Writing fears suck, don’t they? If you’re a writer, you have them, no matter where you are in your career. Yet writing fears are especially ominous when you’re first starting out. The endless loop of:
- What if I’m not good enough?
- What if people hate my book?
- What if someone gets hurt by my book?
- What if people write horrible reviews?
- What if what I think is good is just crap?
- and on it goes.
I can fully relate. I didn’t start my writing career until my forties (I’m 55 now) for many of those same reasons. I also didn’t know how to start — what’s the proper, right way to start? To publish? To market? It’s overwhelming for someone just starting out, especially if that someone is super process-oriented like me.
Are These Fears Valid?
Of course, they are. All feelings are valid, even if they aren’t always logical (like toddlers in the sandbox, thinking and feeling don’t always get along).
For more on this, here’s an article you might find helpful from Scribed Media: 6 Writing Fears and How to Beat Them.
I work with many writers (as both a survivor and advocate, as well as in my BadRedhead Media business) who don’t give themselves permission to write because of these fears. Here’s what helped me — and it’s so simple it’s almost stupid. A quote. One quote. I’m almost embarrassed to share how enormous an effect that one little quote had on me; how it freed me from my mental fear prison, yet it did.
From Lorrie Moore, author and professor, via a widely quoted interview in Elle Magazine
“Compared with her students, who are often still deeply involved with their parents, Moore says she had a more formal, old-fashioned relationship with hers — which helped her make the “romantic and bloody-minded” decision to commit wholly to her art when she started writing seriously in college.
“The only really good piece of advice I have for my students is, `Write something you’d never show your mother or father.’ And you know what they say?” she says, wide-eyed with disbelief.” `I could never do that!’”.
That’s it. I wasn’t even a college student — I was a full-grown adult with my own kids. There I sat with a pen and paper (okay, computer laptop) on my desk, journals at the side, ready to write about uncomfortable truths. Sexual topics. Surviving sexual abuse, sexual interactions with past lovers, relationships, PTSD, triggers, and other ‘things’ you don’t typically talk to your own parents about.
And I thought: Geez, Rach. You’re forty-fucking years old. Stop thinking about what other people will think (Nonfiction Writing 101: You cannot know what someone else thinks — only what you think). So, I went for it.
You’re an adult. Write like one.
And with that, I started to write my first memoir/poetry book, Broken Pieces.
Drawer Of Fears
Take a piece of paper (I suggest a page in your journal or in your online notepad). Write down your list of writing fears. Write down everything you’re afraid of, whether it’s based in reality or sounds like something full of magical fairy dust. Whatever it is, write it down. Pages and pages, or three little bullet points. Whatever.
Okay? When you’re done, come on back. Oh, be sure to print out what we’ll call your Page Of Fears.
Good, you’re back. Now take that piece of paper with all your fears and put it away in your Drawer of Fears. Make sure that drawer has a lock (or needs a password). Physically give them a kiss, and tell them goodbye.
Don’t worry! They’ll still be there. You can visit them anytime you want to. However, for now, I want you to know that you have cleared them from your mind and body. Kinda like burning sage but without the burning. Or the sage.
Writers cannot write around clutter. It’s a known fact.
Let Go Of Your Perfection Fears
Your first draft is where you start. Your first draft of whatever it is that you want to write. You may not even know and that’s okay.
This stumped me at first. And when I say stumped, I mean I did not move from the doing anything about with my writing stage for years. Where do I start? How do I structure my writing? Don’t professional writers have official outlines and plots and characters with histories and plots all devised, etc?
Well, sure, some do. However, some don’t. Plotters vs. Pantsers, etc.
This entire thought process alone sent me into Analysis Paralysis. What’s the right way?
As a creative nonfiction writer, I didn’t know how I wanted to format my writing. I did kinda sorta know my thematic structure (which, by the way, completely changed after my first professional developmental edit). I also knew I planned to work with a structural (aka, developmental) editor, so I took that fear (see point number two) of how to make it “perfect” in the end, put that in my Drawer of Fear, and wrote what I refer to as my word vomit.
