Friday, May 3, 2013

Writer's Fear

Where does all the fear come from?

The results are in: Writers are one freaked out group of people. 

What are we afraid of? According to the comments on Wednesday’s post the answer is: plenty.

We’re scared of the foundational questions that form the bedrock of our decisions to even pursue writing in the first place. Let’s start on that shaky ground.

Should I Art? Writers (all artists, really) are faced with the unspoken—and sometimes voiced—questions posed by our culture the moment we choose a life of art: Are you sure? Don’t you want a paycheque? (That’s paycheck to you Americans.) Don’t you know art is just a hobby?

Margaret Atwood created this handy reference chart of writer’s fears about what people think about our books and us as people.

What people say
What Writers Hear
1. I always wait for your books to come in at the library.
I wouldn’t pay money for that trash.
2. I had to take you in school.
Against my will. Or: And I certainly haven’t read any of it since! Or: So why aren’t you dead?
3. You don’t look at all like your picture.
  1. a. Much worse.

4. You’re so prolific!
You write too much, and are repetitive and sloppy.
5. I’m going to write a book too, when I can find the time.
What you do is trivial, and can be done by an idiot.
6. I only read the classics
And you aren’t one of them.
7. Why don’t you write about _______?
Unlike the boring stuff you do write about.
8. That book by _______ (add name of other writer) is selling like hotcakes!
Unlike yours.
9. So, do you teach?
Because writing isn’t real work, and you can’t possibly be supporting yourself at it.
10 That story of MY LIFE - now THAT would make a good novel.
Unlike yours.

If we manage to push our way through the maddening din of the cultural pressure to abandon writing and put on a suit and tie, we immediately slam into the next major fear: Who am I that I should I art? 

Ah, yes. Self-doubt. Isn’t it true that I do not possess the skill/talent/education/cunning good looks of a true artist? Alas, I lack.

Well of course you lack. That’s why you art. Art isn’t about getting your poop in a group first and then approaching the craft from a God’s eye view of having accomplished something. Art is the journey. 

So we slog through and manage to create art. And guess what happens? Rejection. And not even real rejection. Rejection we conjure in our imaginations and somehow convince ourselves will absolutely happen if ever the art we’ve created is shared with the world/agent/publisher/editor/next door neighbour/Mom. 

Should we manage to leap over the fear of rejection fence (which we got over simply as a matter of repetition. We were rejected and rejected and found ourselves still living), we meet up with Fear Of Success, Otherwise known as Second Book Syndrome. 

Everyone gushes after a new author. Hopes are high! Then the book releases, your third cousin emails you that it wasn’t half bad, and Wow! You’ve got a contract for a second book. But what if your third cousin doesn’t like your second book as much as your first? No time to think about it now! You have a lifetime to write your first novel, and six months to write your second.

Now we’re really afraid. Writer’s block is our new best friend. We squeeze the words out as if from an empty toothpaste tube. We’re so close to the story that every word we write looks wrong. We stare at a word and it just looks weirder and weirder the longer we stare. We being to doubt that English is our Mother Tongue. Half way through the second novel we realize we don’t actually know how to write a book. 

We switch into auto-type, madly plastering the page with words, as many as we can think of as quickly as possible (and update our facebook page with our process: 25,000 words today and I blew out my keyboard!) even if the words come out in no particular order because 





Sure, having a deadline makes you look like a superstar on social media—Oh me, oh my! My fab editor is waiting on my manuscript. Tee hee—but the reality of deadlines is they suck the fun out of the creative process for many writers.

The only thing worse than a deadline is a lack of a deadline. This usually means we’re still steeped in the first couple of fears listed above. 

Here are some cures for your writer’s fear:
Realize that writing is work. Do the work. Don’t complain. I'm lucky enough to know Joy Jordan-Lake and call her friend. In a recent email discussion (we were talking about our fears as writers) she observed: “Writing is like home renovation alternating between sledgehammer and tweezers”

That's the secret. Do the work. 

Self confidence isn’t necessary, but gumption is. If your knees are shaking and you feel like you’re going to throw up, you’re probably doing the right thing.

Show up for work. Do what scares you. Face the fear. Then, do it some more. In time, you’ll find you’ve acquired the knowledge, skill, expertise, and mastery you feared you did not possess.


Megan Sayer said...

Well said, Bonnie! Bravo!

