There is an old story that says, there is a fight going on inside every writer. A battle between two wolves. Or maybe they’re foxes? Whatever. One is named Steve, and Steve is the manifestation of fear, and the other is named Jerry, and Jerry is love and light, and Steve and Jerry are fighting over a
*checks ink-smudged notes, squints*
a bag of Hot Cheetos? Wait that can’t be right.
Never mind that story.
(Sidenote, before anyone jumps in and says something about this being a Cherokee story and I’m a jerk for mocking it, please be advised, it ain’t. Billy Graham made it up.)
So. I meet a lot of writers. I met them on book tour. I meet them at conferences and conventions. I meet them in dank basements where we trade story ideas trapped in jars like little fireflies. I MEET THEM IN DREAMS
And when I meet the writers, I often recognize something instantaneously, and that thing that I recognize is fear. Now, I don’t mean a kind of general fear; anybody with two molecules of common sense waltzing around their brain can look at the news and recognize this is a peculiarly fucked up era, and so fear about *gestures broadly* all of that is fine and sensible and trust me when I say I get it, and my writing is fueled in part by that. Putting your anxieties on the page where they can be managed and fought like summoned demons is *chef’s kiss.*
Rather, I’m speaking about a specific kind of fear, which is, fear as the first step of writing. Fear about market. Fear about audience. Fear about how no one will read your stuff. Fear about how you’re never going to be as good as [insert other author name here]. Fear about voice, fear about genre, fear about ideas. You set out on the journey of being a writer and already you have a choice about what direction you choose, right? You get this instinctual pull, as if all your intestinal flora are trying to move you in concert toward something weird, something wonderful, something uniquely your own, but — that way lies grave uncertainty. The other direction, well, that’s more sensible, isn’t it? Other writers have trod those paths. What’s popular right now is [insert trend here, like “YA medical horror featuring canine protagonists” or “grimdark geriatric erotic fantasties”]. Your voice surely isn’t as good as other voices.
So, your foot wavers. And instead of pointing yourself in the unknown direction, into the dark forest, into the layers of fog — you set forth onto the well-lit, well-marked path. The worn path. The trod path. And it’s fear that put you there. It’s fear that’s walking you forward.
Now, a caveat here that nothing I say here is particularly true, or universal — you can, of course, choose the well-trod path as a matter of fuck yeah I wanna do that, but the concern here is a lot of authors take that path less as a true choice and more as a desire for safety.
But what I want you to know is, that way isn’t safe.
It seems safe.
But it is not.
Listen, a writing career is stupid as fuck. I don’t mean choosing to be a writer is stupid — I do mean that the career itself is a hot cup of batshit. It doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense. It is Non-Euclidian in its proportions: a blueprint made of incomprehensible angles and imaginary numbers. A writing career is a procedurally-generated labyrinth, and trying to walk it with a pre-conceived map in hand is foolishness on par with letting a toddler drive a car on the Autobahn. It’s like using cheat codes for the wrong game. You start furiously tapping UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT and your little 8-Bit avatar leaps into a pit of acid and dies.
There are writers, other writers, many writers.
And there is the writer that you are.
We grow deeply concerned as storytellers that the story we’re telling isn’t original, and truly, it isn’t. No story is truly original, but there are two places where originality shines through: the first is the arrangement of unoriginal elements. It’s like how in a song, all the notes are the notes. Or how in a painting, the colors are colors. You can’t make up new notes. You can’t make up new colors. But what you do with those sounds and those hues is where the art is made, and so too it is with story.
The second original thing has to do with the first.
The second truly original thing about any story is the teller of that story.
(Psst. That’s you.)
The problem is, if you choose to ignore the latter — and, say, try to follow the writing path of other writers, or of the market, or some other fear-based trajectory — you will also miss the former. Because that unique arrangement of elements comes from who you you are. It comes from the things you love, the ideas you have, the mad stuff that comprises your mind and your heart. You’re a product of an unholy host of elements: your parents, your friends, your upbringing, your genetics, your experiences, the books you’ve read, the stories you’ve loved and also the stories you’ve hated. You are a fingerprint. That curious combination cannot be replicated.
What that means is:
When the time comes to write something, don’t move forward with fear in your step. Move forward with love. With eagerness and excitement. Love the story you’re telling, tell the story that only you can tell. Rest in peace and power, Toni Morrison, who said: “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This career is already fraught. It’s already weird and uncertain. The safe path is a lie — and a boring one, at that. The books that work, the books that matter, are the ones that didn’t try to do what was done before. They were a unique formulation from the author. They came from a place of excitement and interest, from love and ideas. They put aside fear and safety and ran into the dark.
That is what you, too, must do.
You must run into the dark, chasing what you love.
Tell that story. That’s the one we all want to read.
* * *
WANDERERS: A Novel, out now.
A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”
A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.
