The Four Fears That Stop You From Writing, By Andrea Phillips

Today, to build off of yesterday’s paean to authorial fear, Andrea Phillips (author of the above pictured Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling and also of the new serial pirate story, The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart) stops by to unpack that fear a little more and to talk about the specific flavors of fear that find us in our worst moments — and, also, just what the hell we can do about it.

Writers! Today I’d like to talk to you about one of the deep, dark secrets that unite the society of writers as one. I know this is Wendig’s house, but surprise! that dark secret isn’t bourbon, blood rituals, or sticky, crumb-infested keyboards. It’s the fact that we’re all RIDDLED WITH FEAR.

Now I’m not talking about the more serious kind of anxiety where your heart pounds so hard and loud it feels like a hobo is using your bed as a trampoline when you try to sleep at night. That’s maybe best fixed by talking to a kindly tweed-garbed professional with a lightning-fast Rx pad. I dunno, I’m not a doctor. (Though I’ve had my dance with that kind of anxiety, and it is incredible how well-managed it is if I just ditch caffeine and get some regular exercise. …YMMV.)

For now let’s stick to the more ordinary and commonplace fear that doesn’t keep you from living… it just keeps you from writing.

Like home-made ice cream, these anxieties come in many, many delectable and word-stopping flavors. As many as you can imagine! And we’re all writers, so our imaginations can cough up some really impressive and persuasive things to be afraid of. …Go team?

For right now let’s chuck ‘em into a few quick categories. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, my friends.

FEAR ABOUT (LACK OF) TALENT

The great idea I have is too ambitious, I can’t execute on it.

I’m just not good enough.

This thing I am writing sucks, it will never be better, and when I am done writing it everyone will hate me for having produced such a steaming pile of rhino dung.

This is one of the most common, dare I say garden-variety fears a writer must face. The yawning lack of self-worth, the hopelessness, the certainty that any success you acquire is by chance and certainly can’t last.

This is fundamentally how writing is, ducklings.

Writing is an uncomfortable act. You’re making yourself vulnerable — exposing the softest, squishiest bits of your psyche and putting them out there in public where people will know what is in your deepest heart of hearts, and just might stomp on it with extreme prejudice.

Your good ol’ reptile brain perceives this as a threat to your personal safety. No sense hating the reptilian bits of your brain, though. Its job is to minimize risk, and it does it to keep you as fat and happy as it can. So it comes up with tons of fantastic reasons for you to not actually take any risks at all.

But being a creator is fundamentally about acknowledging that risk and then saying “fuck it” and heading into that mofo heart-first. It doesn’t matter if you (or your craft, or your project) are good enough if you’re not writing. The only way to become good enough is to write more words.

FEAR ABOUT FEEDBACK

They’re just being nice to me because they don’t want to hurt my feelings.

I can’t even get my friends to read my stuff so I must be really terrible.

Oh no! Someone said something terrible about my work! It is 100% accurate and I should swear a blood oath to never handle language again in my life.

This fear is often first encountered in the proto-stages of your career when you’re workshopping or having beta readers go through a manuscript. But even after publication, these same fears pop up again and again. In impeccable circular logic, any bad feedback is completely true; good feedback is just people trying to get on your good side even though the work sucks; and no feedback means you’re so bone-grindingly bad nobody can even bear to break the news to you.

This is crazypants.

You will save yourself so much mental energy and so much sanity just by accepting what people say about your work at face value. Sure, your parents may tell you they loved your story no matter what, and maybe even your close friends… but you probably shouldn’t be seeking feedback only from people who love you in the first place. Just sayin’.

And bad reviews… well, you can’t write something that will be all things to all people. Some are going to hate what you have on offer. This is OK, it takes all types. But once you get over the first flush of rage or panic over a bad review or a harsh crit, sometimes you’ll realize it’s exactly what you needed to hear, or at least a fair warning to the kinds of people who were never going to be fans of your work in the first place.

And again: If your work really is in fact that bad… the only way to get better and do better is to write more words.

FEAR ABOUT PUBLICATION

I will die in poverty at this rate.

I don’t know how to promote so I’m doomed.

I don’t know the secret handshake or which way the pentagram should be facing or how to pronounce “fthagn” so I’ll never be published/I won’t sell.

These are fears about stuff that happens after you’re done writing. Secret handshake notwithstanding, it is actually true that you might not earn a living as a writer, and in this day and age doing a ton of promotion is a mighty effective tool to furthering your career. (You can still have a viable career without it, it’s just… a lot harder.)

