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Hearing the Questions Beneath Your Writer’s Frustration

Tineke Bryson, Staff Writer

If you’re anything like me, there’s only one thing more overwhelming than your own problems: the problems of somebody you deeply care about. Watching your young writer agonize over writer’s block, or whether their story idea is good enough, can be heartbreaking.

Don’t you wish you could get inside your son’s head and change his perspective? Don’t you long to say the right thing—something irrefutable—when your daughter rages that none of your encouraging words are true?

One reason it’s so tough to watch our loved ones struggle is that we don’t have control; they do. It often seems as though there’s nothing we can do to help.

But there are ways we can encourage the anxious writers in our lives, no matter what our emotions say. Today I offer some reflections on the important role we are capable of playing even if we are not in control: We can hear and voice the unsaid questions.

Fear of the Future

Beneath irritable or hopeless outbursts (I just can’t write! Why can’t I get this scene right?) are questions your student is afraid to say aloud. For example, “Everything I write is stupid!” could be translated as, “Storytelling is so important to me, and I don’t know if I can be happy if I fail at it!”

You can hear it: Will I be happy? Will I be okay?

It’s one thing to hear it; it’s another to voice it for them. When you try to explore with your daughter why her frustration with a problem scene escalated into a meltdown, you may just get an outraged “You’re making stuff up!”

It’s painful.

Unfortunately, reflecting their fears back to them is too important to let the risk of being hurt deter us. Because if your daughter can admit that she is afraid of letting herself down, she can separate the problem chapter or problem character from her fear and address them appropriately. A character inconsistency can’t be fixed if all she throws at it is desperation to one day be a published writer. But it probably can be fixed if she treats it as a small problem and separately confronts the big problem of her self-doubt.

Here are some truths about writers. If your son accuses you of being blinded by your love for him, you can tell him you got this stuff from The One Year Adventure Novel!

All writers have mind-bending story problems.

All writers fear that what they can produce won’t be as good as what’s in their head—it will be different, and of course it will probably pale in comparison with the fantasy. That’s because it’s a real story.

It’s precisely because storytelling is so important to them and to their sense of wellbeing that they can be sure they will continue to tell stories, no matter what. And they will inevitably get better because of it.

They will be okay. At its root, their dream of becoming a successful writer is a dream to create something meaningful. And there are more ways to create meaning than they can even conceive of.

There is absolutely no way they (or you!) can know for sure if they have it in them to become published. Trying to figure it out is of no use whatsoever. The only way to find out is to live.


Fear of the Unknown

Another common question hiding beneath a writer’s frustration is, How can I know for sure this is worth it?

As human beings, when we get into the but-how-do-I-know-for-certain funk, we turn every reassurance into a taunt.

“You have great writing ability.”
“How do you know?”

“I’m sure you can fix this!”
“How do you know?”

“One day you’re going to write something everybody will want to read!”
“How do you know?

“This chapter is wonderful!”
“You’re just saying that because you’re my dad.”

Retorts like these induce panic. Because often there is no way to counter doubts head-on. We can’t prove that they will succeed. We can’t speak for other readers. We can’t guarantee them a book contract or an agent.

More helpful than trying to convince your student is to turn that doubting “How do you know?” question back on them. “How do you know you won’t succeed?” “How do you know you don’t have a wonderful story idea in you?”

For many people, a simple reminder that success is just as likely as failure forces a long pause in the panic. Most of us think bad things are more likely than good. But if the result is truly uncertain, it makes no sense to put so much weight on the negative possibility. It makes a lot more sense to lean on the positive, because hope and perseverance are real forces of change.

Fear of Disappointing You

Fielding the “What do you want to become?” question is the cause of tremendous stress for teens, and teen writers are no exception. If anything, they often feel they have more to prove, because if they want to do something involving writing, their goal may be perceived by adults as naïve or impractical.

I would not be surprised if buried beneath your student’s despair over writer’s block were this question: Will you support my desire to pursue writing in a serious way if I can’t even write today?

As a parent, you may feel trapped by this question. You probably have your own fears about whether your young writer will become self-sufficient. But this is not a moment to discuss the pros and cons of writing for a living. This is a moment to build your student’s sense of wellbeing and safety. When your teen writer hears you say, “It’s okay. Writing is hard work, and I respect that. I just want to help you move forward,” she’ll be much more open to candid discussions about her goals.


When you feel like all the tools you give your son or daughter aren’t even making a dent in the discouragement, there may be a reason: your student is asking deeply emotional questions when sitting down to write. The questions are so much more important than the chapter or scene or lesson at hand, and they can’t be voiced or addressed with a writing technique.

These questions are an opportunity. Your student may not even be aware of why he is so stressed by his novel. But when you learn to hear the questions and help your son or daughter voice them, you can build a solid sense of security and hope in your young writer.

What questions do you discern beneath your writer’s frustrations? How do you let your student know that you hear them? I would love to know!

About Tineke

Tineke Bryson (Honors in Writing, Houghton College) lives in the very center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. Tineke grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, she worked as an editor.

She and her husband, Matthias, live in Lawrence, Kansas. She loves British history, reading YA fantasy, and collecting moths.


This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. I love this.

    Also, in a slightly different direction, I feel like why this part resonated me is a bit off topic, but: “At its root, their dream of becoming a successful writer is a dream to create something meaningful. And there are more ways to create meaning than they can even conceive of.”

    I’ve been very slowly coming to grips with the fact that my 15yo idea of myself as someone who writes fiction books is not exactly accurate. I mainly write one, and I’m actually okay with that. I never dreamed of loving something more than writing, and a way I still don’t–it’s just I love other things yoked with writing, like editing and history.

    So I guess this is someone from the other side, still working on that beloved mess of a book, but creating meaning in other ways, too.

    1. It’s sometimes humbling to realize that the framework we used to have for our dreams and goals was too narrow. But I think, as you suggest, that these realizations are more freeing and encouraging than they are humbling. It’s wonderful to be able to see how our varied interests, experiences, and abilities can work together instead of competing with one another. It’s easy for ME to see how the integration of history, editing, and storytelling is only making your life MORE meaningful. But sometimes that’s easier to see from the outside.

  2. “At its root, their dream of becoming a successful writer is a dream to create something meaningful. And there are more ways to create meaning than they can even conceive of.” This resonated with me as well, though in different ways than Nairam. We really do make more of a difference than we realize, and from a writing perspective, something in my story may resonate with a reader that I didn’t intend to have much meaning at all. This has happened with other writers I know too.

    1. Curious Nell, you make a good point. I agree. I do find it calming to think about my writing goals in terms of creating meaning. It helps me to focus on what matters, and less on the “packaging” of the my accomplishments.

  3. “Hope and perseverance are real forces of change.”
    That is the BEST line! There was so much wisdom in this piece, Tineke. Many thanks!

    1. Thank you, Angie. I learned how to flip the how-do-you-know taunts thanks to my husband. I think the irrationality of leaning on the negative possibility it is a really good insight. It applies to so many areas of anxiety, not just writing!

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