The Biggest Hurdle Writers Face
Crossing the line and converting personal experience to fictional writing is a paralyzing fear, but why?
I’m going to be honest. I call myself a writer, but I’m not really.
Sure, I’ve spent years writing on my various blogs and crafting random short stories and tidbits of ideas, but I’m not a published author and I’ve sold all of one article in my life to a magazine… and that was an article about photography.
Does the lack of being a “published author” mean I’m not a writer?
That’s just another label, isn’t it? A label and a box constructed by the ever nebulous ones we refer to as “they or them”. As in “they say that to call yourself a writer you need to have been published”.
But who are “they” to tell me anything about myself?
No, I’m not a writer because there is one threshold that I have yet to cross. A threshold at the precipice of a cliff so tall and steep that I’m terrified of what might happen if I leap.
I can’t see the bottom, have no idea where I’ll land.
It’s a line in the sand there is no coming back from once crossed. And as I stare into the vast blackness of uncertainty, my fear of what might happen if I cross that line fills me with dread.
What waits for me in that vast unknown is fear. At the edge of that cliff reads a sign that reads:
“Beyond this point, personal experiences are on full display. Enter at your own risk!”
I’ve lived more than 40 years on this Earth, a lifetime of experiences is at my fingertips waiting to inspire the next story or the next article. Waiting to become the next photo essay or the next podcast episode or show… yet they remain untouched. Hidden from view.
Sure, I have let some of the safe and tame experiences bleed into my writing at times. But until recently, I’ve never been brave enough to take any inspiration from those deepest, darkest wells of experience.
You know the ones I’m talking about… the GOOD stuff.
Sadly, those remain locked away and hidden from view. Until recently, that is.
I’ll share my thoughts on WHY I think this is one of the biggest hurdles for any writer, really for any creative, in just a moment. But first, let’s look at how I’m finding a way to move past this dreadful cliff edge and the abyss beyond.
Without getting into too many details, because I don’t want this to sound like an ad or promotion for this project I’ve been pouring myself into, I have spent the last few months taking those first steps into that unknown.
Like most of us, we have a long history of family folklore that to an outsider sounds ridiculous. Small snippets of stories that were never really fleshed out, yet when anyone in the family mentions them EVERYONE knows what they are talking about.
I decided a few months back that I wanted to tell these stories, even though there were little more than a few lines there to begin with. So I decided to write an audio-drama-style podcast featuring original fiction based on these old family tales.
Naturally, I had to create fully fleshed-out stories because these tales had no real depth on their own.
So I began the process of taking that small idea, that small personal experience and history, and converting it to a completely fictional and fully fleshed out story. Well, five stories.
I’m taking one story at a time and creating a full season of episodes, telling these old family stories with my own creative twist.
And it terrifies me.
Sure, there are the same old fears any creative faces as they create and release something to the world. Will it be good enough? Will people like it? What will they think?
The fear of judgment.
We ALL face that, regardless of if we are adding personal experience to our creation or not.
However, when we DO take a chance and add that personal experience, suddenly it’s not just what we created that is being judged.
Now WE are on trial in the court of public opinion because it’s our stories, our experiences, our… well our potential weirdness… that is on full display. And if people react negatively to that it is much harder to not take that personally.
Sure you can always claim you “just pulled it all out of thin air” and made it all up, but anyone that knows you will likely call your bluff.
Making you a weirdo AND a liar.
Nobody wants to feel that way, myself included.
This is why it’s so incredibly difficult to add that deep, dark, and hidden personal experience into our writing.
What if we write something and people we know read it and then begin to worry that we are seriously disturbed or mentally unstable.
I’ve often wondered what those closest to authors like Stephen King thought the first time he shared some of his amazing horror writing and they noticed those personal experiences being fictionalized and blended in. Were they amazed by the fantastic storytelling or mortified that their little Stephen had such dark and twisted thoughts?
Either way, he took that plunge.
He had stories begging to be told, so he told them.
I’m not that confident. Maybe the stories I’ve been bottling up just haven’t been as vocal in my head, begging to be told. Or maybe I’ve just been too chicken to try.
But with my new podcast project, the stories bubbled up and demanded attention.
I don’t know how they will be received. I’m terrified that people will hear the dark places these stories go and the next family gathering will be spent answering questions about if I’m ok.
The stories needed to be told, though, so I’ve decided to put in the work and pull those dark experiences and use them to tell these stories.
So what is the “secret” to conquering that crippling fear of leaping into the unknown, sharing those deeply personal thoughts and experiences?
There isn’t one.
Only the well-worn cliché of “just doing it”.
I wrote an article a short while back about why it’s important to avoid simply writing what you know, instead opting to push yourself to learn new things so you can grow as a writer. I shared how writing what you know is you staying nice and cozy inside your comfort zone, never venturing out and as such, never really growing and finding your voice as a writer.
Taking this plunge is much the same. We all know how far outside of our natural comfort zone putting ourselves out there can be. Feeling exposed and vulnerable has to be the polar opposite to nice and cozy comfort zones.
That’s why taking that plunge fills writers with paralyzing fear.
But it doesn’t need to.
I won’t tell you to dig down deep, find that darkest inner-most secret you’ve kept buried your whole life, and turn it into a story as step one. That would be a disaster for everyone involved.
What I WILL tell you is to ease into it. What you’ll find is what you THINK is this enormous cliff with a staggering drop into the abyss, is a steep staircase leading forward.
The first few steps feel like you are descending, but you’ll find they level off and start to climb rather quickly.
Don’t dive to the center of all of your fears and expect to have the story flow out of you like a fire hose. Instead, push just inside the boundary of what is comfortable. Find those stories that you’ve kept hidden by and large, yet small groups of friends know about them. Look for the experiences that lead you out of the comfort zone and begin to push into the deeper forest of your mind.
Those stories hold less downside, less risk, for you as the author. When people see these experiences fictionalized they may not even realize they are based on your reality. They’ll just connect a little more as you find your comfort zone growing, as you unlock more of your true voice.
The change won’t be drastic or stark. You can ease into it and find the path deeper at your own pace.
As long as you continue to push forward, you’ll continue to grow and it WILL become easier and more comfortable to draw off of those hidden secrets at the bottom of that abyss you’ve been hiding.
And before you know it you’ll have your freak flag flying at full mast, you’ll tell the stories you NEED to tell, and you’ll have conquered one of the biggest fears we face as writers.
Most importantly, when you get there you… and I… can have no problem calling ourselves a writer.