Conquering the 8 Great Fears of the Writer’s Life: Part II
In an online video, Anne Rice said, “What has always helped me is something a novelist friend of mine, Floyd Salas, told me in Berkeley years ago. He said, ‘Go where the pain is.’ What Floyd meant was write about what hurts. Go back to the memory that causes you conflict and pain, and almost makes you unable to breathe, and write about it. Explore it in the privacy of your room, with your keyboard. Go where the pain is. Don’t be afraid of that.”
Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, puts it this way: “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” This brings us to the next great fear of the writer’s life. In Part I, we looked at the first four fears:
Fear No. 1. “I’m afraid I have no talent.”
Fear No. 2. “The blank page scares me—I’m afraid to begin.”
Fear No. 3. “I’m afraid I can’t complete my novel.”
Fear No. 4. “I’m afraid of the risks of the writer’s life.”
Now we look at one of the most paradoxical fears writer’s battle. Though we supposedly write to reveal ourselves—our thoughts, beliefs, insights, and dreams—we simultaneously fear to expose our innermost selves on the printed page:
Fear No. 5. “I’m afraid to reveal who I really am.”
For many writers, the worst nightmare imaginable is self-disclosure. When you write a book or story, you often expose more of your inner self than you realize. The more honest you are as a writer, the more you reveal. So it is only natural for writers to wonder, “What if I reveal too much? And what if my readers don’t like what they see?
In A Year of Writing Dangerously, Barbara Abercrombie recalls asking a group of writing students if writing felt “dangerous” to them. The students all agreed that it did. When Abercrombie asked why, one student said, “Writing is dangerous because you might get caught.” Abercrombie summed it up: “Caught, found out, exposed. The stuff of nightmares . . . our secrets exposed, our inner life and imagination up for inspection.”
Don’t fear the truth within you. Don’t fear the painful memories that are dredged up by your writing. When you unlock the truth within you, your writing comes alive with honesty and originality. You are finally giving your readers what they need, want, and deserve. You are giving them the gift of yourself.
Harlan Ellison explains his approach to writing this way: “I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.” Heed Harlan Ellison’s example. Embrace the burning truth within you—then express it boldly and honestly through your writing.
Great writing can be painful in its honesty—but it’s a healing, surgical pain. Pediatric surgeon and prolific author Bernie S. Siegel began writing to heal his own pain of dealing with the suffering of children on a daily basis. “Scalpels and words are instruments which can cure or kill,” he once observed, noting that he started keeping a journal when he found it increasingly hard to remain a surgeon, dealing with the deaths of children. “If you cannot bring forth your feelings,” he concluded, “they will destroy you.” And Les Cuadra, author of Crystal Heroes, put it this way: “The truth is like a scalpel that cuts, and causes a bleeding that usually heals.”
By simply recognizing your fear of revealing yourself and facing your pain, you can disarm those fears. You can now say to yourself, “I know now why I’ve been timid and fearful. I know why I have resisted writing. I’ve been afraid to reveal myself. Yet I became a writer so I could speak my truth. From now on, I’ll push past my resistance and fear. I’ll dip up the fire from the burning core of my being, and I’ll fearlessly put it all on the page.”
Fear No. 6. “I’m afraid I’m a one-book writer.”
Novelist Julian Barnes (Arthur & George) once told an interviewer, “The great fear after writing one book is you are only a one-book writer.” This fear is yet another manifestation of that universal affliction among writers, self-doubt. After the first novel is written, self-doubt says, “What if I have no encore? What if I only have one book in me?”
The solution to this fear is to trust your Muse, your unconscious mind, your talent, your training, and your experience. If you wrote one novel, you can write another. In fact, having achieved that goal once, you should be in a much better position to do it again—and to do so more effectively and brilliantly.
Suspense writer James L. Rubart, author of Rooms and Book of Days, recalls that after his first book was well-received by critics and readers, he worried that it was a fluke—and that his second novel might not measure up. “The response to Rooms was so strong I was definitely nervous when Book of Days came out. That whole ‘I only have one book in me’ thing. But a lot of people liked Book of Days better.”
In fact, Rubart says his mastery of the craft increases with each novel. “It took me six years to write Rooms,” he recalls, “two years to write Book of Days, five months to write The Chair, ten weeks to write Soul’s Gate . . . and I’m on pace to finish the novel I’m working on right now in six weeks.”
Wendell Berry is a farmer, antiwar activist, novelist, and poet. He remembers the sense of unease he felt after his first book was published. He has learned to embrace that uneasy feeling and to anticipate the unknown adventures ahead. “I am discomforted,” he says, “by the knowledge that I don’t know how to write the books that I have not yet written. But that discomfort has an excitement about it, and it is the necessary antecedent of one of the best kinds of happiness.”
Don’t fear that you are a one-book writer. Having written one novel, you know you can write another. Relax in the confidence and mastery you gained from that achievement—and prepare to conquer even greater challenges in the future.
Fear No. 7. “I’m afraid I might fail.”
We fear the failure that comes with rejection. We are afraid of putting our work in front of editors and readers. We are terrified that they will condemn our work—and us with it.
