It is always a pleasure when an experienced author shares thoughts here to help the rest of us. Today author Jim Denney guides us over the bumpy path called a writing career. This is Part One of two.
Conquering the 8 Great Fears of the Writer’s Life: Part I
You know about the literary achievements of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights), and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). These three sisters produced many enduring classics of literature.
But there was another Brontë whose name you’ve probably never heard: Branwell Brontë, the brother of the three Brontë sisters. The four Brontë siblings were close in their early years. As children, they engaged in fantasy role-playing games and collaborated on complex stories about an imaginary realm called Angria.
As an adult, Branwell often talked about the grand novel he intended to write, based on the world of Angria that he and his sisters had created. But while his sisters produced their masterpieces, Branwell only dabbled at writing. When his sisters urged him to show fragments of his novel to a publisher, he refused, saying he couldn’t bear having an editor toss his writings into the fireplace.
In the fall of 1848, Branwell Brontë fell gravely ill with tuberculosis, aggravated by delirium tremens from alcoholism. He died on September 24 at age thirty-one. After Branwell’s funeral, Charlotte Brontë wrote of her brother, “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement … but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and shining light.”
Branwell Brontë died knowing he had wasted his life and his talent. He never wrote his grand novel. Why? Because he was afraid of rejection, afraid of failure, afraid of committing his literary vision to paper and submitting it to a publisher. His fears were the same fears most writers face to this day.
Writers who conquer their fears go on to enjoy successful careers. Writers who fail to master their fears are doomed to end their lives in Branwellesque obscurity. Don’t waste your life and your talent. Don’t be paralyzed by fear. Instead, learn about the eight most common fears writers face—and how to overcome them:
Fear No. 1. “I’m afraid I have no talent.”
Many writers fear making a terrifying discovery: “I don’t have what it takes to be a published author.” Another name for this all-too-common fear is self-doubt.
Self-doubt afflicts writers on an epidemic scale. It causes more suffering among writers than writer’s block, eyestrain, and carpal tunnel syndrome combined. Self-doubt is the fear that we might not be as talented and creative as we thought. It’s the nagging voice in your head that says, “Why do you waste so many hours alone at this keyboard? You can’t do this. No one will ever read what you write.”
I know you’ve heard those voices because every writer has heard those voices—even your literary heroes and role models.
Anne Sexton won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her deeply personal poems about relationships and depression. Yet her fears nearly kept her from becoming a poet. She had an opportunity to attend a poetry workshop conducted by the renowned John Holmes—but the thought of exposing her poems to criticism terrified her. Afraid to register for the workshop, she asked a friend to register for her and to go with her to the first session. Within a dozen years of attending that workshop, Sexton was one of the most acclaimed poets in the world. But before she could earn these honors, she had to conquer her fear and self-doubt.
By avoiding the risk of writing and being judged, you actually risk everything. As Erica Jong put it in How to Save Your Own Life, “The risk is your life. Wasting it, I mean. It’s a pretty big risk. . . . And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more. Life doesn’t leave that many choices. It’s really very harsh.”
How do you conquer the fear that you’re not good enough, the fear of being judged? You simply do the work. You write. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, even if you are fearful, even if you think your writing is so wretched that even your own mother would trash it, write.
Novelist Ayn Rand urged writers to adopt the mindset of relentless professionalism, regardless of self-doubts. She said, “You can be professional before you publish anything—if you approach writing as a job and apply to writing the same standards and methods that people regularly apply to other professions.” She dealt with her own self-doubt by pretending she worked for Hank Rearden—the ruthless industrialist in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Rearden, she said, “would not tolerate it if I told him, ‘I can’t work today because I have self-doubt’ or ‘I have a self-esteem crisis.’ Yet that is what most people do, in effect, when it comes to writing.”
Another accomplished writer who has suffered from self-doubt is Stephen King. In On Writing, he observes, “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job. It’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There is plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.”
His solution: Write quickly. King explains, “With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. . . . If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind . . . I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”
To slay self-doubt, write fast enough to stay ahead of your doubts.
Fear No. 2. “The blank page scares me—I’m afraid to begin.”
We all have authors we idolize. Because they write so brilliantly, we assume they are confident, even fearless. But our literary role models struggle with the very same fears we do, including the fear of the blank page. John Steinbeck wrote in his journal, “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line.”
Before Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez could sell 30 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude and win the Nobel Prize for literature, he had to work up the courage to write the first line. “All my life,” he said, “I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”
Margaret Atwood, the celebrated author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has won many literary awards, including the prestigious Booker Prize. Her greatest fear as an author: “Blank pages inspire me with terror.”
A few years ago, I taught a writer’s workshop. After one session, a young woman came to me and said, “I can’t get started. I know what I want to write about, and I know my characters—it all seems so perfect in my head. But when I try to write the perfect opening line, nothing comes to me—nothing that feels good enough. Without a brilliant first sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story.” What’s the solution to blank-page-ophobia?
