What New Writers Need To Know About Fear

Do you want to become a writer?

When I was in my early twenties, I did too. I told people I wanted to write a book. There was just one problem. I wasn’t writing anything, at all.

I believed I wasn’t ready to write and that I needed some anointed mentor to pull me aside and say “Bryan, now is your time.”

I became jealous of the success of people around me and grew sick of my lack of progress.

So, I joined a fiction and non-fiction writing workshop in Dublin. On the second evening, the instructor said every student had to submit a short story.

I was afraid.

I hadn’t written a short story in years, but I didn’t want the class of the instructor to know this.

A writer in a writing class who doesn’t write is a fraud.

I went home, and I wrote. I wrote that night and the night after that. And I wrote until I finished my first story. It was terrible — the instructor told me this later on — but it didn’t matter.

I had taken the first step towards facing my fears.

Here are four common fears everyone who wants to become a writer faces and how you can overcome them.

1. I Don’t Know Where To Start

Starting is tough.

For years, I couldn’t start. I’d open up my word processor and then switch to my internet browser for research. I’d answer my email, or see if there was something I wanted to buy on Amazon. Afterwards, I’d check my bank balance and feel depressed.

It went on like this until I disappeared down a rabbit hole of meaningless internet searches and doing anything but the most important work of every writer.

Then, I learnt how to start by creating triggers for writing. These include:

  • making coffee

  • setting a timer for how long I want to write

  • disconnecting from the internet.

My routine for becoming a writer involves doing this at the same time each evening or morning. As a reward, I browse the internet, watch a movie or exercise. It’s ritual, and it means I don’t have to think about the act of starting.

To the outsider, this ritual looks boring, but it helps me write. That’s more exciting than anything else I could do with my free time.

How to face this fear:

If you’re having trouble starting, remember: it’s your job to turn up and do the work. Steven Pressfield writes in the War of Art:

We’re facing dragons too. Fire-breathing griffins of the soul, whom we must outfight and outwit to reach the treasure of our self-in-potential and to release the maiden who is God’s plan and destiny for ourselves and the answer to why we were put on this planet.”

Once you’ve learned how to turn up, consider it a victory to write for ten minutes without getting distracted. The next day, aim for fifteen minutes. The day after, write for twenty minutes.

Let these small personal victories accumulate over time and you will become a writer.

2. Who Am I to Write?

I’ve written two books: A Handbook for the Productive Writer and a collection of short stories.

I am nobody.

I haven’t published the latter (coming soon, I swear). While writing the former I was afraid others would say: “What right do you have to explain how to be productive?”

I still think that.

I also knew I’d spent hours researching productivity methods and studying how artists work. I’d read dozens of books by authors explaining how they work. And I knew enough to organise my thoughts into a book.

Even though I am nobody, I gave myself permission to write a book (thanks James) because writers must start somewhere.

How to face this fear:

Give yourself permission to write. If this is difficult, remind yourself that everyone who wants to become a writer must start somewhere and that now is your time.

Helen Keller wrote the Story of Her Life at aged 22.

Anne Frank wrote her autobiography when she was just 15.

Franz Kafka finished his first novel in his twenties.

These are extreme examples.

I’m an extreme kind of person.

Are you?

3. I Can’t Finish

Finishing is harder than starting.

When I was in my mid -twenties, I spent years struggling to finish anything. I wrote dozens of short stories and abandoned them. I thought of articles I wanted to write for newspapers, I researched them and then I never bothered to write them.

There wasn’t any one moment where I learnt how to finish my work and become a writer. Instead, I got a job as a journalist writing for a newspaper. There, I had to finish my articles by a deadline because if I didn’t the editor would fire me.

I know this because he called me into his office after I missed a deadline and told me.

I stopped polishing my articles until they were perfect and started finishing them. On more than one occasion, my editor sent the articles back to me saying I’d left out an important paragraph or that my introduction needed reworking.

This criticism made me want to quit.

On other occasions, the sub-editors of the paper reworked my article entirely. Having my work being taken apart like this was brutal, but at least I was getting paid to write.

I learnt from their feedback, and I learnt by finishing what I started.

How to face this fear:

If you’re having trouble finishing your work, set artificial deadlines and stick to them.

Enter contests and submit your articles to magazines or to websites when these deadlines elapse. Make a public commitment to a group of people that you trust e.g. a writing group.

Start a blog.

As you get into the habit of finishing your work, you will win more opportunities to gain feedback about your work.

The former will give you the confidence to keep writing, and the latter will help you become a better writer.

You will become a better writer by finishing what you started.

4. They’ll Judge Me

I don’t like writing publishing posts like this. They’re hard work, and they’re more personal than guides to the various writing tools I use. I almost deleted this post several times before I hit publish.

What’s to enjoy about revealing a job didn’t work out, that I was lazy, and that my work failed?

Stephen King made me do it.

In On Writing, Stephen King says:

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

I could lock myself in a room and write about a caretaker of a hotel who goes insane and tries to kill his family. I could explain how to overcome the inertia of perfectionism. Or I could write about rejection.

How to face this fear:

Spend more time creating than you do consuming.

Show the world what you created. And then let them judge it in all its ugly imperfections. Respond if you need to or move on.

It’s better to be judged than to be ignored.

People Are Going To Reject You (And Why This Doesn’t Matter)

I was rejected three times over the past week.

  • I contacted five authors I admire with interview request. Four of them said no.

  • I asked a number of podcasting experts to share their advice for a guest blog post. Half of them didn’t reply.

  • I pitched guest posts at three big blog, two of which said no.

These rejections are normal experiences.

If you want to become a writer, rejection waits for you at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of your work. It goes where you go. Everybody who succeeds gets rejected.

By turning up and creating, you cut through your fears. Even if some people reject your work, others will embrace it. The next website you pitch may accept your ideas. You could win the next contest. Your next interview request may be granted.

If you want to become a writer, you must write today. You must write now. You must write like your life depends on it.

Because it does.

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