Why It’s Sometimes Hard To Write, Even If You Really Want To
“Fear is a desolate boneyard where dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun.”
This is my favourite quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity, Big Magic. This week I want to take a ‘back to basics’ look at fear.
How does your inner gremlin know just what to whisper in your ear to knock you off course with your writing?
Let’s look at some ways that fear can manifest in your writing journey:
You have carved out some precious minutes to write but you end up watching Netflix or YouTube videos instead. That’s fear.
When you love writing but it always seems to take you ages to get settled into it. That’s fear.
When you have lots of blogs finished but they are still in draft mode because you don’t think they are good enough to publish. That’s fear.
When you have built an audience or received rave reviews for your books but you still don’t believe you’re a good enough writer. That’s fear.
When you spend more time scrolling on social media than writing. That’s fear.
When you don’t seem to have the focus to get yourself in the chair to write. That’s fear.
When you keep promising yourself that you’ll start your next book on a certain date, but you keep putting it off. That’s fear.
When you are nearly at the end of a book but you can’t bring yourself to finish it. That’s fear, because then you’ll have to send it out to agents or publishers.
A general sense of being in a rotten funk and not getting on with your work. That’s fear.
Not progressing with the last book in a series – even though you have successfully published the previous ones and readers like them. That’s fear.
Lacking discipline to follow through on your plans. That’s fear.
Not keeping a promise to yourself to write. That’s fear.
Snuggling up in bed and hitting the snooze button instead of getting up early to write. That’s fear. (And that’s me!)
Tangible and intangible fear
I like to classify fear in two ways: tangible and intangible. When I looked up fear in the thesaurus it gives synonyms such as terror, dread, horror, worry, panic and phobia. I classify these types of fear as tangible fear. If a spider or a mouse were to run across the floor right now you may be frightened of it. If you have just dented your partner’s prized car then you may feel scared about breaking the news to them. We are all familiar with these types of fear.
It's the intangible fear that’s dangerous because you don’t always recognise the way that you fall prey to it. I think of intangible fear as the carbon monoxide of fear because you can’t touch, smell or taste it but over time it can strangle the life-force out of all your plans and desires.
Intangible fear is when your soul wants to do something and you’re really excited at the prospect but you stop yourself. You might not even be aware that you are stopping yourself. The gremlin might show up as external factors like fatigue or working too much. The most dangerous form is the inner voices that say “I can’t” or “I’m too old” or “Who am I to even think that I could do this?”
Why does fear accompany creative pursuits?
Fear and creativity go hand in hand because following a creative hunch creates uncertainty, and the inner gremlin hates uncertainty.
When you have a job, you have certainty. You agree a salary and the hours for which you are expected to show up. You turn up whether you feel like it or not and you get paid. There is a guaranteed result for your efforts.
But when we do creative projects, nothing is guaranteed. You don’t know how your project is going to turn out, whether you’ll ever see a financial return or what people are going to think of it. And that is terrifying.
Someone once described the act of putting your writing out into the world as walking down the street naked. Everyone can see you and pass judgment.
Fear is normal, everyone has it
You are not cursed because you have struggles with your writing. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never achieve your goals. Everyone suffers from intangible fear, even highly successful people. The reason those people became successful though is because they were able to keep moving ahead with their plans in spite of their fear.
Accomplished actors such as Michael Gambon or Benedict Cumberbatch have been known to get stressed to the point of vomiting each night before a performance, but once they get out on stage, this fear becomes their creative energy.
Last year I saw an interview with Julia Cameron, affectionately known as the Queen of Creativity. She admitted that even though she has written 40 books, she still gets afraid and worried when she starts work on a new one. Every time I listen to an interview with a well-known author, they all say that the fear and doubt rises up with each new book.
Create alongside fear
If fear is to be a constant companion in your creative journey, then you need to learn how to keep going alongside it.
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert acknowledges that fear is the evil twin of creativity and says:
“This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear – because I’ve noticed that when people try to kill of their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.”
She gives the analogy of a road-trip where she is heading off on a creative journey and tells fear that it is welcome to come along for the ride, because it is part of the family. It can have a voice but not a vote. Fear is not allowed to make any decisions, it can’t take hold of the map and it can’t steer the car. It can’t even decide what to listen to on the radio. It just needs to sit there and let her and creativity get on with the work.
One way to tame your fear is to listen to what it has to say, but then disregard it. I regularly write myself a letter from fear. I listen to how it thinks I’m crazy, how I’m going to end up on the street without any money, how I’m just wasting my time and that I’ll become a laughing stock. The more I do this exercise, the more I realise – as my hand is moving across the page – that this stuff will never come true. It is just my small ego having a major panic attack. I’ve come to enjoy letting fear have a splurge on the page because then I can discount what it says.
Let fear and the gremlin be your compass
Although we tend to think of our inner gremlin as negative, the fact that it begins to act up is positive.
The gremlin does not show up and stop you from watching too much TV, eating too much chocolate or getting fat on your sofa. Similarly, the inner gremlin doesn’t rear its head as you spend yet another evening or weekend at the office doing unpaid overtime.
Therefore, when the inner gremlin does make himself known to you – rejoice – because it means that you are making great efforts to improve your life and answer your heart’s desire.
How many times have you heard an award-winning actor say that they knew they had to take on a role because it scared them?
Don’t let fear hijack your writing
An athlete doesn’t stop training because their muscles are sore. They accept that this is part of the process and that they are making progress with their fitness goals. I want you to recognise the ways your inner gremlin may be affecting you so you can see it for what it is and keep going.
You’re not crap. Your writing is worthwhile. You have a voice.
You have something of value to say, whether that is writing about vampires, or a poem about the feel of the breeze on your cheek or a blog on how to combat climate change – all of this is worth it.
Please do it – with your fear.
I’ll let Elizabeth Gilbert have the last word:
“It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip – but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.”
Photo credit: Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash
You might enjoy this episode of a conversation I had last year, based on the Courage chapter of Big Magic:
Unlocking Big Magic – Conversations About Creativity, Episode 1, Courage and Fear
This article also has some useful tips:
The Only Way To Fight The Resistance Is To Do The Work
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Great article, Cali. Years ago, I read a book by Susan Jeffers called Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway. For me it was life changing and I adopted that title as a kind of life motto. It's getting me through these anxious first months of becoming a "real" writer.
Boy do I know the fear. I think it comes with vulnerability and intimacy. In my paying job, neither of those things apply (I'm an expert at what I do and it's not personal). I love this reframe: "Although we tend to think of our inner gremlin as negative, the fact that it begins to act up is positive."
Also, when a professional athlete has sore muscles, they do adjust their training. They learn (fast usually) not to just push through the pain. I think sometimes it's the same here. Sometimes your psyche is protecting you from something and it's good to go gently into that dark forest - but still go. I've been using an app called "unwinding anxiety" for about 9 months now and he always says "direction is more important than speed". Keep going, even if it's very slowly.