For the past several weeks, the other Ladies and I have been chatting about 2014 and our goals (as opposed to resolutions) for this coming year. In addition to the concrete milestones I plan to achieve, my mind also went to a big picture goal I’ve set for myself: to have a year of writing fearlessly. And that was the title for my first blog post of the year, until I started writing the post and realized that writing fearlessly means writing without fear, and for me and possibly many other writers, that just isn’t gonna happen. But what can happen is I can recognize the fears, embrace them, and write in spite of them. That’s courage, hence the newly minted ‘Year of Writing Courageously’.
The first step in writing courageously is recognizing what fears may come. I’ve divided the fears I’ve faced most in my own writing life as well as those told to me by several writer friends into three big buckets.
Fear of exposure. After we handed in one of our assignments for a McD class last year, our teacher Jenny Crusie responded back to me with an ‘editing letter’, in which she described very succinctly the main storylines of each of my three protagonists. Reading her distilled description gave me a ‘holy crap!’ moment, because after spending months upon months with these characters, I didn’t realize that I’d been writing a story based on three different life struggles of a friend of mine that had died six years earlier. The references were buried deep and were more emotional than physical manifestations of the characters on the page, but even after years of being in this writing game, the revelation came as a shock.
The reality is, that kind of thing happens all the time in writers’ works. Sometimes we realize it immediately, sometimes not until months into the creative process or years after the work is completed, but we cannot help drawing on bits and pieces of our lives, our pasts and memories, as we write. And that can be damn scary. As Jenny said at the time, the act of writing is like dancing naked on the page. Being naked in front of strangers is not an experience most of us relish having. Compounding this fear is the possibility that those closer to us will recognize some piece of our lives or, worse, their lives in what we’ve written. Which can lead to paralysis, or just as deadly to the work, over-editing and sanitizing our work into something lifeless.
As writers, we have to come to terms with the fact that what gives our stories lifeblood is the act of metaphorically bleeding on the page. The things that allow readers to connect to our characters and stories are those kernels of true life experience buried in the writing.
Fear of rejection. We (almost) all want to be loved. We can’t help it. As a social animal, it’s ingrained in our DNA, crucial to survival itself. With so much riding on acceptance, rejection sucks. Always has, always will, regardless of whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned and oft-rejected veteran of the writing business. And yes, writers at all levels do get rejected. If you ever have the opportunity to go to a writers’ conference, seek out an established, successful writer, buy her a glass of wine or Scotch or spirits of her liking, and ask her to tell you about rejection in her career. Chances are she’ll have plenty to say. And her stories might be more recent than you’d expect.
We all know about the ‘Dear Jane/Dear John’ letters that agents and editors send to writers trying to break into the business. But successfully-published writers also have new projects turned down by their editors, have later books in series canceled due to low sales numbers for earlier books in the series, receive negative reviews, might even be told they should write under a pen name because they haven’t sold well enough under their current publishing moniker. It’s not that writers who become successful and remain successful no longer face rejection; it’s that they learn to survive and thrive in spite of it.
Fear of failure. This one is in some ways a continuation of the fear of rejection, but as I’m defining it here, is bigger. It’s less about a project and more about a body of work or even an entire career. This, too, can and does occur at any phase in a writer’s journey. In fact, it can be even more debilitating after some success in the business. Stumbling before you’re out of the gate is one thing, but falling ass over teacups in front of (what feels like) the whole world can be quite another. Many writers have described fear of the ‘sophomore slump’ after an auspicious debut. Others fear changing genres or trying new things after they have been lauded as successful and therefore pigeon-holed into one type of writing or one particular series.
Fear of failure is responsible for everything from the new writer saying, “What’s the point? I’ll never make it as a writer,” to the seasoned pro never coloring outside the lines once she’s found a successful formula. However, there is another way to look at this. Playing it safe can be a failure unto itself. As Ralph Keyes wrote in The Writer’s Book of Hope, one of my favorite writer-encouraging books (more on this momentarily), “In pursuits of all kinds, apparent success is too often the result of keeping one’s aspirations low.” He then goes on to quote Faulkner, who said, “We will be judged on the splendors of our failures.” If I may paraphrase, go big or go home.
So there you have it. Three buckets full of roiling, bubbling, writer-blocking uncertainties and doubts. But this is a story with a happy ending, or at least it can be, because there are strategies you can employ to move past being frozen with fear and onto being courageous. Three buckets of fear deserve three strategies to deal with them (the Rule of Three – what can I say? It’s a writer thing.)
Recognize fear for what it is. Maybe you’ve recognized some of your own fears in this post. But maybe you’re stumbling over something else that doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any of the big buckets. Don’t be too quick to dismiss the possibility that somewhere beneath all the mental blocks and excuses not to write lurks fear. When you do see fear, accept that it’s part of the writing process, not just yours, but that of most writers.
Build a strong support system – do it now! – and don’t be afraid to use it. I’ll admit, I’m biased about this one. I think the strongest support system for a writer is one that includes friends/mentors/critiquers who are writers themselves. The writing life brings its own special kind of crazy, and the mere act of kvetching about writing-specific fear and craziness can be a solution unto itself. And writers are a creative bunch. They’ve likely come up with some brilliant and offbeat ways to conquer fear in their own writing, and some of those might just work for you. But whether your network is made up of writers or non-writers be sure you find people you trust and who will listen to you when you need them most.
Seek professional help when necessary. In this case, I’m talking about professionals who have ‘been there, done that’. Long-time writer Ralph Keyes has written two wonderful books on the topic of unsticking writers: The Courage to Write and the follow-up to that, The Writer’s Book of Hope. In addition to reminding you that you are not alone, these books and other ‘writer, heal thyself’ type books provide exercises in self-exploration and writing that just might get you past the fear that’s blocking your self-expression.
I’m a firm believer that forewarned is forearmed. Now that I’ve given you a heads-up about what fears may come, I hope you feel more prepared to confront them and to keep creating in spite of them. So, will you join me in a year of writing (or otherwise creating) courageously? What fearless or courageous things do you plan to do in 2014?