Fear & Writing: Get Over It Already
Earlier today while driving on the freeway, a black BMW passed me on the left. Out of the sunroof popped a young lady, no older than 17, holding her iPhone out for a selfie.
I smiled, endeared by her playfulness. But then my heart sank as I watched her prop herself up onto the roof of the BMW, which was motoring along at 65 mph. I was only able to breathe once she popped back down into the car, knowing she was finally safe.
After I cursed and said something to the effect of, these youngins - sounding like my late grandmother - a voice buried deep inside my mind said, But darling, remember when fear was what made you feel safe?
Voices in my head aside, it dawned on me that in my teen days there was something intoxicating about experiencing fear and coming out the other end unscathed.
Because beating fear feels powerful.
Feeling powerful provides an illusion of control.
And what teen human doesn't love control?
Somewhere along the way, fear gripped each of us and changed the course of our lives.
Writers hold fear in their fingers, brains too. Every single one of us, from the most successful to the writer just putting their first word down, feels its embrace. Separating our innate fears from our irrational fears is the line separating those who ‘do’ from those who never will.
Regardless where on the spectrum we fall, it’s time to get over it already.
It takes bravery to face fear. What would it feel like if bravery was the rule, and fear the exception? What if everyday you took control and chose bravery, felt empowered and looked fear straight in the face and said, checkmate?
Fear v. Fear of Failure
Fear may be as old as life on Earth. It is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence.
We know from the years of Discovery Channel shows we were forced to watch as a kid that fear is primal.
Fear digs deep into our coding to protect us. A sound in the night makes our ears perk up; a creepy dude staring at us at the DMV make our neck hairs stand on end; our guts flop when something doesn’t feel quite right.
Fear of Failure
The kind of fear to us writers that feels just as powerful as our natural-born primal fear. I like to call it FOF because that’s the sound you should make every time you come face to face with the fear of failure in your writing. Tell it to FOF off.
There is a clinical word for FOF, and it’s called Atychiphobia.
Phobia, by definition, is irrational. Nice positive part of that is that it can also be overcome.
Now I highly doubt you are thinking about your writing and phobias together in the same context. We don’t always have the ability to see outside ourselves, to examine and judge our own behaviors.
Not to mention we don’t say, I’m feeling scared of failing today, so I’m going to procrastinate until I feel better.
Fear of Failure Sounds Like:
I just haven’t had the time to finish the ending.
I’ll join a writing group once my writing gets better.
The moons have to perfectly align for me to feel inspired to write.
Once everything on my to-do list is done, then I can start writing.
You have to know people to get anywhere in publishing.
I can start writing once my kids are older and out of the house.
Fear of Failure Feels Like:
Because Fear of Failure is:
A waste of your time and energy
Unlike innate fear that serves to protect you, fear of failure clogs your mental space with negative thoughts and feelings until it manifests the very thing you were avoiding.
No wonder we don’t feel control over our destinies: because we are treating our irrational fears as though they are innate, and thus we give them power they don’t deserve.
Fear as a Part of Life
Not every writer has a fear of failure, but every person has an irrational fear. And we all deal with it in our own way. Fear is a part of life in one way or the other. But you know what? Spiders are a part of life whether we like it or not, but we can’t let spiders make life choices for us.
We combat fear with the small decisions we make each day. For example, we may choose to deal with Arachnophobia by placing a cup over a spider and either:
Walk away in denial
Wait for someone else to deal with it
Wait for it to die
How many moments have you stared at the blank page, felt the fear rising, and then chose to:
Place a cup over it and walk away
Waited until your fear died down
Waited for others to take care of it (validation)
A simple solution could be to take the cup outside and let the spider safely free, then move on with life. Address your fear. Look straight in its beady, black eyes and call a spider, a spider.
Then tell it to get the eff out of your house.
Guys, I’m really going all-in on this spider analogy.
But the simple solutions to combat fear of failure aren’t always so simple or easy. Our gut instinct is to deal with fear as though it’s an immediate threat, and thus we don’t always take the time to look and listen to our irrational behaviors.
So, friends, lend me your ears.
Listen to yourself
In my previous office job, I befriended a team member after learning that he loved to read and write fantasy genre. It was exciting to have a fellow fiction writer around!
But then I noticed a trend.
