why i’m scared of writing

You know what scares me? Writing. It’s what I do for a living, and people sometimes say I’m good at it, but I’m terrified to do it each time in case this time it’s rubbish. I can’t think of opening a blank document, staring at a blank page. The pressure to be extraordinary is too much.

William Golding said of his writing, ‘I can only just do it, you know.’ That has always been me. I am always at the very edge of not being able to write; many times when I could write, I don’t, because I’m scared; so that the times when I do write feel like they have been clawed back from a precipice. I can’t imagine being prolific.

It’s the infamous, the terrible, the greatly-to-be-feared NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. Write a novel in a month! The tagline: Thirty days and nights of literary abandon! I am not the kind of person who could do that, I don’t think. I am about as far from that kind of person as it is possible to get without actually falling over.

But a story of a thousand pages starts with a single word. How could it ever be otherwise? A lot has been written about how important it is for writers and other artists to overcome their fear of failure, and just write. I realised recently that I always assumed that one day I will be able to ‘just write’, one day I won’t feel this crippling fear, one day I will not be a person who is afraid to write in case they get it wrong.

a collection of devotional verse

More and more, however, I don’t think that day will ever come; and more and more, I realise that that’s not a disaster. Being scared of writing is not the same thing as not being a good writer. I won’t say it’s a necessary precondition – although some have said that – but the one certainly does not exclude the other.

I’m in good company, though. I read a great story about James Joyce. Apparently one day a friend called round to see him, and found the great man slumped on his seat, in complete despair.

Friend: What’s up? It’s the writing, isn’t it? How many words have you written today?

JJ: Seven.

Friend (knowing how JJ worked): That’s quite good for you, though.

JJ (howl of anguish): But I don’t know what order they should go in!

Another version of this story has JJ howling ‘But I don’t know whether they’re the right ones!’ Either way – I feel his pain. And the opposite is true as well, I expect: that many bad writers feel no fear whatsoever of writing.

I remember when I had just passed my driving test: for the first year or so that I was driving, I was scared each time I walked towards the driver’s door. Scared that I would forget how this machine worked, scared that someone had seen fit to put me in charge of a ton of metal on top of an internal combustion engine, scared that all my practice and testing and experience would be for naught.

I talked myself through it. I’ve always been good at this: forcing myself to fight down the fear of a fear-inducing physical situation, forcing myself to put emotions to the side and concentrate on what needs to be done. So it was that I got into the car each time, sat behind the wheel, and did what I had been taught to do. I turned the engine on, put the car in gear, indicated, released the handbrake, lifted the clutch, drove. Each minute that passes without a disaster is one more minute of successful driving. Eventually, imperceptibly, I got more confident. Today, when I drive almost every day, I barely remember what that fear felt like.

Writing isn’t the only creative thing I do. I also do calligraphy and typography, sketching and drawing new letterforms, new ways to write a word, new ways that the letters fit together. In my typography work I have never felt a fear like my fear of writing. I do typography because the shapes open up in my mind, appear before my eyes when I’m watching a film or talking to someone or reading a book, because I have to transfer their shapes from my head to the paper.

draft for 'photography'

I don’t know why I am not scared of getting that particular form of creativity wrong; but I have a theory. I’ve always been a reader, addicted to words, living inside books.
In a world full of audio-visual marvels, may words matter to you and be full of magic.
Godfrey Smith
Because words matter to me more than almost anything else, I have a responsibility to get them right. I love typography, but it’s not my first love, so I suppose in a way it doesn’t matter to me so much that what I contribute to that world should be the best it can be.
birthday girl
Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets, was asked why he wrote poems.

I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.

 Maybe it’s that responsibility that is the thing I’m most scared of. I’m getting better, though – writing more, and just as with driving, the more I do the less scary it is. Stick with me, I’ll let you know how it goes..