Just Start Writing
Nobody will see what you are writing unless you want them to. I repeat: nobody will see what you’re writing unless you want them to. It could take you a month, a year, or several years before you reach the point where your writing is in publishable condition.
Your ‘shitty first draft’ needs to be free-flowing, non-self-edited crapadoodle. You hear me, you little perfectionistic drones? Give yourself permission to purge your words.
It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to make any sense which, honestly, is why journaling is so great. It’s a wonderful mental purge and can be a great stepping-off point to your writing. (Need help getting started? Visit the fabulous Leigh Shulman. She’s got a free plan for you.)
Your first draft is not even your dress-rehearsal. It’s more like…practice. It’s just a draft of a draft. It could take 30 or 50 or 100 or 300 drafts before it becomes a book.
Then you keep at it. Writing isn’t a walk in the park. It’s work. It’s a job. It’s a career if you decide to make it one and you’re good at it. And you work hard to become a better writer. Whether you believe in the 10,000 hours concept or the old ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice,’ joke — either way, the only way to become a better writer is to learn how to become a better writer.
How did I get better? Even though I took a number of classes growing up (in high school and college, with a Journalism minor), I didn’t feel that prepared me for how I wanted to write now. So, I read a ton of creative nonfiction books (some of my favorites are below) in the style that appealed to me, and some that didn’t. I took online classes that helped me improve my writing. I went to readings by writers I admired (most are free or cost the price of the book).
And I wrote. A lot. Online pubs (Huffington Post when they still had editors and not everyone and my cat could write for them), magazine articles, submitting to journals (oh, the many rejection letters or the deign of no reply at all. Sigh.), guest blogging, short stories, poetry, two humor books I released and then pulled (that’s another post).
And I continued journaling (as I had since I was a kid). I began blogging on my own site in 2008. Blogging absolutely makes you a better writer and I’ll fight anybody who says otherwise. Rawr.
Investing in myself helped me get over my fears. To face my fears. To crush my fears.
Don’t Forget About Your Fears Completely
Everything I mentioned above took time. I’m into year…eleven-ish of my professional writing career at this point. Year seven since releasing my first book.
Just about every writer I’ve ever met wants their first book to be a massive bestseller right away, pay off all their bills with the royalties, sit on Oprah’s couch because of it, and have everyone reading it on the train, a la Fifty Shades.
That’s all great. How are you going to make that happen?
Have realistic expectations. Have a plan. Write the most fantastic, professional book you can. Work with professionals if you self-pub. Figure out what you don’t know about not only writing but also marketing and publishing, and then learn.
Above anything else, deal with your fears. They’ll still be in that drawer, waiting for you. Just like trauma, your fears don’t magically disappear because you’ve set them aside. They’ll pop up like that whack-a-mole game, except now you’ll have experience and time to hit them back with.
And yet…I don’t recommend hitting your fears back like an enemy. Change that paradigm. Make friends with them. How can your fears help you? What is it about a specific fear that’s got you so wound up?
Sometimes, it’s what we fear most that motivates us.
Just as I discuss how I made friends with Shame in my fourth book, Broken Places, do the same with your Page of Fears. Make your fear work for you so you can become the writer you want to be. You’ve lived through so much, writer friends! You can absolutely write about it.
I know you have it in you.
Here is a list of my personal favorite creative nonfiction books (disclosure: affiliate links provided).* I also recommend reading short stories by Raymond Carver. He’s a master storyteller.**Note: These are not books about writing creative nonfiction. That’s a future post.
Calypso by David Sedaris
Night by Elie Wiesel
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro
Rachel is the author of 6 nonfiction books so far (2 humor, 2 memoir/poetry, and 2 business books helping authors). She’s releasing 2 more this year.
Connect with Rachel on her personal site at RachelintheOC.com or on her business site at BadRedheadMedia.com, Twitter at @RachelintheOC or @BadRedheadMedia, Instagram, Facebook, and join her free weekly #SexAbuseChat on Twitter every Tuesday 6pm pst/9pm est or #BookMarketingChat on Twitter every Wednesday 6 pm pst/9 pm est (just use the hashtag to join).
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