Over the 3.5 years we worked together, he constantly (daily!) lamented about how the only way to be a writer was to make money off of it. And the only way to make money off your writing was to marry writing romance genre with a stroke of luck.
Sad to see a fellow writer not writing because of wacky expectations, I’d invite him to my Friday writing sessions at lunch. I’d invite him to join the Horrible Writing ABC, the So You Want To Be A Writer Furious Fiction challenge, and, of course, my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) support group.
He declined each and every invitation claiming, He had some ideas, but, wasn’t quite ready.
He was right. He wasn’t ready. Because, instead of writing, he only wanted to talk about:
The injustices of the publishing world that prevented him from being a writer
How tech writing all day in the office didn't allow his brain to write fiction
How he’d be able to write if he could only travel to a Scotland writing convention
The ins and outs of the publishing industry (which is great if you’ve written something)
Guys, I felt bad for the guy. I did! Until I didn’t anymore.
Fear dripped from each and every one of his excuses. Although my empathy inside ached for him, it was a big fat downer.
But here’s the thing. If you notice and hear the fearful excuses your writing peers make, then you are ready to begin to hear them in yourself. Just listen.
But I have aging parents to care for, I’m so busy!
I’m a single mother and work all the time, I’m so busy!
My dog eats my manuscript every time I try and submit it to an agent, but also, I’m busy!
Or, you say, You just don’t get it.
I probably don’t get it. Heck, I don’t know your life!
But here’s what I do get: when my children were one and four years old I unexpectedly became an insta-single mother with less than $200 in my pocket and nowhere to live.
Once I’d gotten me and my children into a crappy little flea-ridden apartment, I slept on my living room floor because:
The children needed the one bedroom
I didn’t have a bed
For the next 4 years, I worked three part-time jobs while in full-time college. I slept in my car on lunch breaks and in-between classes.
And then, in my last year of college, I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and went through an intensive, soul-crushing therapy that left me feeling left for dead in the summer of 2014 before my treatment was complete.
Friends, I didn’t have any time, or the headspace, to be afraid of writing. And, in hindsight, thank-freaking-goodness for that.
Because, if I’d let fear cripple me, I wouldn’t have been able to leave the bad situation I was in, take care of my children, graduate with honors, publish my first pieces of writing, meet the love of my life, start a writing business, and live in a beautiful house.
My circumstances were and are different than yours. But what I’m trying to say is, I hear you.
Before my rock bottom came, I had time to write. But I used every excuse in the proverbial book to avoid it because I was afraid.
I was afraid of failing as a writer, that my husband would look down at me more than he already did, that my hanging-by-a-thread family would laugh at me and my writerly dreams, that my friends wouldn't be my friends anymore if they knew the rubbish I wrote.
I was so afraid that I burned and deleted everything I ever ended up writing over a seven year period.
So what was the difference? How could a person go from having the time to write but be too afraid to write, to having zero time to write but thrived anyway?
It took a threat to the survival of my core identity for me to get my shit together by busting through my fear of failure and be the person I was meant to become. The excuses had to go.
My head and mind were taken out of the equation because they were focused on other things. All I was left with was my heart. And my heart has always belonged to writing.
The good news is this: no one needs to hit rock bottom or be in the worst, darkest moments of their lives to learn how to achieve their dreams.
Read the above example excuses again. Have you heard those from someone you know? What excuses have you heard within yourself, whether you’ve voiced them or not? What would it feel like to fearlessly write with your heart instead of your bogged down mind?
How To Get Over It
Ok, so you’re afraid. You’re afraid of being seen as a fraud, that your family will disown you, that your friends will laugh at you, that your partner will look at you differently.
Shout it. Scream it. Feel it reverberate in your soul. Say it until you laugh, until you cry, until you punch a pillow.
And then get over it.
Whoa- hold up, Renzee. I’m just supposed to get over this fear I’ve been carrying around for the bulk of my life?
Because until something changes, until you change, your life will continue on a revolving carousel of excuses and a self-loathing perpetual cycle of I want to write, I chose not to write.
Doesn’t that sound icky? Don’t be icky. Be brave.
But how do you be brave when you are so fearful?
You’ve already begun to find bravery by admitting that your excuses for not achieving your writing dreams are crap. You will continue to find bravery by actively participating in making your writing a priority.
You are the average of the people you surround yourself with.