Filed under books

77 responses to “why i’m scared of writing

  1. Toby

    I suppose it depends on whether you are doing pure exploratory writing (such as this article) or outputting anecdotal evidence.
    To my mind, the mechanisms work like this:

    1. Exploratory. Put the feelers out until you hit something that scares you, then contract. Put the feelers out again, see if it is still there. If it is, see if you can find a way around the intimidating obstacle (for you are slightly more encouraged by forming an understanding of the thing that causes fear – usually variants of ridicule and the unknown). Repeat until exhausted, finished or you hit a pocket of anecdotes.

    2. Anecdotal. Say what you see. Apply style.

    The best articles – such as this one – employ both.

    • ha! thanks for the advice.there’s so much more to say on this. for example, why does blogging not scare me but writing fiction does?

      • See point 2. Anecdotal blog-writing is raconteur-ship without the public speaking. Nothing to be scared of there. A work of fiction, however, is exposing yourself in public. You have opened a window into your mind so that people can see in. That takes guts. Guts or serious housekeeping, anyway. Obviously, if you’re just one of those people who likes exposing themselves in public then that’s a matter for the authorities but it’s all part of the artistic spectrum – which we are all on, somewhere.

        • This made me laugh =D it’s very true, though, that fiction is about exposing yourself. As it were. It’s always going to be a bit murky in someone else’s mind – reminds me of the poem ‘If, My Darling’ by Philip Larkin.

          • Ah, yes, that is so true.. It is both romantic and destructive (aren’t we all?). But, yes, bang on. Larkin was a bright fellow; although I am aware of the incongruity given the murky context – I like to think that ‘pearls of wisdom’ gives reference to this phenomenon – iridescent emissions of a sedentary species.
            Ultimately, if the performance is sublime, does the engine matter? I’d love to ask a theologian and physicist that.
            Iain M. Banks had a great idea that when humanity reached a critical mass of population it would harbour individuals whose perceptive capacities were in synch with the fundamental probabilities of life. Anything could be predicted if you asked the right person the right question. I think that is already largely true.

  2. luke180880

    Nice piece very thought provoking

  3. I love that book of Psalms. People’s handwriting used to be so beautiful. I miss that in the information age. Most of us have lost our ability to create beauty that isn’t computer-assisted.

    As for your writing, it’s a good sign you are concerned about what you are writing. Put some words on a page. Twenty bucks says you’ll get the right ones on that page. If not, wasn’t it a writer who said, “I can’t fix a blank page.”

    Best of luck.

  4. I feel the same fear each time I am given a writing task, yet when I write for myself, the fear flies out the window. I suppose the reason doesn’t matter as much as doing it in spite of the fear. Great post!

  5. Being afraid you won’t stay good at something is the healthiest sign that you will, in fact, stay good at it. For the writer, paranoia is to confidence what protein is to muscle building – it is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for development.

    Runners feel the same way approaching the starting line, the more they’ve trained the larger the fear is, what if today I am not fast enough – – what if I’m slower than everyone else?

  6. hey, thanks for stopping by, your reading of my writing is much appreciated:))
    for me, just like you (you mentioned it in an earlier reply to a comment) I never worried about writing assignments, as my school writing, or writing on a given topic came natural and there was no pressure. It’s the same with keeping a diary. Writing seems easy then and words keep flowing.
    However, when trying to write something that will reach an audience I don’t know, I suddenly start worrying about the form, the content, the reactions I would get, and forget how to simply put the words on paper.
    I’m still trying to decide whether it’s a good thing, because this kind of writing will be more careful and polished or whether it’s a bad thing because you lose spontaneity.
    What do you think? Anyway,great post and blog, I look forward to reading more form you :))

    • Thanks! =D i read your comment a couple of times because it really resonated with me. And I think the key is when you say ‘writing for an audience you don’t know.’ When you have a specific structure and goal to work towards, you know exactly who you’re writing for and you write with them in mind. But when you’re on your own it could be anyone you’re writing for – and writing for ‘anyone’ is pretty much impossible.