I've realised yet again recently that fear and doubt are luxuries that I just can't afford. I only have one life, and one day it'll end. I can either choose to push through and face the things that are scaring me and reach for my dreams, or I can give up dreaming and wait on the sidelines of life to die.
I've given up dreaming before. It's not pretty, and I don't want to do it again, and that only leaves one alternative: get up and do it.
Yes, quite often I think I must be crazy. Especially at the moment. But when it feels like I'm standing on the crumbling edge of a deep abyss looking at the land on the other side the best I can do is shut my eyes and jump.

Dina Sleiman said...

Bonnie wrote, "Now we’re really afraid. Writer’s block is our new best friend. We squeeze the words out as if from an empty toothpaste tube. We’re so close to the story that every word we write looks wrong."

That's exactly where I am. This is actually my fourth book, but the way my career has turned out, this is the first one I've written since the self-doubt hit. I wrote #2 before being published and #3 before the reality of being published set it. #4 is the first one I'm writing under the pressure and deadlines.

I know well that empty toothpaste feeling, although I think I actually told someone I feel like I'm having to squeeze out blood from my veins for every word. LOL.

Thanks for the encouragement, Bonnie. I will also say good critique partners help when you can't see straight anymore.

Ariel Lawhon said...

So amazingly, painfully true. Through the first draft of my most recent manuscript I wrote the following on a sticky note and stuck it next to my computer screen: "Just write the damn book."

Sometimes you have to give yourself a single command. One instruction to follow. And stubbornly follow it to the end.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes and thank you. I'm glad that, like pregnancy, the nausea is a sign that things are coming along the right way. This novel has me absolutely terrified. It is so different from Paint Chips, I fear, well, everything about the writing.

Thank you for this post. I feel inspired! Still a little afraid. But inspired still.

Patti Hill said...

Well, Bonnie, you certainly hit the nail on the head. Thanks for bringing the topic of fear to the bone. Love you for that.

Camille Eide said...

Thank you. Especially for sharing Margaret Atwood's handy reference chart listing writers' fears. I was only aware of a couple of them. Now I have more fears to add to my list.

Actually, I am comforted (in a demented way) by knowing my self-doubt and tremors are perfectly normal when I'm among other word-artists. Now, when I hear "WHAT made you think you could write? Quit now while you still can still fake an outer resemblance of sanity", it's followed up a lot sooner now with "HOW can you quit? This is all you want to do and you've poured so much time and sweat and passion into what you've been doing. Think of the kids! The ones you sent away to eat goldfish and licorice sticks for dinner so many times they've formed special relationships with all your neighbors. Think of all the sacrifices you AND others have made so you can pursue this. Quit? Not on your life."

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: It's true, there's no way around fear, it must be trod through. My experience has shown me that when I face my fear, it's much smaller than it appeared in my peripheral.

Dina: Congratulations on book four! And yes to the good partners--I would be hooped without my group of writers.

Ariel: I did the exact thing! Awesome! (Everyone, Ariel is one of the people who sets me straight when I'm writing on too steep a curve. She's amazing, smart, and sleep deprived. Her latest novel The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress hits shelves in February.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: And, like pregnancy, once it takes root, it must be seen through to the end. As you're working on your second, remember the journey is about discovering who you are as a writer. Lead yourself gently.

Patti: Mwah!

Camille: Fear is normal, yes, but it's too often the excuse we use to not follow through. Writing is a narrow path and giving our lives to it utterly means saying no to anything else that would distract us. That's a big first step that you've already taken. Keep going!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Oh, Bonnie, this is classic! Mwah!

Jennifer Major said...

Holy frijoles!! This is epic! I bookmarked this baby! I re-wrote, edited, tweaked, shook up and fixed Book One. Last week I was looking at Book Two and thinking...
Did you hear the crickets?
Yeah, me too.
I prayed and waited. And then out of the blue. BAM! Book Two told itself to me in my head.
And the best part? I'm even more terrified of messing up!!

Bonnie Grove said...

Sharon: Mwah!

Jennifer: Just give yourself time to write through the fear. Be certain of the terrible first draft, and keep going!

Cherry Odelberg said...

Bonnie, thank you for articulating - for reminding me that I am normal (as artists and writers go).
Megan is right, "I've given up dreaming before. It's not pretty, and I don't want to do it again, and that only leaves one alternative: get up and do it."

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Loved the videos! I want to share them widely. Thanks for talking about fear so accurately and passionately...doesn't feel like teeth at all.... (who else here is afraid of Bonnie's teeth?)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Brilliant, Bonnie!

Josey Bozzo said...

All I can say is.......thank you.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: "Normal" is relative, eh? ;)

Henrietta: No need to fear my teeth. Well. Maybe a little.

Karen: Thanks!

Josey: You're so welcome!