All writers are afraid of something at one point or another.
We are afraid of looking foolish; we are afraid of rejection; we are afraid of overreaching, of not knowing how, of getting it wrong, of not being good enough. We’re afraid of being broke, being taken advantage of, being stuck with something that turns out to be a bad deal. We’re afraid that the idea that seemed so brilliant a week or a month or a year ago is not brilliant at all, only nobody is quite willing to say so. We’re afraid that in choosing to write this story, we’re letting a much better one get away.
Fear is paralyzing. It affects everything: creativity, the mechanics of planning and working and sending things out, even the simple enjoyment of telling a story you really want to tell. Everything is suspended, like hitting a permanent “pause” button on life, because as long as one doesn’t move, none of the things one is afraid of can possibly happen.
But fear is a natural part of doing anything new. Everybody is nervous the first time they exercise a new skill, and triply so if they’re doing it in public. What a lot of folks don’t take into consideration is that for writers, every book is a new thing. Yes, we develop skills over the years, but they’re always being applied to a new story. “You’re only as good as your latest book” is an industry truism, and it’s just as scary a thought for bestselling veterans as it is for struggling mid-list writers and beginners.
I think that a lot of the problem stems from the difficulty of the balancing act all writers face. On the one hand, one must believe in the value and quality of one’s work, else one would never send it out. On the other hand, one must believe that there is room for improvement, or one will never get any better. It’s a teeter-totter, and when it gets out of whack, it’s all too easy to end up in a frozen panic.
The other problem is that writers have a difficult time trusting themselves. We know that the stuff we turn out isn’t perfect; if we didn’t realize that to begin with, our crit groups and friends and editors would straighten us out in a big hurry. We have to know that it’s not going to be perfect and do it anyway. And every so often, the teeter-totter tips and the fear goes up and we stop.
Getting past the fear happens in different ways for different writers at different times. I think the key is to recognize it and admit what’s going on. It’s a lot harder to make excuses about not writing when you’ve taken a long, hard look at yourself and admitted that really, you’re just scared to mess up. Support from friends is vital – the sort of friends who won’t simply dismiss the problem.
Experience helps, too. The first time I had to redo seven chapters of a manuscript, it took me a solid year (after I figured out that was what I needed to do) to sit down and start ripping the manuscript apart, because I was afraid that whatever I came up with instead was going to be even worse than what I already had. The second time, it took me a bit over eight months. The third time, it took about two weeks, and the enormous reduction in elapsed time was due entirely to the fact that I recognized the situation and the feeling, so that I could roll my eyes at myself and decide that it would be silly to waste all that time when I knew what I had to do, and that I was eventually going to do it.
Taking small steps, or even just zooming in on the details, can make a big difference. Yes, I’m afraid my novel won’t be any good, but right now, I just have to think about this one scene, this one paragraph, this one sentence. And then the next sentence…but not until I get to the next sentence.
Which is another part of the trick: setting the future aside. Because the future is what fear is all about – all the horrible things that might happen, that we might not be able to handle if and when they do. Some of them are inevitable – death, taxes, rejection – and there’s no point in worrying about what you can’t keep from happening. Other fears are phantoms. But the only thing any of us can actually do anything about is whatever we’re doing right now this minute.
Not writing a sentence because I’m afraid my novel will end up being terrible, I’ll look foolish, I’ll be rejected…well, that seems like an awful lot to load onto one measly sentence. Sometimes, it really is better to look at the small picture for a little while.