Love of the Writing Craft

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Love of the Craft Q & A

Taking Command of the Greatest Power in Your Life

How to overcome your fears surrounding writing.

By Writing Coach David Duggins | Posted February 20, 2007 | Updated August 3, 2019

Q. I remember attending young author's conferences as a child — writing and writing until my hand throbbed and there were no more words in my head. I remember these things from late elementary school — and now it's almost as if I'm scared to write. Afraid the words won't be good enough. Afraid I've got nothing really at all to say. When I do write, I don't share it w/anyone anymore. My question is — what to do with this fear?

A. Thanks so much for your question — and thanks also for sharing your vulnerability. It takes a lot of courage to admit you're in a scary place.

To get back on the road to good creative health, we need to bring about a shift your mindset about writing. You say you're afraid your words won't be good enough, that you don't have anything to say. So there's a heavy-handed, judgmental voice in your head that's telling you that you're not good enough and you don't have anything to say.

I know that voice. It's called the censor. We all have it. It interrupts things, imposes limits — usually qualitative limits, i.e. "this is not good enough."

We don't want to get rid of the censor completely, because we'll need him later, during the refining and redrafting process. But we want to shut him up for now. The two easiest ways to do this are speed and volume: write so fast the censor can't catch up, or you write so much the censor doesn't have time to evaluate it all. Speed is a good way to start. Some call it freewriting; others, burst-writing. Same principle either way.

Try this exercise:

Take out a single sheet of notebook paper. If it's spiral-bound, rip it out of the notebook. You don't need it in your notebook because you're not going to keep it.

Get a stopwatch or egg timer and set it for two minutes. Start the timer and immediately get your pen moving.

Write until the timer goes off. Don't think. Don't hesitate. Just write. Whatever comes off the top of your head. It doesn't have to be logical. It doesn't even have to be coherent. If all you do is write I can't think of anything to write over and over again, then that is what you write. The objective of the exercise is only to keep the pen moving.

When your two minutes are up, stop. Don't even finish your sentence. Just put the pen down.

Now. This is very important: DO NOT GO BACK AND READ WHAT YOU JUST WROTE.

You may be tempted. Perhaps there was a nugget of something, a bit of wisdom you captured that you'd like to keep. A flash of brilliant inspiration.

It doesn't matter. Don't give in. Don't reread it.

Now crumple the paper up into a little ball and toss it into the nearest waste basket.

Was that hard? I'm betting it was. I'll bet it was either a) difficult to think of something to write, or b) difficult to throw the paper away without reading it.

If you got to a certain point and you couldn't complete the exercise, don't worry about it. It is not a failure. If you stopped short of two minutes, no big deal. That's not failure, either. You didn't kill anybody. If you couldn't throw the paper away, it's okay. Nobody's going to put you in jail for holding on to your writing exercises (even if your coach told you to ditch them). I won't even make you run laps or do pushups.

Once more, just to be sure you're getting me: You did not fail. You have words on paper. That is success.

It's not life or death. The only thing that might prove to be life or death is not writing.

If it didn't happen for you the first time, try it again. Try three times, then let it go for the day. If you still have ground to cover, try again tomorrow. Keep trying until you can burst-write for two minutes and toss what you've written into the trash without worrying about it.

This exercise works on a couple of things that writers often grapple with. The first is the feeling that every word you write is sacred, and must therefore be perfect. The second is that you don't have enough words to last. You have to save everything you write because you never know when you might dry up completely.

These are myths. You will never run out of words. Words are your stock and trade. There will always be more words, more ideas, more stories, poems, books. Always. As you grow and change, your writing will grow and change, keeping pace with your life's progress. Your words will change, too, but there will always be words.

Believing that you don't have enough words is called scarcity thinking. Understanding that you will always have enough words is abundance thinking. Scarcity is the myth. Abundance is the truth. Abundance is the natural state for creativity. We are all creative. There's plenty to go around. Creativity is energy. All humans possess it in unlimited supply. As Miyagi says in The Karate Kid: "nature's rule, Daniel-san. Not mine."

Your words will not be perfect. Even published novels are not perfect. Does that sound like bad news? It's not. It's great news, fantastic news. Words are not meant to be perfect. Words are an attempt to capture a snapshot of a world in flux. What is perfect now will become imperfect as you gain skill and confidence. I can't even read my old stories anymore. I've moved on.

You're putting yourself under a lot of pressure to come up with great words, profound statements. There is no pressure. This is not a performance gig. All writing is good writing. All words are good words. They are the right words for right now, for this moment. At any time, for any reason, they can be changed. Rewritten. Polished. Reformed.

If you're not showing your work to people at the moment, that's fine — as long as you are still writing. We all need to go underground sometimes, to write raw and rough and only for ourselves. I have notebooks full of writings that no one will ever see. Those notebooks often led to stories that people do see, but not always. Sometimes they were just practice. Practice is not only good, positive and affirmative; it is necessary. Carpenters don't begin their apprenticeships by building a house.

I do a lot of journaling in between projects. Journaling is great because there's no pressure at all; you just throw your feelings and ideas on the page. If it's messy and you want to leave it, you just leave it. No one judges or makes assumptions. I "road-test" a lot of story ideas in my journal, mapping things out. Sometime I scoop sections out of the journal and into a manuscript. A lot of the time I just whine about my day job, the bad weather, neighbors getting on my nerves. From that raw stuff we pull stories.

Again, the best way to change your mindset about writing is through writing. There's another exercise you can try involving a technique called affirmation, which I've written about on my website (see Lighting the Lamp).

My suggestions may seem counterintuitive, but give it a whirl. You may have some resistance at first, but the exercises will be productive, and will quickly get you back behind the pen again.

So: what to do with all that fear? Write it out of your life. This is not an empty platitude, the equivalent of "face your fear and overcome it." You're a writer. It's what you do. You could no more stop writing than you could stop breathing.

It's about more than facing your fear, overcoming your reluctance. It's about taking command of the greatest power in your life and using it to your benefit.

It's about healing yourself. Thousands before you have used the written word to return to good creative health. You can, too.

©2007 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

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