The Fear Factor


“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. . . . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.” – Stephen King

Up in a balloonFear shows up in a number of ways, and hits each of use differently. It shows up a lot in the only workshops I teach.

It shows up in excuses (I’m too old, I’m too busy, I won’t try this because I don’t understand).

It shows up in procrastination (I’ll catch up later, I’ll try the exercises after the class on my own).

It shows up in perfectionism (I’m awful because I didn’t do this right, I failed, I suck, I’m stupid).

It shows up in a refusal to try new things (I’ll post this old story bit instead of writing anything new).

And I can see it every single time. Then we have the brave souls who face their fears dive in and fall on their faces. I applaud that. Because they’re learning. Which is the point of a workshop. It’s supposed to be a safe place to try things, to experiment. Instead, I see so many writers who are afraid to spread their wings—as if one mistake is going to be a disaster.

Folks—we learn from our mistakes. Go out and make more of them.

I am amazed how many people resist this idea. They want to be praised. That’s not good. That’s not going to help you learn. What does help is the rewrite and the revision and the experiment. Try something new. Write a scene. Then rewrite it from a different viewpoint. Just because. Throw stuff out there. Try something in first person if you’ve never done first person. Or in present tense. Just try it out. Tell yourself that:

a) it doesn’t have to be perfect

b) it doesn’t have to be good

c) it can actually be really awful

Just let it be what it’s going to be. Then read (aloud so you catch what you’ve really done) what you’ve written and look at what you can learn from what you did. Look at what works. Look at what doesn’t work. Keep the good stuff.

This happens when I cook, too. I’ve made some awful things—I once put too much baking soda into my gingersnaps. They came out Alka-seltzer hockey pucks—hard and fizzy if you chewed on one. Great for your digestion (if you needed it), and not something anyone would eat (not even the horses would go for them, despite the sugar on the outside). Learned a great lesson on baking soda from that one.

Same applies to my writing. I’ve written awful scenes (and I expect I’ll keep doing that). Sometimes the dialogue clunks like a flat tire. I’ve tried first person, third, second, even. Present tense, past tense—it’s all about stretching those writing muscles and trying new things. You don’t know what really works until you’ve tried it.

I’ve written books that are not for everyone (go read the reviews)—sometimes folks hate my character (hey, it’s better than indifference). And I worry about all of it. I still get the nerves going and I still wonder if I’m any good at any this—no amount of praise ever takes that worry away.

The point of this is you’re never going to get over your fear.

Live with it. Know it’s there. Let it flow into you and out of you again and go write anyway. Use the fear—let it keep you sharp. Let go, too, of the affectations that King talks about—which means get out of the way of your characters. Let them tell you their story and stop pushing them into plots that don’t work. Stop being so damn writerly and just get clean words onto the page.

And if you need more good words from Stephen King buy his book On Writing: Memoirs of a Writing Career. Or read more at: http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/StephenKingWriting.htm

(First published at https://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com.)

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5 thoughts on “The Fear Factor

  1. Good words, Shannon. One of my heroes, Anne Lamott, offers similar advice — write awful first drafts! Just do it, write it, no matter how awful, first drafts are meant to be awful, they’re suppose to be awful! But it’s better than the blank page staring at you with that dreadful sound in your head telling you what a loser you are for thinking you’re a writer. Get it on paper, then rewriting is writing!

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