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How (Not) to Overcome Fear

Picture by Flickr user dryhead

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Fear is not unique to writers, but we do seem to spend a lot of time dwelling in its kingdom. Sometimes I think the only thing I spend more time doing than being afraid of some element of writing is trying not to be afraid. It’s a little bit insane.

Let’s talk about fear.

Fear is not the enemy. It doesn’t exist to stop you achieving greatness; it exists to make you consider whether your intended actions will lead to greatness or despair. Will jumping off a cliff make you a daredevil, or a particularly unappetising pancake? Fear is that little voice that stands with you at the edge of the precipice and says: “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

And yet much of our culture is based on the precept that fear is bad. The only thing worse in our society than being afraid is telling people that you’re afraid. People are literally afraid of being perceived as being afraid. This particularly applies to men [2], incidentally, who are conditioned by society to believe that admitting to emotions of any kind–particular fear–equates to “weakness”, but it’s true of anyone who prides themselves on their objectivity and rationality.

Is it just me, or is that a little messed up?

Fear is anxiety caused by the anticipation of an imagined future event or experience. It’s the answer to “what if”, when imagined by a pessimist. Or a novelist—after all, isn’t imagining “what if” and then “making it worse” essentially the job description of a writer?


Writers’ fear tends to manifest in one of a few ways.

Fear of Failure

What if your writing sucks? What if everyone who’s ever told you they like your work is just being nice? What if your writing is derivative and boring? What if everyone hates it?

Fear of Success

What if you can never write something that good again? What if your current story is worse than your last story? What if you can’t handle the extra pressure of people loving your work?

Fear of Being Judged

What if I share my opinion and nobody else feels the same? What if people think I’m stupid? What if people think I’m wrong? What if people hate me because of my words?

Fear of Being Found Out (Imposter Syndrome)

What if people realise I don’t really know what I’m doing? What if they realise I’m just pretending to be a writer? What if they figure out that I’m just…. me?

Overcoming Fear (or not)

Up at the start of this post, I included an oft-quoted passage from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Here it is in context:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

This is not a passage about avoiding fear. This is a passage about feeling fear, acknowledging fear, and then moving forward. This is a passage about courage. Courage, by definition, being taking an action in spite of being afraid.

And fear has a good side. It really does. Acknowledging your fear can make you a better writer—more focused, more committed, more open to improvement. As Samuel Johnson said some 250 years ago: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The simply truth is that fear isn’t something that can be overcome. It’s hard-wired into our brains. It can’t be beaten with a stick. It can’t be defeated. Our only choices are to ignore it, or to acknowledge it.

When we ignore fear, we give it power. It doesn’t go anywhere, it just festers in the quiet and unexamined corners of our mind, and we find ways to avoid situations where it may rear its ugly little head. We let fear dictate our actions, and we assume that the answer to its question (“Are you sure this is a good idea?”)  is always: “No.”

When ignored fear strikes–and it always will–it’s overwhelming. When we talk about overcoming fear, it’s this ignored-until-it-overwhelms-us fear that we’re talking about. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

If when we acknowledge fear—if we let it pass over and through us—we take control of our own destiny, for good or ill.

Acknowledge your fear. Use your fear. Let it pass over and through you.

Take charge

When fear says: “Are you sure this is a good idea? What if your writing sucks?”

Answer:  “Then it sucks. But that doesn’t mean that I suck. It just means I have more to learn.”

When fear says: “Are you sure this is a good idea? What if your writing accidentally gets popular?”

Answer: “Then it gets popular, and expectations will be higher next time. But I can handle it.”

When fear says: “Are you sure this is a good idea? What if people judge you?”

Answer: “Then they judge me. But that’s not about me, that’s about them.”

And when fear says: “Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean, secretly, deep down, you’re just… you.”

Answer: “You’re damn right I am.”

How do you deal with your writing fear?


About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.