Print: Indiebound | Let’s Play Books (signed) | The Signed Page | B&N | BAM | Amazon
eBook: Amazon | Apple Books | B&N | Kobo | Google Play | BAM
36 responses to “Writing From A Place Of Fear Versus From A Place Of Love”
The story about the two wolves is not a lie. It is completely true. Our attribution of it to a random Cherokee is wrong (Jeez, a mistake, lighten up Chuck.)
“Our attribution of it to a random Cherokee is wrong (Jeez, a mistake, lighten up Chuck.)”
Trying to figure out if you’re trying to be clever and hitting fail mode, trolling or legitimately need to read the article.
I needed this reminder today. Working on a story that is probably too derivative of the many books I love. And wondering why I’m still wrestling with words when I could do any number of other things with my time.
Keep these gems coming, Mr. Wendig. Getting the occasional kick in the ass from your blog helps. Often when I need it most.
I think we all need that kick in the ass, sometimes…
Thank you for the encouragement.
In high school I brought home a mostly B report card, save for an A in Creative Writing. I pointed that out and my mother said “Who cares about writing?” That was over 20 years ago. These days I tell myself that I do. I care! I still have trouble getting my ideas on paper but thankfully I’ve come across a lot of encouraging people, including yourself. Thank you for that.
I had the very same experience! Writing isn’t practical my parents said. Only people who are special get to do that kind of thing. I’ve fought that my whole life and I still fight it. I’m 3/4 of the way through my novel and I just stop. I lurch forward from time to time thinking this is it I’ve finally got the momentum to finish, and then I stop. I don’t know how to stop stopping. I’m gonna be 80 before this thing is done
If writing = special and Suzun = writing then Suzun = special.
A lesson I am continually learning (in writing as in life): “stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” It’s tremendously freeing to realize that I don’t have to cope with everything right now. I just need to cope with the one thing that comes next.
So when I sit down to write, I no longer sit down thinking “Must…Finish…Whole…Book!” I sit down to write an outline, or a scene. And if that creates its own momentum… so be it. And if it doesn’t, that’s fine. Sufficient unto the day is the writing thereof.
You are correct and I do try to just focus on one small bit at a time. I still stop though and it can be really difficult to start again. A friend told me the other day maybe that’s just how you write. That made me feel a little better. I think I can be ok with just writing in spurts as long as I keep going.
I’ve seen heaps of quotes about the anguish of facing the blank page, but I’ve always found that starting again is harder than starting from blank. Which is unfortunate, as there are a lot more re-starts than starts in writing!
Are you in my freaking head? What I write about is based on the whole love/fear dichotomy. A bit like an indulgent journal of my life’s unexpected journey. Yes, what’s so amazingly unique is every single one of us. We are the special sauce that makes our burger sweet, peppery, pungent, aromatic, or a plain Jane.
Yes! Thank you for saying this!
Well said, Chuck! I got a short story published for the first time a couple months ago, and it was one of the first times in years when I wrote about something I cared about instead of writing something I thought might be *acceptable*. I’ve yet to replicate the situation but hot damn does it make sitting down at the desk to write an awful lot easier. It reminded me that I write because I love it, not just to make a buck. I was well lost in that thicket, pinned by brambles, let me tell you.
I felt this post down to my very core! I took 8 years off from writing original work. Now I’ve decided to dive back in and write my high fantasy LGBT romance adventure thing and I couldn’t be happier with how I feel when I write it. Writing from a place of love is so much fun!
I would absolutely read a high fantasy LGBT romance adventure book.
You gave me some encouragement about a year ago, and now I have my first-ever first draft of a novel in front of me, in the early stages of revision. Thank you, Chuck.
This was a beautiful post. I was admiring the structure of it. Humor and wisdom sprinkled with fireflies and dreams.
I was very lucky to meet you at a writing conference in Texas this past year. It was my first. I’d never met any other writers before. I too was struck by the fear I saw in my fellow writers. For my day job, I work with cancer patients. While there are triumphs and successes, I have seen more than my fair share of fear, suffering and death. It is an easily recognizable human experience for me. I wish that I could have taken all of those writers I met at the conference and given them an encouraging word. I wish I had been able to put a little spark of hopefulness in their heart. They have so much advantage compared to people facing the reality that after today there will be no more. The writers I met at that conference still have a chance to make their dreams come true, so I did not understand this fear they had at first.
I think people are afraid to face their fears. I also think you have to push past that and look at the world in the face, in all of its beauty and horror, and to look into your own self as well like this. And then you just keep going. Just keep going, like Luke Skywalker in the dark scary place of fear Yoda brought him to when he was training as a Jedi on Dagobah. If you can make it through this rite of passage, I think the world really does open up to you in new and life-changing ways.
So I like your post Chuck Wendig. You were the Keynote Speaker at that conference and after your speech I could feel and see the excited, happy and hopeful currents gathering momentum among the hundreds of people in the room. I could feel it in myself. I can feel it from this post. Thank you for being so encouraging in such a delightful, wise, and entertaining way.
