By Deborah L. Brewer
Writers know it’s hard to materialize a phantasm into words that fully express all it means to us. It’s not merely clarifying our thoughts that proves difficult; it’s facing our feelings. The dream about being naked on a school bus and the story about the emperor’s invisible new clothes might well be metaphors for authors as they share their work. Fiction writing is scary, not only because of the specter of being branded a poor communicator with nothing to say but also because good fiction requires the exposure of our hearts.
There is a measure of safety in a verbal apology or appeal. We can change our tone, pacing, and content to suit our audience. But once we’ve written words and sent them out into the world, we’re accountable for what we’ve written forever. There are words suitable for a group email and those that are better said in person, privately, and unrecorded. Sadly, for timid and reticent writers, the latter makes for far more interesting books. We writers long to be known and accepted but fear we might be mocked and rejected instead.
Writing powerful fiction requires us to dig deep inside ourselves for emotional truth, but bearing our souls to strangers is terrifying. Offering comfort, Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write has long been a favorite book of mine. We don’t think we can write about that, says Keyes; people will find out we aren’t nice. But he asserts that “the best ideas are personal, candid and deeply felt.”
We might not fear ghosts, but what about book reviewers and social media mavens? Or worse, that know-it-all person always looking for a way to put us down? We have reputations to keep. “We are really only afraid of one person…” says Keyes. Each of us has a “censor in chief.” For many of us, that’s our mother. Whomever it is for you, don’t let them read over your shoulder as you write.
E. B. White (1899-1985), author of children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, and co-author of the writing guide, Elements of Style, is featured in Keyes’s book. White, who grappled with anxiety throughout his writing career, famously said, “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.” He understood that writing demands courage.
White’s fictional spider, Charlotte, wove some encouraging promotional words about Wilbur into her web. We need to cultivate friends like she did, helping each other see ourselves differently, as we grow from terrified scribblers to “Some Terrific, Radiant, Humble” pig writers.
Is there a surefire method for conquering writers’ fears? In Keyes’s chapter titled “Putting Fear to Work,” we are assured that far from being a threat, anxiety is “an invaluable part of the writing process.” Fear is an asset when converted into excitement, connection, and focus.
If you are looking for actionable suggestions, Keyes does not disappoint. His book lists “courage boosters,” including the recommendation that writers get to know themselves so that they aren’t caught off guard by the horrors their subconscious minds bring to the page. A few more suggestions from his list are: have realistic expectations, attend a writer’s conference, and devise fear-taming techniques.
I can hear veteran, published writers now, “Dive in, already! The frigid waters are shark-infested but don’t worry; You’ll be mostly fine.” While a cannonball plunge into the deep might get one acclimated to publishing quicker, is it wrong to hold hands with friends and wade into the public side of writing one toe at a time? Charlotte’s Web is about more than death and spiders. It’s about the courage friends can give to one another.
Timid writers don’t have to brave the waters all at once or alone. They can gradually write posts for blogs, submit stories to magazines, make writing contacts, develop websites, critique each other’s work, and have their own work carefully edited. No doubt, the time will come when they push through the fear and make their publishing debut with a splash. And they’ll be fine. Mostly. And their friends at Pikes Peak Writers will cheer!
For Further Reading and Reference:
“The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear,” by Ralph Keyes, 1995. One of my favorite writing books. See page 200 for more courage boosters like those listed above.
E. B. White quote: “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay No. 1,” an interview by George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther, The Paris Review (Issue 48, fall 1969).
Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.