creative writing

Make a fearful start

“I went around asking writers the following question… What is it like when you go into a novel? And nobody said: What do you mean, go into a novel? They all said: It’s dark. It’s like a dark room. It’s like a dark room full of furniture I can’t see. It’s like a tunnel. It’s like a cave. It’s like going downstairs into a dark place. It’s like wading through a river.”
~ Margaret Atwood in January magazine, November 2000


In a previous post I paraphrased Tori Amos on her relationship with fear: if you’re going to write, fear is coming along for the ride. You might as well make friends with it.

The good news is fear doesn’t have to be the enemy. It may look scary in your imagination, like your high school English teacher or nuclear winter — but it is just an emotion. Like all the other powerful emotions, fear can be harnessed as energy that fuels your work.

So let’s get wise to fear. And let’s not make fearlessness the goal. Let’s aim for fear-ful — but FIERCE.

For me, fear pops up just as I’m starting to make the transition from “good idea” to words on the page.

The little voice asks: What happens if I start writing and it turns out nothing like I imagine? What if it’s terrible? A big waste of time? I think I’ll read Camilla Gibb instead. At least I know that’s a sure thing.

Writers, that little fearful voice is normal. It’s very common to feel you’re lost in the woods at night when you set out on a writing project. Most of the time it takes longer than we’d like to find the way. We’ll inevitably make false starts, take wrong paths we’ll have to back out of, before finding the way through. It’s part of the process.

Know that for every writer the act is met with fear and doubt. The work requires being able to handle uncertainty — never knowing exactly what you’ll hold in your hands when you’re done, or what comes next.

But if you want to be a writer, the only way forward is through.

As you think about your next fear-ful project, these ideas may help:

1. As an antidote to fear remember all the fantastic reasons to write. Why do you do it? Make an exhaustive list. Keep those reasons close when you feel blocked by fear.

2. Forget good and bad. There is no good or bad when you start a new draft. There are only words on the page or white space.

3.  Free yourself. Don’t hold back. No one is going to see your nasty first draft or your pile of revisions. No one is going to get up in your business about your unpolished work.

If your fear is connected to what people might think/feel/say when you’re ready to share your work, write down the very worst thing you could possibly write to upset your most feared critic. Go ahead. Try it.

Did it kill you? Harm them? When you start any project, what you write and where your writing takes you is all yours and only yours. When your work is done and only when your work is done should you think about who you’ll share it with and how people might react.

4. Find an accountability partner. When you know someone is expecting to read your work you may just have to write. Having a mentor helped me manifest my most prolific work to date. Just knowing there was an interested reader out there waiting for me to meet my own deadlines was a goddess-send.

5. Set parameters — a form, a structure, a strict word count that forces you to focus your writing, to discard what doesn’t matter and hone in on what’s essential. Try a brief form, like a flash essay, to get through that “scary” first draft quickly and get closer to the heart of your story sooner. As inspiration, take a look at this flash essay by Brenda Miller, which uses typo-laden signs as its defining structure.

I hope these tips inspire you to look at fear a bit differently and take a step forward in your writing life. If something spoke to you, I’d love to hear. Drop me a line anytime!

Warmest writerly regards,

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