First, understand that this fear comes from an inordinate and unhealthy perfectionism. You’re listening to your inner critic. Perhaps you’re even listening to the voice of some writing teacher in your past, someone who told you it’s absolutely crucial that you rivet your reader’s attention with a knockout first sentence.
Well, yes, your first sentence is important—but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write. Why not save your first sentence for last? Write your entire first draft before you even think about what your first sentence ought to be. Once the novel is written, a brilliant first sentence may just come to you.
Second, get the words and story down any way you can. Bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” And Dorothea Brande advised in her classic book Becoming a Writer, “Simply start working. If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.”
Third, in first draft, give yourself permission to write badly. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t expect first-draft perfection. Have fun, play, and finger-paint with words. It may be messy, but so what? You’ll clean everything up later in rewrite. I’m sure you’ll even come up with an inspired, riveting opening line.
Fear No. 3. “I’m afraid I can’t complete my novel.”
Writers often build up a mental image of the novel they want to write—an image that is so grand and brilliant and complex that it becomes intimidating and self-defeating. We say to ourselves, “The novel I picture in my mind is so rich in theme, so vast in scope, that I don’t feel capable of writing it. I’d better wait until I acquire the skills to do it justice.”
The writer who has never written a novel before may lack the confidence that he or she can go the distance: “I don’t know how to begin. I’m not sure I can sustain the middle. I doubt I can write a worthy ending. I’m defeated before I begin.”
These are the same fears Ray Bradbury faced in January 1953 when he signed a contract to expand his novella “The Fireman” to novel length, 50,000 words. A short story writer, Bradbury had never written a novel before. The deadline was two months away, in mid-March. Bradbury was so intimidated by the scope of the project that when the deadline passed, he hadn’t written a single word. The publisher extended the deadline to April 15—and Bradbury missed that deadline as well.
The publisher gave Bradbury an extension to June 15—the author’s last chance. Paralyzed by fear all through May, a desperate Ray Bradbury finally went down into the basement of the UCLA library in early June. There, the university kept rows of coin-operated typewriters. Every half-hour, Bradbury fed a dime into the typewriter’s meter. Over a nine-day period, Bradbury wrote 25,000 words which he added to the 25,000 words of the original novella. Bradbury’s first novel, Fahrenheit 451, was born—and he met his third and final deadline. But first he had to overcome the fear that he wouldn’t be able to finish his book.
When the inner critic say, “You can’t do this,” tell your inner critic, “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t, but if this novel defeats me, it won’t be because I didn’t try. Now shut up. I’m working.”
When a project intimidates you because of its size and complexity, break it down into bite-size pieces. Divide it into scenes or chapters or daily word-count goals. Focus on today’s tasks today, then maintain that same focus day after day, and you’ll ultimately get your novel written.
I recommend two excellent tools for breaking down big long-term projects into a series of short-term objectives: (1) James Scott Bell’s excellent book Plot & Structure and (2) Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake” method at AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer, “Once you are into the novel it is cowardly to worry about whether you can go on the next day. . . . You have to go on. So there is no sense to worry. You have to learn that to write a novel.”
Fear No. 4. “I’m afraid of the risks of the writer’s life.”
Writing is an inherently risky proposition. When you write, you take personal risks, artistic risks, and commercial risks. It’s almost impossible to achieve distinction as an author if you are risk-averse. As Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer.”
Playwright and novelist A. R. Gurney (The Cocktail Hour and Sweet Sue) recalls the time when he taught literature at MIT and wrote plays on the side. A novelist friend told him, “You gotta start calling yourself a writer, you gotta start thinking of yourself as a writer. You’re never gonna get anywhere if you don’t take yourself seriously.”
Gurney reflects, “I found it very hard . . . to call myself a writer. I called myself a teacher. . . . It was very hard for me to accept the public mantle of being a playwright.” Once Gurney was able to confidently call himself a writer and embrace the risky life of a writer, his self-image was transformed—and his writing career shifted into high gear.
In a 2010 article in The Los Angeles Times, novelist Dani Shapiro described the three most frightening risks she faced in her twenty years of writing: “The writer’s apprenticeship—or perhaps, the writer’s lot—is this miserable trifecta: uncertainty, rejection, disappointment. . . . Every single piece of writing I have ever completed—whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story, or review—has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else. . . . Call it stubbornness, stamina, a take-no-prisoners determination, but a writer at work reminds me of nothing so much as a terrier with a bone.”
You have to be that terrier. You have to chomp down on that bone and refuse to let go. To be a writer is to battle fear and doubt, and to risk uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.
If you would achieve your dreams, you must risk, you must endure, and you must never give up. Dare to believe that your purpose in life is to write—then dare to write that first sentence. Persevere, keep faith with your dreams, and dare to complete what you started. Stop endlessly revising your manuscript—declare it finished and share it with your critique group. Then fearlessly subject your work to the brutal analysis of agents and editors—and the reading public.
Above all, dare to say to yourself and others, “I am a writer.”
In Part II, we’ll look at the four most surprising and paradoxical fears of the writer’s life.
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/.