharing that you’re not alone. I can’t speak for all agents, but I do think a majority of us have felt the shift. This past year, I constantly re-examined my goals, my mission, my reason for doing what I do. I stumbled, more than once. How was I contributing to the conversation, positive and/or negative? I spiraled out and in, was off social media then back on, had highs of elation and lows of pessimism.

And then in late-August I came down with a moderate case of COVID-19 (link to an article that a local newspaper did on my experience). At the same time the largest wildfire in recent California history blanketed the sky with smoke, making the air hazardous to breathe for weeks. The personal overwhelmed the professional. I couldn’t work, I had no desire to be connected online and life, well it sucked. Physical recovery was about two months, emotional. . . I’ll let you know.

It did bring the importance of patience into sharp focus. The fast pace of social media conversations and industry scandals will not slow down. It’s important for me to keep track of it all, in order to have an understanding of the climate. But the choices I make as a literary agent (and perhaps you as an author) do not have to be at the same pace. We are caretakers of stories, one of the deepest aspects of the human psyche. This is not a fleeting mission.

So I remind myself:

  • decisions should be thoughtful
  • listen more than speak
  • resist the desire to be performative
  • take action when something feels problematic

This reminder further solidified something my clients already know. That despite my incredibly high expectations of them, I am not a shark (more like a gray whale I guess?). But I believe that the patience I continue to develop will support them in navigating the industry as strongly as a shark would. (Seriously, gray whales are awesome.)

This reminder is also for authors seeking literary agents. Take your time to choose who to query and who to accept an offer from, the more thoughtful the process, the less likely it’ll be a choice you regret (the same goes for what you post online).

I signed seven exciting new clients in 2020: R.B. Lemberg, Zipporah Smith, Jasmine Skye, Kristen Schmitt, Bella Crespo, Chelsea Catherine, and DaVaun Sanders, all of whom have something fresh, poignant, and interesting to say via their fiction. Many are undertaking massive rewrites with me, but I see the long-term potential and am looking forward to what the future holds for them.

At the close of the year I sold my client Rati Mehrotra’s sophomore project Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove to Macmillan. Her debut Markswoman (one of my first deals) sold in early 2016, marking nearly five years between announcements. I’m so proud of her, the persistence and patience paid off.

And I’m happy to report there seems to be no long-term side-effects from COVID (although increasing my vitamin levels was crucial for full-recovery). I’m still catching up professionally from the experience, so I expect to be closed to queries until March, if not longer. I’m resisting the urge to rush through this more subtle part of the healing process. It’s important that I maintain the balance of what I can do, with what I should do, in order to be a stable force for my clients.

So, I thank you for your patience.

Cover Reveal: BACCHANAL by Veronica Henry

Check out this hauntingly GORGEOUS cover of Veronica Henry’s BACCHANAL coming May 21, 2021! It captures the spirit of the novel perfectly.

Evil lives in a traveling carnival roaming the Depression-era South. But the carnival’s newest act, a peculiar young woman with latent magical powers, may hold the key to defeating it. Her time has come.

Abandoned by her family, alone on the wrong side of the color line with little to call her own, Eliza Meeks is coming to terms with what she does have. It’s a gift for communicating with animals. To some, she’s a magical tender. To others, a she-devil. To a talent prospector, she’s a crowd-drawing oddity. And the Bacchanal Carnival is Eliza’s ticket out of the swamp trap of Baton Rouge.

Among fortune-tellers, carnies, barkers, and folks even stranger than herself, Eliza finds a new home. But the Bacchanal is no ordinary carnival. An ancient demon has a home there too. She hides behind an iridescent disguise. She feeds on innocent souls. And she’s met her match in Eliza, who’s only beginning to understand the purpose of her own burgeoning powers.

Only then can Eliza save her friends, find her family, and fight the sway of a primordial demon preying upon the human world. Rolling across a consuming dust bowl landscape, Eliza may have found her destiny.

Cover art by the incredibly talented Christina Chung.

Preorder BACCHANAL here.

Add it on Goodreads here.

Cover Reveal!

I’ve been internally screaming about this for months. My client C.L. Clark has a 3 book deal with Orbit and the cover for the first title, THE UNBROKEN is stunning! io9 had the exclusive on the announcement and cover reveal, so head over there for more details and a look at the first chapter: https://io9.gizmodo.com/a-young-soldier-proves-her-might-in-a-first-glimpse-at-1844381319

I’ll just be here with heart eyes looking at this gorgeous art 😍😍😍

Mary C. MooreFebruary 10, 2020

Looking forward to meeting writers and chatting about publishing at the San Francisco Writers Conference this weekend! If you see me and I have my badge on, feel free to stop me and say hi and ask a question or two. 🤗

Cover Announcement

I’m so proud, blubbery, giddy, and all the other emotions to show off this amazing cover for GIRL GIANT AND THE MONKEY KING, a middle grade debut from my client Van Hoang. Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien are the talented illustrator duo KAA behind this gorgeous cover. Super excited they are also doing some sketches in the pages of the book.

GIRL GIANT is out with Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan 10/06/20. Available for pre-order everywhere now!

Eleven-year-old Thom Ngho is keeping a secret: she’s strong. Like suuuuper strong. Freakishly strong. And it’s making it impossible for Thom to fit in at her new middle school. In a desperate bid to get rid of her super strength, she makes a deal with the Monkey King, a powerful deity and legendary trickster. Thom will help him get back his magical staff if he’ll take away her strength. Soon she is swept up in a centuries-old world where demons, dragons, and Jade princesses actually exist. But Thom quickly discovers that magic can’t cure everything, and dealing with the trickster god might be more trouble than it’s worth.