:: Takes bag of Hot Cheetos from Steve and Jerry and begins munching on one ::
Thank you, as always, for feeding into my madness that it’s alright if I don’t have a mailing list or a blog or write to market or half the things they say are in The Handbook, because my path as a writer is my own. I’m gonna keep stubbornly shouting into the void and slinging words and dream of the day I’m looking back and giving myself the Peter B. Parker thumbs up salute.
I believe in following your curiosity. Even if it leads you down some very weird tunnels on Iwo Jima.
More excellence from today’s post. I can only add that in my experience, every writer I knew who wanted to make it and didn’t do so froze on the fear. So here’s a few things I have learned along the way that have helped me to step through the fear and find the Great Thing on the other side.
First, someone once told me (I forget who) that “fear” is…
If you break your fear down into its component parts, you’ll find that is the case every time.
I’m sure everyone has watched “The Empire Strikes Back.” One of the most profound scenes ever put in a movie, or a book, or anywhere, is the section where Luke goes to Dagobah and studies with Yoda. Particularly the moment when he first uses The Force and is able to levitate the X-wing out of the swamp it sank into. At first he thinks the assignment from Yoda to do so is impossible, and he says “Well, I’ll try.” To which Yoda replies “No. Do or do not. There is no try.” So Luke Does, and it’s up in the air, he’s holding it there, he can move it over to dry land and all will be well, and he says “I don’t believe it!” And the ship drops back into the swamp and sinks out of sight. Yoda shakes his head and says “And that is why you fail.”
That’s very profound on many levels. Failure to believe in it, whatever “it” is, is why most fail.
In my experience, when you contemplate doing a new thing, you have two choices: Do, or Do Not. if you Do Not, you’re guaranteed to be right where you are with nothing changed. If you Do, there are two possible outcomes: it will happen, or it won’t happen. A 50-50 chance of success or failure. Doing whatever it is, is the only choice that includes within it the possibility of achieving what you want. And if you don’t achieve it, you’re right where you were.
I had a writing mentor who had a successful 40 year career as a screenwriter (something very few people get to do nowadays) – three Oscar nominations and one win, several movies you have seen and liked to his credit, and the last one turned in and the check cleared 2 months before he died of old age. He once told me “When I was up, I couldn’t figure out how I got there; when I was down, I couldn’t figure out how I got there; when I was back up, I couldn’t figure out how I got there. It was driving me crazy, till I finally realized you can’t figure it out and stopped worrying about it. Things worked much better after that.”
And yeah, often where you thought you were going doesn’t turn out to be where you end up. Just this past year, I had a book I was working on, and I started researching the “background” chapter, and realized there was so much amazing, inspiring stuff that had happened in that “dark time” that the chapter became a book of its own, and in the end I had two books completed (Just wrote “the end” to the original one last month). The publisher liked that. Trust what you don’t know and just take that next step. One foot in front of the other.
This is great. Thank you. I’ve never heard of fear described in that way, but it’s something I’m going to keep in my back pocket.
And thank you!
Thank you, Chuck. You have done it again with giving much-needed encouragement. When I’m dealing with fears about writing, I think about the most brave writers that I have read, and count you as being among them.
Then I crank up the song/music video for “Brave” by Sara Bareilles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUQsqBqxoR4
And try to remember this:
“That is what you, too, must do.
You must run into the dark, chasing what you love.
Tell that story. That’s the one we all want to read.”
I was reading this in the library and worked hard to hold back my sudden surge of truth tears lest I be cast out for disturbing the peace! Thank you. This post was just for me…well maybe a whole lot of somebody elses too!
This is so right and good on so many levels, but the mind blown part for me is that FUCKING BILLY GRAHAM MADE THAT UP? And I just finished Wanderers and loved it! It got me back into the flow of the book I’m writing, too! Fucking. Billy. Graham.
Thank you, Chuck. I’m still trying to reboot my brain after the scorched earth left behind by my failed attempt at getting a master’s degree, and words like this really help.
Write with heart ….. words just fit through…….
Thank you… I have spent the better part of my almost 40yrs alive trying to set my inner writer free! I think you just helped me find a piece of the key I was looking for
One of the true advantages to being completely undiscovered as a writer is that I can write exactly what I want to write. If it gets discovered someday that would be great. I know there are people out there who would like it. But I’m writing because I need to write, not because I need to be discovered. If I want to be SEEN I can put on my dancing shoes and go out. 🙂 I will do the little bit of promotion I can afford to do, and I will continue trying to become a better writer.
Just found you this morning. I’ve been working on Mindset as part of an assignment from Kate Johnston in her writing group Team Writer. You addressed two issues that I’ve been dealing with:1) Fear and 2) Becoming a better writer by reading about the craft.
Thanks for this. I’ll be following you.
Writing from a place of love, l will remember that.
oh yes I needed this in the worst way. And the book recommended “Wanderers” looks fantastic! I’ve added it to my reading list. Thanks!