Few things in life fill me with as much fear as writing (and I’ve gone skydiving, held an alligator, and entrusted my heart to another human being, so that’s saying a lot!). Ironically, or maybe not, there are even fewer things that bring me as much joy.
There are magical days when I sit down to write and the words just flow. (Ah, those days.) More common are the days when writing feels like a battle. When I lock horns with my story and must wrestle every word onto the page. Whether the writing flows or fights, I’ve come to realize, is determined by the presence or absence of fear.
The days that fear shows up for work, it sits beside me and points at every sentence, scoffing, “What is [insert name] going to think when s/he reads THAT?!” Before I know it, I’m deleting sentences and watering down my words until everything feels nice and safe (read: boring).
Having been at this writing thing for over 15 years now, I can look back and see the damage caused by these epic battles with fear—story ideas gagged and handcuffed to chairs, scorched earth where first drafts used to be. Today I’ve decided to push past my own fear and explore this destructive force, not because I’ve mastered it but because I believe that for any of us to “unbox” our true potential and access our best, most authentic writing, we must find a way to overcome it.
To help me take on this formidable opponent, I reached out to the Writer Unboxed Facebook community and asked our fellow writers to share their fears and doubts as well as their strategies for fighting back. With their insights and courage, I’ve assembled some battle-worthy advice to help us win the war against fear and get back to doing what we love.
- Put a face to your fear.
A natural part of being a writer is fearing the reactions of other people—be they anonymous readers, critics, friends, family members, or, in the case of fellow WUer Starry Neilclan, “the professionals” (who might be anyone from agents to editors to more-experienced writers).
Fear is scariest when it looms large and faceless in our dark fantasies of rejection and public humiliation. But just as the frightening Wizard of Oz turned out to be a little old man with a fancy microphone, your fear is likely not what it seems.
When I started writing The Indie Way column here at Writer Unboxed, I was paralyzed with fear that “the professionals” would leave critical messages in the comments section. When I peeked behind the curtain, I realized “the professionals” were my fellow contributors. My fear of their reaction was making it hard for me to show up for my column in an authentic way because it kept browbeating me, insisting I needed to be more. Better. Wiser. More accomplished. More widely read. “Hit a best sellers list or something!” it would implore.
Once I put a face to my fear, I could begin taking away its power. It turns out, the question “Why?” is like kryptonite to fear. I asked myself why I was afraid that my fellow contributors would publicly humiliate me. They aren’t bullies who go around trashing other writers (I’ve met many of them in person, and they’re lovely people who actively help other writers). The answer was rooted in admiration and insecurity—I realized that I admire their work and contributions here at Writer Unboxed, and, frankly, I felt out my league in their company. I was grappling with a self-doubt that fellow WUer Laura Jane Swanson also contends with—Am I qualified for this?
Once I understood the source of my fear, I gained the upper hand and reasoned it into submission. I acknowledged that no one here expects me to offer the same kind of advice as any of our other fine contributors because (spoiler alert!) I am not them. I’ve not walked in their shoes; I’ve not typed at their keyboards. I can’t be them any more than they could be me.
Once I realized that the only expectation is for me to show up as me, I freed myself from the grip of fear and got back to work.
Try it: Peek behind the curtain of your fear and put a face to the person or people you find there. Challenge your fear by asking “why?” until you uncover its source.
- Give yourself the final say.
When I asked the Writer Unboxed Facebook community to share their self-limiting beliefs and behaviors, the comments section filled with lists of fears, doubts, and negative affirmations. One comment that caught my eye was from Deb Peterson, who told us she used to get hung up on thoughts like, “This is dumb.” But now she counters with, “So? It’s no dumber than other things that have been published.”
Deb’s comment reminds us that fear doesn’t get the final say in matters of our creativity and self-worth—unless we allow it to have the final say. So, don’t allow it. Give yourself the final say. If fear fires an insult at you, fire back. If it ridicules your talent, jump to your own defense. If it makes a case against you, prove it wrong.
For example, fellow WUers Gail Trowbridge and Leslie Aline Stack admitted to feeling too old to pursue their writing dreams. As I see it, these writers have two options: allow fear to have the final say and never pick up a pen, or swat fear on the nose and remind it to respect its elders. They could school fear about the unique perspective and voice that age and experience can bring to storytelling. They could cite a long list of literary late bloomers who enjoyed successful writing careers. Rather than looking at age (or any other trait) as a liability, we must consider how our perceived shortcomings can add value to our writing. (I’m happy to report that Gail and Leslie chose the latter option and are still writing.)
Try it: Make a list of all your fears, doubts, and negative beliefs. Then read the list as if it were created by your best friend. Make a second list of all the reasons why the items on the first list aren’t true. Throw away the first list and keep the second nearby to ensure you have the final say next time fear returns.
- Write anyway.
Though I’m not sure fear can be eliminated, it’s possible to manage it so we can continue writing and creating. When I asked our Facebook community how they write through their fear, I was heartened to hear a variety of strategies.
Some writers keep fear in check with positive reinforcement. Fellow WUer Leslie Schulze Book regularly reviews positive comments she’s received from readers as well as signs she sees in her daily life that confirm her desire to write. This practice helps her stay focused on her goals and encouraged about the future. (This sounds far more productive than obsessively rereading negative comments from anonymous trolls!) Marta Pelrine-Bacon surrounds herself with supportive writer friends who encourage her efforts. Rebeca Schiller relies on self-motivating pep talks, reminding herself that the only way to become a successful writer is to sit down and write. And when that doesn’t work, she reaches for her favorite revenge fantasy. (Who among us hasn’t, at one point or another, been fueled by the glorious daydream of rubbing our international best seller in our biggest detractor’s face?)
For other writers, it’s as simple as acknowledging the presence of fear and ignoring it. When fear creeps up on Brian B. King and makes it difficult for him to relate to other writers, he “gives it a hug and keeps plodding forward.” For Laura Seeber it’s not a hug but a careful sidestep. When fear bullies her with comments like “no one will want to read this crap” or “I’m not good enough to write this,” she simply acknowledges it, accepts that she may never be good enough, and continues writing anyway. Once she does that, she feels fear loosen its grip and the writing gets easier.
Try it: When fear shows up, acknowledge it. Remind yourself that it is a natural part of the creative process and you are not alone in your feelings and doubts. Then turn your attention back to your work and forget about it.
Time and experience have taught this battle-weary writer that it’s not the writing I’m struggling against, it’s fear. It’s my desire to be authentic with you but in no way allow you to hurt me. The problem, of course, is that doing the work that matters most to our souls calls for us to lay our hearts on the page for the world to see and judge. It requires us to be vulnerable. That’s why it’s so easy to get lost down a social media rabbit hole or binge the latest limited series or fill our days with anything other than writing. Because it’s safer there. Writing is scary. But, like jumping out of a plane, holding an alligator, and falling in love, I want to do it anyway.
What fears do you battle when writing? How do you keep the beasts at bay?