Writing is scary. It means exposure – putting ourselves out there to be judged, criticized, mocked, ignored, enjoyed, learned from and admired. And it’s not only what we have to say that makes us anxious; we also worry about how we say it. We are afraid that our ideas aren’t original enough. That someone else has already done it better. That our style is bland. That our jokes are lame. Really, there is so much to fear about writing, it’s practically a miracle that anyone has ever managed to publish anything.
TS Eliot quote
It helps to know that none of us is immune. I’m scared. You’re scared. The truth about being human is that we are all scared all the time. Hopefully not of everything, but certainly of something. Fear is uncomfortable. We would generally rather do almost anything else except the thing that brings it on.
And so we procrastinate. We over-research. We get sucked into a Facebook wormhole. We make a snack. We re-read old notes. We suddenly feel incredibly sleepy and we wonder if we’re coming down with something. We wait for that magic moment when the fear will go away and we will know with absolute certainty that we are safe and beyond reproach. We wait to be sure that the whole world is waiting to receive our words with open arms. Yeah, that’s when we’ll finally write that book. Until then, lemme just text my sister about this weekend.
In truth, there’s no way to banish fear, and we wouldn’t want to if we could. The secret to dealing with fear is not to try to get rid of it, but to understand it for what it is and then use it.1
Fear is what happens when the body detects that it is about to gain valuable experience. Fear is preparation for growth. Fear is a compass that tells us where we need to go next. Fear is a message from the person we are destined to become, calling us to move forward.
Over the years, I have trained myself to eat fear for breakfast, by which I mean that I digest it and use it as fuel. In fact, I have developed quite a taste for it. These days, whenever I have to do something that makes me nervous, I get really excited because I know it means I am about to do something amazing.
So do that amazing thing. Write just one page, or twenty. But do it right now, and do it again tomorrow. Don’t wait for the fear to go away, because it won’t. It might dissipate for a bit, but it will come back. That’s ok. Fear will not make you a bad writer or turn your readers off. It is not an indication that you are unloveable or that you lack talent or insight. It doesn’t have the power to determine any of those things. The only negative effect that fear can have on your writing is to stop it from happening.
As author Susan Jeffers said in her 1986 classic self-help book, the secret is simply to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. (With a title that good, who needs to read the whole book?) I often wonder how long she sat with her book idea, afraid to start. Afraid to finish. Afraid to submit the manuscript. Afraid to read the reviews. With each milestone comes a new fear. But the good news is that with the conquering of each fear comes a new milestone.
This post was inspired by the excellent Maria Popova over at Brainpickings.org. Check out her piece on 5 Timeless Books on Fear and the Creative Process.