When I was invited to speak to the Living Writer's Collective in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, my topic was the Fear of Writing. The subject was enthusiastically received, with several writers sheepishly admitting to me that they suffered from it (and Lord knows I've dealt with it off and on throughout my career), so I thought I'd adapt part of my talk here.
I've identified two broad arenas that your fears of writing might fall within:
This is when you fear sitting down and putting words on the page. You might not think that you actually have this fear, because fear is a sneaky beast that masquerades as all kinds of other things. Like suddenly needing, desperately needing, to do laundry. Or mop the kitchen floor. Or go grocery shopping. Or do just about anything but get to the page in the time you've allotted to write.
The fear of the writing process can also pop up once you've actually gotten to the computer. There you sit, facing that wonderful blank screen. When you get tired of looking at the screen, you gaze out the window. And then maybe you go grab yourself a cup of coffee and stare out the kitchen window for awhile. I've got news for you–all this staring is not writing.
Or, has this ever happened to you? You are writing along, lost in the process and suddenly your fingers come to a halt. You've written something that's threatening to the old ego. And now you're terrified. All was fine one minute and then next, well, it's not.
Product fears gather around putting your work out in the world. What if you're rejected? What if people don't like your book when it's published? What if you get a bad book review or your mother reads it and is shocked? What if you wrote a thriller about a murdered and people think you have first-hand experience with crime? The what ifs go on and on and on, and many of them are as silly as the last one I listed. But here's the deal: fears are often silly. But they take on enormous power despite this.
So what's a person to do?
Here's the bad news: the only way out is through. Well, it may not be the only way out, but it's the best way out. Yup, to get over your fear of writing, you must write. And then put it out in the world, even when you don't want to. In so many ways this is counter-intuitive and probably not at all what you want to hear. Wouldn't it be just so much easier if there were an actual program you could take that conquered your fear of writing without you having to do any writing? Well, that program is, you guessed it, writing.
Here are a couple ways to approach it that might help:
–Try freewriting. This old favorite really does work. If you do it correctly, it bypasses the conscious mind and taps you into something deeper, beyond fear. The way to do it is this: pick a prompt (any prompt, it doesn't matter), set a timer for 20 minutes, and then write. Write without stopping, even if you are writing the same word over and over again. Keep the flow going–it is this that subverts the fear. And don't worry about staying on topic, you probably won't. When you're done, underline or highlight anything that you might find useful and use this as a starting point for another writing session.
–Chunk it down. Many of us writers are big-picture people. We look at a project and see the whole thing all at once. This has many advantages, but a big disadvantage is that it can be overwhelming. Remind yourself that you only need to look at your project in little bits. Make a loose outline and take one line of it at a time and write to that. Then take the next line, and then the next, until you have a rough draft for each item on the list.
–Take time for process time. In a book called Around the Writer's Block, author Roseanne Barr talks about how important process time is to writers. By this she means things like journaling, or morning pages. It can be a conundrum: take precious writing time to journal or get right to the project at hand? But studies have shown that taking time for process writing helps you beat writing resistance on a consistent basis.
–Approach it playfully. Try some fun writing exercises every once in awhile. Open a dictionary at random and fun your finger down the page. Use the word you land on as a prompt. Combine it with anothe word and make the start of a sentence and then use that. Cut up old manuscripts into long strips, one line to a strip and put them in a box. Choose one and use as a prompt.
–Write something different. I know I get stuck on thinking that I must work on my novel and only my novel. But last fall at a workshop I tried my hand at Flash Fiction and loved it. Writing that could be a quick warm-up to displace your fears. So could writing Haiku.
–Remember to write and let everything else fall into place. Because it will. Your job is to put words on the page. This is the best thing to remember when you feel that fear of putting your work out in the world, or of submitting it to editors or agents. Your job is to write. It's not to worry about what people are going to think of the final product. At the heart of it all, you just need to write.
What about you? How do you banish your fear of writing? Leave a comment!
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Photo of Munch's The Scream by Oddsock.