Recently the question “How do you overcome a fear of writing?” was asked in one of the writing communities I belong to. As the thread expanded and writer after writer weighed in with advice and encouragement, I was fascinated to observe writers in all stages of their careers pipping up to share their fears and how they struggle with and conquer them. It was also interesting to note that while debilitating fear froze several writers, it wasn’t ever the act of writing that caused their fear. No one is afraid of writing, of putting a story on a page. No, the fear might stall the writing, but the fear almost always has another source. Here are several of the common fears I observed and where they tend to fall in a person’s career.
Fear of failure: For many writers still struggling with their very first work-in-progress (WIP) the fear they expressed centered around failing to write the book or of the book being a failure. “What if I can’t finish?” and “What if I suck and I’m wasting my time?” were the two most common expressions of this. If fear and doubt stalls the writing (or revising), failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time, running away from writing can become a type a flimsy shield, after all, one can’t actually fail if they weren’t really trying in the first place, right? (Not a good mentality, by the way.)
Fear of rejection: The fear of rejection probably goes hand and hand with failure, as a rejection is often (wrongly) interpreted as a failure. I’m seperating it because people who become crippled by fear of rejection tend to end up in three camps. On one side you have the endless revisers who work and rework a manuscript but never feel it’s ready to submit so never send it out into the world. (These people might even have a desk drawer full of manuscripts which “just aren’t good enough.”) The fear of rejection stops them from ever moving forward in their career. On the complete opposite side, there are those who are so afraid of rejection that they never even attempt to get traditionally published and just go ahead and self-publish (short changing themselves on the possibility of bigger and better things.) Then there are those in the middle who do submit their work, but as soon as that first rejection arrives, they walk away from the manuscript and sometimes even writing itself because they don’t want to be rejected again.
Fear of success: Wait, that can’t be right: fear of success? Yes it’s true. Some writers approach rejection as the given. They are expecting ‘no’ it’s that ‘yes’ that is scary as hell. Why? Because they fear that everything will change once they have a yes. There will be deadlines and editors and suddenly a hobby becomes a job.
Fear of disappointing: Now this fear isn’t talked about much because it is primarily a fear that appears after a writer is published and is busy working on the next project. As ‘professionals’ out in the public eye, published writers often feel the need to put on a brave face and show no weaknesses. But the fear is there (trust me, I struggle with it myself.) So what is fear of disappointing? It is the fear that a writer will disappoint her agent and editor (who were clearly crazy when they wanted her previous book) and disappoint all the readers who liked the book(s) before the current project and of course the next book has to be even better than the one they liked and . . . (insert dizzying amounts of self-doubt.) The more successful the previous book was, the harder the next book tends to be as that fear of disappointing everyone grows.
Wow, so that is a lot of fear and covers the full spectrum of the writing career. And it doesn’t even cover fears about the market, economy, bad reviews, etc. The good news is, few writers will suffer from all of these fears. The bad news, most will fall prey to at least one. So what do you do when fear catches you like a deer in the headlights and the thought of opening your manuscript makes you want to run away and do chores you normally abhor just to avoid having to write?
Well, here are a handful of suggestions:
- Don’t dwell on the fear but replace those negative thoughts with positive mantras.
“I’ll never finish/sell this book” or “What if everyone hates this book and never wants to read anything else I write?” won’t help you accomplish anything. If you find such thoughts creeping into your head, stop, take a deep breath, and tell that voice “Yes, I can write this book, and it will be the best book I’ve ever written.”
- Give yourself a nice pep talk. You might give this pep talk when you first wake up in the morning, telling yourself that you’re going to accomplish great (but realistic) things today or/and when you approach your manuscript. Keep things positive and the fear will have less room to take root and spread.
- Write for yourself first. When you’re working on that first draft, write the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it. Pour yourself into it, ignoring everything else. Later, once the words are on the page and you’re ready to edit, you can worry about the market, what your dream agent/editor is currently looking for, or what your readers expect. If you carry all that with you initially, it will weigh you down, stifle your creativity, and give fear plenty of room to play havoc.
- Writing is a business that requires a thick skin. If you’re afraid of rejection, find someone you can trust to give you an honest opinion of whether a book is ready to submit. If it is, get it out the door. Then forget about the submission and start working on something new. When those first rejections come in (and they will, that is just part of publishing) don’t take them personally. There are many reasons work is rejected and it doesn’t mean your writing is awful. While it could be that you need to work on your craft more, it could also be that the agent/editor just took on a similar book, didn’t connect to your book (but someone else will), didn’t know how to sell the book, or even was just having a bad day when she looked over the query/synopsis/pages–whatever you sent. Also, remember that even the biggest names out there started at the bottom and most could wallpaper a room with the number of rejections they received.
- Don’t stop writing. It’s easier not to write, especially when fear makes you dread opening your document, but taking a deep breath and writing through it is the only way to move forward. Butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard will get the book done, edited, and out there, and then there is nothing left to fear (at least until you start the next project.)
- And I already mentioned this, but it is the most important so I’ll repeat it. Always remember that you CAN do this. Stay positive, believe in yourself, and get back to writing.
Are you or have you stumbled into a pit of fear while writing? How did you cross that hurdle and start working again?