This, o luscious rabbits, is why you should come into a writing career with clear eyes and managed expectations. But you know what? This stuff shouldn’t affect your writing one way or the other.

In many cases writers worry about this stuff before even completing a manuscript and starting on the query treadmill. These fears keep you from writing, or from finishing, or keep you writing slowly, all because as long as you haven’t actually failed yet you haven’t lost your beautiful golden daydream where you’re an instant #1 bestseller. Having a dream crushed by reality is hard, yo.

Wouldn’t you rather make an honest go of it and actually find out? Maybe the thing you’re working on really won’t publish, but so what? Don’t borrow trouble; you won’t know unless you try. The only path to succeed is to write more words.

FEAR ABOUT BEING JUDGED

People will laugh at me for writing this kind of thing.

People will finally know how screwed up I am inside if I write this.

The last thing I did was so super-spectacular and well received that I have set an impossibly high bar. I will forever be unfavorably compared to my own rad self.

What we have here are two run-of-the-mill starter fears and one for the newly hatched writer to look forward to one day. But really these are two sides of the same neurotic coin. All of them involve what other people think of your work, and by association what they think about you as a human being.

This is another fear with an atom of truth behind it, alas. Remember how I said that writing is uncomfortable, and makes you vulnerable? Yeah, sure, there’s a chance your great-uncle will never look you in the eye again once he reads that steamy scene where your characters make hot love with three quarts of pickled herring and a set of fishing lures.

But this is a fear that leads you into pulling your punches. You start to back off the intensity of your writing, the truth of it. You’re so afraid to get hurt that you clam up and hide so nobody ever gets the chance.

This makes your writing suck. The absolute best work you have in you is always going to be the stuff that’s closest to your heart, the stuff that’s absolutely the hardest to let another human being read. It’s risky to show people those deep and true parts of yourself, but life is risk. Look that fear in the eye, spit it in the face, and then write more effing words.

46 comments

  • Switched off when I read the cover of her book, and noticed the reference to “mutiple platforms”. Oh, well.

  • I’m pretty much scared shitless about 80% of the day but I keep plowing ahead because I have no choice. The stories in my head won’t shut up.

  • Nice Lovecraft reference. Took me a second to figure out how it should be pronounced before I got it.

    Reading this made me think of my own fears. The two phobias that have affected me in nearly every aspect of my life, not just writing, are a strong fear of success brought on and exacerbated by an even stronger fear of change. So much so that I am constantly sabotaging or putting off things that might benefit me. When it comes to my work, I’m a narcissistic ass. I know I’m good. And even if no one agrees and I publish to a resounding, “big fuckin’ whoop,” I’d still be published which would be a change. I’m working past it, slowly, and my hope is that once I am published, that will be the new status quo and I wouldn’t have such a problem with subsequent work

    I just wanted to throw this thought out there in case anyone else has this issue as well.

  • I’ve gone through all of these, sometimes in one day. My answer to fear of criticism is to write a gushingly detailed, 5 star review of the book I’m working on — and then work like hell to make sure it comes true.

  • My big problem: I take rejection really badly (like the type of badly where I won’t write for a week afterwards), yet I am too blasé about acceptances/positive feedback. I’m working on it though, so that’s something…

  • I love the idea of writing your own 5 star review Lindy. I need to come up with some new techniques like that to get going and unlock the secret sauce.

    I’m actually not a writer, but an entrepreneur who works with writers. However, the one big thing that has always united me with the writing community is the fear. I just want to leave a high five on here for all the writers that get over these fears and end up publishing spectacular work, because you keep me going.

  • August 28, 2013 at 7:47 AM // Reply

    Honestly, even writing this scares me. All the “what will they think of my thoughts” fears are swirling through my head. And there’s not much at stake.

    • Agree absolutely. I find putting words on the internet terrifying, in many ways moreso than putting them on the page. I’m working on that extremely slowly, via comments like this one.

  • One thing I learned about my friends not wanting to read my work is that my friends don’t actually read. Go figure.

    • I’m starting to realize that, Leifthesailor.

      My brain: “You did something cool like finish a story, of course your friends will read it!”
      Reality: My friends are lazy as hell. Fuck it, let’s try twitter.

      • I was thinking that this would be true, Leifthesailor, until I noticed that that the last time we met for drinks, several had Kindles sticking out of their purses. Yikes. They’re going to read.

        But I just tell people all they have to do is BUY the book. They don’t have to read it!

        And yeah, Twitter. I can just Tweet out the relevant parts to those who want the Quickie version. Might be worth starting a list on Twitter -

  • This was a great column. I loved how all kinds of fears were described then analyzed.

