Writers experience a ridiculous range of emotions throughout the writing process: excitement when a new idea comes along; satisfaction and joy when a work-in-progress is completed; and fear at varying intervals between.
Sadly, for every person reading this post, fear (at some level) is an issue that must be addressed. It stifles creativity, encourages negativity, and exponentially increases our chances of failure. It’s a toxin that poisons us on a basic, human level. And it’s death to the writing process.
I’ve struggled a bit with fear on a personal level—fighting and eventually overcoming a panic disorder after the birth of my first child. Being a slow learner, it took me years to realize that the techniques I had applied to address personal fears could also be used to manage the fears in my writing life. Since this is something that all of us deal with, and because I love the idea of turning our demons into forces of good, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about managing fear when it comes to writing. When you find yourself getting stuck, avoiding a scene or project, or fearing a part of the process, try these steps:
Examine the problematic area so you can identify and name the fear. I took a long writing break when my kids were born. The itch to write never quite went away, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t get back into writing fiction. After some serious scrutiny, I realized that I was terrified to write a novel again after taking such a long break. And trying to do it with preschoolers…Oy. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Identifying exactly what was holding me back enabled me to look at the problem head-on and come up with a plan of attack.
If your fear is based on a lie (as many fears are), replace the lie with truth. Once I named it, I could see that my fear—that I couldn’t write a novel with small children underfoot—was irrational. Writers do it all the time. Personal writer friends of mine were doing it at the exact time that I was struggling. But by subconsciously believing the lie and repeating it to myself whenever I considered starting a new fiction project, I was giving strength to it and further ingraining it into my brain. So I replaced the lie with truth. Instead of telling myself that I needed to wait, I claimed that I could write a novel right now, in this current stage of life. Pretty soon I started to believe it, and my fear diminished.
This isn’t to say that all of our fears are irrational. As our natural response to real or perceived threats, fear has a clear purpose and is oftentimes necessary. Examine your fear realistically to determine whether it should be heeded or reeducated.
Make a plan and take steps. Fear is almost always tied to goals and failures. This story is too complicated for me to write; I can’t figure out this plot issue; I’ll never be a successful author. In essence, we want to accomplish something, but we’re afraid to fail. To combat this, identify the goal associated with your fear, then make it manageable. In my situation, I had to look at my life as a mother of preschoolers and figure out how much time I could realistically devote to writing. The plan I came up with was one that would take a lot longer than it used to, back when I didn’t have kids and worked part time. But it’s totally doable. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: a goal without a plan is just a wish. Turn your fear into a manageable goal. Look at it realistically, and you’ll most likely find that, with a little tweaking, success is attainable.
One caveat to all this: fear isn’t always the culprit. Many other thieves can steal our creativity and effectiveness: unforeseen circumstances, events that bring on strong and overwhelming emotions (grief, exhaustion, depression, etc.), and the busyness of life in general can all stymie productivity. Sometimes, we simply need to take a break from writing so we can deal with life. Sometimes we need to cry or smack a couple hundred softballs or take a really long drive. But if you’re stuck due to fear, give these tips a try. Hopefully, they’ll start you on the path to managing your fears and achieving your goals in the new year.
So, to recap:
- Examine yourself as a writer to uncover potential fears. In what area are you holding back? Is there an opportunity for growth (employing a new marketing strategy, writing in a different genre, exploring a difficult area of writing craft) that you’ve been avoiding or are too afraid to try?
- Name the fear. What fear is at the root of your avoidance? If your fear is based on a lie, summarize the lie in its most succinct form. (I don’t have time to write a book right now. I suck at characterization. I’ll never be able to reach my audience.)
- Replace the lie with a simple truth. (I can make time to write a book. I can improve at characterization. I will learn to reach my audience.) When you find yourself returning to your old, fearful thought patterns, refute the lies by vocalizing the truth.
- Fashion a plan to achieve your goal. Include steps that are specific and manageable. Assigning time frames for each step is a great way to keep yourself on track.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Thankyou thankyou for this 🙂 Fear is such a big thing in stopping the words from even reaching the page.
Sheila Good says
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” One of my all time favorite quotes. I keep it close by to remind myself, even great people knew fear. Thank you for a wonderful post. @sheilagood at Cow Pasture Chronicles
BECCA PUGLISI says
That’s an easy quote to say but a hard one to live out. Thanks for the reminder, Sheila :).
Jacqueline howett says
Thanks for sharing. I found this post inspiring in many ways. When you’re a writer running a Marathon, we can all do with these subtle reminders. Now I shall go put butt in chair.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Carol Baldwin says
Nice post. Thanks, Rebecca for sharing your strategy. Before I was a mother of young kids I read this advice in Writer’s Digest: “Do something related to writing every day– no matter how small it is.” That got me through the many years when I was without gobs of time to write. But it’s also important to remember– your kids are only young for a short time. Treasure them! (as i’m quite sure you do.)
BECCA PUGLISI says
Yes, I was constantly reminding myself when my kids were little not to wish any of the time away. Juggling is hard. 🙂
Paula Cappa says
Very comprehensive suggestions here, Becca. Your 4 points are wonderfully helpful! Name the fear; that’s a difficult one. As writers I think we have a range of fears, not just in writing but also in putting work out there for reviews and spending time and money for our book marketing efforts. I’m often afraid of spending money on a marketing plan that might not produce effective results. ‘Replacing fears with truth,’ now that’s a worthy effort; I like that. Thanks for a stimulating post today.
BECCA PUGLISI says
I’m so glad you got something out of it. Fear is such a big motivator; it’s a big bully, really, pushing us around and keeping us from doing what we want to do. If we can learn how to manage it, instead of the other way around, I think we’d be a lot happier and so much more productive. Easier said than done, of course… 🙂
liz n. says
Long ago, my mother told me that when we make decisions based on our fears, we usually decide to do nothing, and fear wins.
She’d like you!