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.