    And this opening bit:

    “And we’re all writers, so our imaginations can cough up some really impressive and persuasive things to be afraid of. …Go team?”

    Yep, that’s us, God love us!

  • Although I don’t have much fear about my own writing, you spoke to the four major fears that most of us as writers, or public speakers, face. But with the millions of writers like you and myself blogging regularly, I have to wonder if many of us have overcome these basic writing fears. Good post.

  • There is so much here that I go through, sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes minute by minute. It helps to know that it’s rather universal, rather than just to try to talk to family and friends (who aren’t writers) who look at me like I’m in serious need of a mental health care professional.

    RE: friends or family reading work. I’ve discovered it’s crucial to identify what kind of reader you’re giving your work to. My mom reads voraciously. My son rarely, that I know of. I gave my MS to each, thinking I’d get a critical review from the reader, and a “eh…it’s just so much blah, blah to me” reply from the other. Not so.

    My mother (no criticism intended) gave the same rating to my MS that she’d give the Charmin TP wrapper. ( ‘It was good’…not that she loved it, or had questions, but that it was good…I find out later everything is ‘good’ to her. Words are just good.)

    Son, however, took a pen, went through the whole thing and found every stinking typo, grammatical error and inconsistency, and peppered me with questions on motive, plot, dialog…you name it, I got grilled. I ended up paying him for his time and energy, and his complete honesty.

    • I had a similar experience! Both of my parents read but I’d figured that my mom, who only reads crime/murder mysteries, would treat my fantasy horror as a chore while my dad, a fantasy fan, would give me better feedback. Completely opposite! My mom was the one who helped me tear it apart and grilled me on plot/character/grammar/you name it. Dad just gave a general “yeah, I liked it” and that was as specific as it got. Weird how that happens.

  • August 28, 2013 at 9:19 AM // Reply

    okay, so this is so awesome I am printing out so I can highlight, underline, and carry around with me along with another very cherished story…I also loved this, as someone else quoted above,

    “And we’re all writers, so our imaginations can cough up some really impressive and persuasive things to be afraid of. …Go team?”

    that’s just such a great point, :-)
    I never thought my neurotic fears were actually indicators of a working imagination…so now apply that for my “good” and not detriment…. thanks for a great read.

  • I have felt all these fears as I write, after I write, before I write… whenever they get a chance, they pop up. I had to learn (slowly) that the little voice telling me everything I had written was crap was NOT, in fact, my editorial mind pointing out the truth, but in fact a knee-jerk voice of doubt that hated everything. I learned to tell this voice to shut up, and tell it the real editorial voice would be by when I did revisions to tell me the truth.
    As for some of the other fears mentioned above… I am starting to embrace them and not let that reptile mind hold me back (that, too, is coming slowly). I take heart from a quote from Steven Brust, one of my favourite writers, about this: “Take a chance. Do something you don’t think you’re good enough to pull off.”
    Words to live by.

  • This post = awesomepanda, and I love the “fear” one-two with yesterday’s post …

    My work is at least half-fueled by negative emotions, but uh… Fear not so much. Fear can be a problem.

    Also, not to go off topic, but I just have to say I *really* liked A Creator’s Guide To Transmedia Storytelling… I think it’s a total must-read, especially for anyone wanting to work in an online space :).

  • If only we applied the energy we expend wrestling with our writing fears on actually writing, imagine how prolific we’d be. And, of course, by “we” I mean “I”–I just find comfort in the knowledge that others are sharing my pain.

    Regarding #2 and the fear of feedback, I happened to notice the other day that Shakespeare’s King Lear received 50+ pages worth of 1-star reviews. One reviewer said it was unoriginal and predictable; another said it had an “overabundance of dead people.” More than ,2000 people gave Dickens’s Bleak House 1- and 2-star reviews–“boring,” “too many characters,” and “I now know too much about what a wet street in England looks like.”

    Bottom line, if you get a few bad reviews, you’re in great company!

  • But seriously, isn’t fear the limiting factor in *all* parts of life? I’ve always wondered why writers find that revelatory, or helpful. And like the rest of life, one deals with fear by taking action. Artificially dividing the fear into “categories” is a waste of time. You have a fear of writing, or publishing, or being judged? Then don’t write! Or, of course–do. Either way, stop whining about it, for god’s sake, and looking for the next bottle of fear antidote packaged as an e-book or dull blog post. Go it alone. Go forward. Go. All that Chuck’s telling you over and over on his blog is to fucking TAKE ACTION, and keep doing it over and over until you die.

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