Think about the five people you surround yourself with most often. What kind of people are they? Are they supportive, smart, ignorant, flaky, and/or jerks? Your growth as a person is reflected in the people of your life.
Stop surrounding yourself with faux writers who only gab about all their excuses as to why they can’t write, just so you can feel better about the reasons you chose not to write (assuming you’ve done that self-examination I spoke of earlier).
Whether you realize it or not, you have ample control over who is (and isn’t) in your life. Does that mean you need to start going around disowning family and friends who aren’t the most supportive of people? Probably not.
Amplify the amount of supportive people in your life, so much so, that the non-supportive people noise will be drowned out.
Find Several Support Groups
Sign up for a free MeetUp account and look for local writer groups
Sign up for NaNoWriMo even if you’re not sure if you’ll participate: the writerly support forums are out of this world
Join the Horrible Writer’s Facebook Group for an ultimate writer family
Thank writers for their support
Offer your own words of support
Get excited with your writerly peers and show enthusiasm
Engage in, or better yet, create group writing opportunities (such as a word sprint)
Comment on fellow writer blog posts
Look for opportunities to become a beta reader
Write reviews for writerly podcasts you support
Find trust and send your work to a beta reader
Once you become immersed in a supportive world you will find peace and encouragement. You will find camaraderie.
If you actively engage enough in your support groups, giving as well as accepting, your fear of failure will dissipate immensely. Why? Because you are on a journey with like-minded people who also don’t want to make excuses or be controlled by fear.
And finally, don’t try and make the non-supportive people in your life supportive. They will only disappoint and hurt you. Accept who they are and their place in your life, but find your support in those who are more than eager to give it to you.
CREATE A PLAN
Because any given writing goal is tied to our fear of failure, it is imperative that you create a plan for yourself that involves super tiny tasks leading you to the ultimate goal.
I’m talkin’ tiny.
So tiny that the task at hand is not obviously tied to some large goal. If trying to complete a task triggers your fear of failure because it reminds you of this big fat dream at stake, you will crumble and get nowhere.
For example: you’ve had this dream to write a novel. So you’ve decided to stop with the excuses and just make writing that damn novel a priority. You enter Write Novel in your planner every day at noon.
Then, at noon when you sit down to write, you freak the freak out.
How the heck are you supposed to just sit down and write an entire novel??
Even if you are aware that, of course, you must write an entire novel to complete the goal, it’s the triggering of our dear friend FOF that’s the roadblock - not the actual goal itself.
Enter tiny goals.
First, make yourself a 12-Step Staircase Plan.
Write your ultimate goal at the top (step 12) of a staircase (for example, write a novel)
At the bottom of the staircase (step 1), write where you stand currently (you have an idea, but nothing yet written)
On steps 3, 5, 7, and 9, write benchmark goals that will lead you to that ultimate goal (such as outline, ACT I, ACT II, and ACT III)
Fill in steps 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 11 with small goals (such as chapter 1, chapter 2, etc.)
On each small goal step, bullet point teeny tiny tasks required to complete that step (such as list out scenes in a chapter)
If you find yourself working on one scene at a time and your FOF is still being triggered, break the step down further. Maybe right now all you can focus on is the next paragraph. Maybe the next sentence.
Over time, you will create a habit of just doing the work which takes the thinking out of it. You are then writing with your heart.
Check off your tasks as you complete them. Once you reach a benchmark, celebrate for Pete’s sakes! Acknowledge your bravery and accomplishments.
And feel gosh-darned good about it.
Loving yourself means not accepting your own bull-shit. By being honest with yourself and coming into awareness by owning up to your excuses, you are loving yourself.
This is a wonderful place to be.
Because once you’ve seen the truth of your behaviors triggered by FOF, you can’t unsee them. Coming into awareness is truly the hardest (and often longest) part of the process.
You cannot know every future barrier that may pop its ugly lil’ head up. But know that whatever barrier does present itself, you will have the guts to deal with it head on. Remember, you’ve already looked FOF square in its black, beady little eyes.
Be honest. Find your inner fearless child. Become the 17 year old hanging out the sunroof.
Take tiny steps. Trust yourself. Deal with barriers as they come. And love yourself along the way.
Be. Fucking. Brave.
Renzee Lee is an obsessive bibliophile and millennial mama of two precocious pre-teens from Oregon. She built and maintains her website www.countyourwords.com to encourage, support, and coach creatives toward achieving their goals.