A mid-level business manager feared he would lose his job because he had so much difficulty writing office memos. He couldn't sleep the night before they were due, and they were due often.
A Ph.D. candidate fretted because -- although he had done all the research for his doctoral thesis in music -- he could not figure out how to start.
An otherwise fully confident federal bureaucrat making her way into the upper GS ranks knew her secret weakness. She couldn't organize her material for reports. There must be, she was sure, a "magic" formula.
All three, says English professor Merle O'Rourke Thompson, were suffering from a not uncommon handicap: "writer's anxiety."
It's not that they were incapable of writing, she says. They were just afraid they couldn't.
Thompson, 48, holds workshops on overcoming writer's anxiety at the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College (where she teaches), and privately for small groups. One such class was made up of lawyers.
"Lots of people," says Thompson, who began her workshops two years ago, "make faulty career choices just to avoid writing."
Others can be "hampered in their careers" and miss promotions. A policeman showed up at a workshop "because he had written a poor accident report and lost the case in court."
"These people are very unhappy. They want to be able to write -- to do what they want to do."
A number of people nationwide are focusing on writer's anxiety, says Thompson, "as an aspect of resurgent concerns about writing." In our school years, writing is not considered "glamorous. Not much attention is paid to it. After Sputnik, math was beefed up tremendously.Now we need the same for writing and the humanities."
Playwrights and novelists long have lived in dread of "writers block," that dry period of hours, days or even months when -- for whatever reason -- nothing comes out.
Writer's anxiety, she says, is similar. But it is a term she applies to nonprofessional writers, who may not have a book to their credit to -- possibly -- ease self-doubt.
It is, she says, comparable to "math anxiety," except that it affects both sexes, while math seems to be more fearsome to women.
A primary symptom is "procrastination." Someone who keeps finding yet more to research before uncovering the typewriter may be guilty of this.
But, she notes, there's only a fine line separating "procrastination" from "incubation," which is when you are coming up with ideas or organizing your thoughts. "I do some of my best thinking while swimming or driving around the Capital Beltway."
A great many people delay, says Thompson, because they need the last-minute deadline to be spurred into getting the job done. "There's no reason to feel guilty -- unless the deadline passes."
Those who sign up for her workshops often hold "a very low expectation" of their writing abilities, compared to others' around them. "This," she says, "is easily dispelled in class when they find they are writing as well as other people in the room."
Thompson who has presented academic papers on the subject, sees several causes of writer's anxiety:
"Fear of evaluation from peers."
An "internal critic" who is never satisfied. "A lot of people have them." She tries to help her classes develop "a more realistic critic."
Failure in the school years to learn the rules of grammar. The cure may be a grammar course. "In school, people don't always understand the connection of writing to life. Once on the job, you have have the motivation to learn you didn't in the 7the grade."
In the case of older women returning to the workforce, "generalized anxiety can get focused in writing." To resolve this, Thompson helps the student "separate out her writing anxiety from her general anxiety."
A misunderstanding about the nature of writing. Many people "think Hemingway just sat down" and the books poured out.
But the main reason, she says, "is that writing is hard work and it's lonely work."
Writer's anxiety, Thompson has found, is fairly easy to overcome. In her six hours of workshops, spread over three weeks, students are put through writing drills to build up their self-assurance.
They are "short, fast exercises" with a time limit (before the anxiety sets in). "Do it," she tells her students. "Then we can go back and fix it." That means "polishing -- sticking in transitions to make it coherent. It's so easy it frightens them."
Or she'll pick "a spontaneous subjectg," and the group will spend 50 minutes writing a paragraph about it on the blackboard. A recent subject: "Uses of the Paper Clip."
It's relaxed and full of humor, she says, "and it lets them see my agonizing -- the misspelled words, the crossouts. I do all the same things they do."
Her students also get a brush-up on the techniques of organizing. The up-and-coming bureaucrat, she says, "benefited from a step-by-step instruction in the writing process from "pre-writing" (brainstorming, research, organization) to "revision." ("It's never finished, but at some point you have to stop.")
And they learn there are times when the rules can be broken. For the doctoral candidate who didn't know how to start his thesis, she advised: "Begin in the middle."
Sometimes Thompson advises "a freeing-up exercise. Just keep on writing. Don't stop. Don't lift the pen from the paper, even if you're writing the same word over and over." It requires "a leap of faith" be believe the method works, but she's convinced it can.
Thompson also tells her students to:
Polish up their prose thoughts on paper. "A good many anxious writers," she says, "edit every sentence as they write." That "is the wrong time."
"Develop your own sense of rhythm." The fact that you "take longer to write than someone else doesn't mean he's better than you."
Find a quiet, well-equipped place to write away from distractions. The middle-level business manager who feared for his job was helped by moving out of a "noisy, bullpen office."
"Good writing," she insists, "only comes with practice. Do it. Do it Do it."
And don't forget that even professionals sometimes go through agony. Thomas Berger, whose 10th novel is "Neighbors," was quoted recently as saying, "At the beginning of my career I prepared myself for each session of writing by whimpering all afternoon, watching television all evening, and, after throwing up at midnight, "fastening myself to the desk with shackles, to remain there till dawn."