Margaret Atwood tells the story of how, in 1983, she spent six months in a fisherman’s cottage in the picturesque English seacoast village of Blakeney, Norfolk. Her plan: To write a complex and richly detailed dystopian novel. Her problem: The scope of the novel intimidated her. She found herself spending most of her time bird-watching, reading bad historical novels, and nursing chilblains caused by the cold damp weather. The one thing she didn’t do was write. She later referred to that time as “six months of futile striving.”
Atwood found herself blocked by fear of failure. Her vision of the novel loomed so large in her mind that she spent six months not knowing where to begin. Finally, she did what every successful writer must do in order to overcome the fear of failure: She wrote. She began to write bits and pieces of the story. She began to write characters and conflict and dialogue. It didn’t all hang together at first, but that didn’t matter. After six stalled months, she was finally producing pages again.
“I grasped the nettle I had been avoiding,” she later recalled, “and began to write The Handmaid’s Tale“—eventually her most acclaimed and successful novel. Her advice to anyone who is paralyzed by the fear of failure: “Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.”
Fear No. 8. “I’m afraid I might succeed.”
This is the most paradoxical fear of all. We want to succeed—yet many of us fear success as much as we want it. You may wonder why anyone would fear success. Answer: For the struggling writer, success is the great unknown. We ask ourselves: Will success change my life? Will I have to do media interviews? Will my familiar life become different and more difficult? It’s so much easier to hide at my keyboard, pretending to be a writer, than to actually achieve literary success.
We writers also resist success because we fear that once we achieve it, we may not be satisfied with it. We resist success because, deep down, we suspect we don’t deserve to be successful. We resist success because we lack confidence that we can sustain it. Or we resist success because we fear that, once we are successful, we will no longer be motivated to write.
Irish novelist Anne Enright put it this way: “I have no problem with failure—it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. . . . I am more comfortable with the personal feeling that is failure than with the exposure of success. I say this even though I am, Lord knows, ambitious and grabby.”
Those who are afraid of success often settle for second-rate goals. Too timid to dream big dreams, many writers settle for halfhearted daydreams. We defend ourselves against disappointment by setting our sights low, and by refusing to care deeply about becoming a writer.
Anne Enright suggests that the solution to the fear of success is to dream extreme dreams, to set high goals for your art, and dare to pursue those goals for all you’re worth. “I still have this big, stupid idea,” she once said, “that if you are good enough and lucky enough you can . . . [write] a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.”
We may all, as writers, be doomed to fail in the pursuit of our grand, idealized dreams—but so what? If our dreams are so vast and glorious that we cannot help but fail, then let’s embrace our impossible dreams and spend ours lives fearlessly pursuing them.
You never know. If you shoot for the moon, you may at least get over the fence.
A young writer recently told me she was considering independently publishing her novel. I said, “That’s great. Indie publishing is a time-honored path to becoming an author. I’ve published in both the indie and traditional worlds myself. The list of indie authors includes some celebrated names—Dickens, Poe, Twain, and Whitman, to name a few. Why are you choosing to go indie?”
“Traditional publishing scares me,” she said. “I’m afraid of having my work judged by agents and editors.”
“If you choose indie publishing, that’s fine,” I said, “but please don’t base your decision on your fears. Make a decision based on your strengths and your courage. It takes courage to be your own publisher, to market yourself, to go on social media and interact with your readers. If you think agents and editors are tough, wait till you see your reader reviews on Amazon! Whether you submit your work to traditional publishers or you choose to self-publish, it takes a lot of courage to be a writer.”
In closing, let me suggest a few ways to bolster your courage to write:
• Study the lives of successful writers, learn about the struggles and obstacles they overcame—and especially the fears they conquered to achieve their dreams.
• Attend writers’ workshops, conferences, and classes to sharpen your skills and build your confidence.
• Join a writer’s group for people who are serious about the craft. Critique groups are especially helpful in toughening you to receive constructive criticism.
• Learn to view every challenge as a voyage of discovery; transform fear into adventure, anxiety into excitement.
• Don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t obsess over what editors and readers may think. Instead, have fun! Creativity should be joyful, exciting, and exuberant. Think of writing as finger-painting with words. Shed your inhibitions, become a child again, make a glorious mess, and just write.
• Write freely and write quickly. It’s paradoxical but true: The best solution to the fear of writing is writing. As Emerson said, “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”
To be a writer is to suffer fear—but great writers are not ruled by their fears. They are driven by their passions and strengthened by their courage.
Live courageously. Write fearlessly. Be brilliant.
Jim Denney is the author of Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. He has written more than 100 books, including the Timebenders science fantasy adventure series for young readers—Battle Before Time, Doorway to Doom, Invasion of the Time Troopers, and Lost in Cydonia. He is also the co-writer with Pat Williams (co-founder of the Orlando Magic) of Leadership Excellence and The Difference You Make. A veteran of both traditional and indie publishing, Jim is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow Jim on Twitter at @WriterJimDenney, and follow his blog at http://unearthlyfiction.wordpress.com/.