      I’ve heard it said you should think of someone you know who likes the kind of stuff you write, and who you can trust to be honest with their opinions. (Ideally not a person you’re in a romantic relationship with – that way lies madness.) You write specifically for them, to them, with them always in mind. And they get to read your writing first and critique it.

      I know all this in theory..I just need to get better at applying it 🙂

      • well theory is always easier, but if you’re comfortable with those close to you to read your work, I guess it will become a habit to write with them in mind :))
        I never show any of the stuff I write to people who know me personally, because I fear their disappointment more than a stranger’s, so I’ll never be able to do that. guess it comes down to different types of personalities and habits…

        • I KNOW! That is exactly the problem: it’s easier to cope with a stranger being disappointed than someone you know.. I’m really blessed to have an amazing friend who I trust to read my work (and be my ‘ideal reader’) – but there’s no one else close to me I could easily trust with my words :s

  7. I totally agree. I absolutely love writing my blog but rest assured, the rest of us feel the desire to live up to our existing works and furthermore exceed them, just like you. It’s intimidating but definitely exciting too! Great typography by the way! (and writing of course)

  8. kirosl

    I love that Joyce quote. My flatmate just came in and asked me how the writing’s going. Me: *mumble mumble*. Her: You’re on the internet, aren’t you?

    • Haha! the internet is a dangerous place :s can see the attraction in writing on a puter that isn’t online. Or maybe writing on a typewriter. I did try that for a while (for vintage writer kicks) but I found the extra physical effort of hitting the typewriter keys was slowing down my moments of eloquence.

      But apparently more writers are doing the typewriter thing these days – I think Zadie Smith, Will Self. and Jonathan Franzen were mentioned in the article I read.

  9. Anna Scott Graham

    I’m prolific, for which I am very grateful. Up until about a year ago, every time I sat to write, even though I knew the words would invariably fall from my fingers, I was always slightly terrified; what if, this time, they didn’t?

    But then they would, and I would feel silly for my trepidation. Then again, I would sit and worry.

    About a year ago, I sat to write, and was, as usual, troubled. Then I caught a head cold, and couldn’t write for many days. I was the sort that when I was writing, I wrote every day. Or nearly every day. After that long break, I returned to the work, and for some strange reason, no fear clouded my mind. And since then, I have not felt any concern when the time has come to write.

    Often I now forget I used to own that fear. When I’m reminded, like in a post like this for instance, I wonder why/how I changed, what prompted that alteration, for it was a complete 180, day to night, etc etc etc. However…

    I don’t feel that way with everything. I love to bake, yet I am scared to high heaven of pie crusts. I can’t imagine ever bridging that chasm. I love pies, but ice water and dough the size of pebbles, no way! No way. No way.

    So perhaps there are just things in this life that we can master, overcome, etc, etc, etc. And some not so much. I like to drive too, so I’ll take my pie crust-phobia, and think happy writing thoughts for you!

    And, after all that blathering, thanks for stopping by my blogs today. 🙂

    • That’s really interesting! Wonder if deliberately catching an illness could help 😉

      I love to bake, too; but my fears lie in the direction of puff pastry. 36 hours of work to make some pastry? I have no words..

      Thank you for the happy writing thoughts! =D

  10. Pingback: Just another day | Haven't We Done This Before?

  11. OyiaBrown

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  12. I’m not scared to write. Writing is a love but it’s work. It’s the work part I hate. I don’t like having a job most days either. Not that I’m lazy. I mean, I go nuts when I have nothing to do so jobs and work are a good thing. I’m just not a 70 hour a week work a maninac so I’m not losing my life to work. Writing is work and losing me to it probably not going to happen. Novels are work which is why people pay us for them. So I just need to get use to working 80 hours a week with no life and I’ll have my novel in no time…. 😦

  13. I am always scared when I hand an article in, knowing that it will end up in the magazine, or even when I publish something here on WordPress. I have this overwhelimg fear that what I just wrote sucks! lol I will forever hold my breath until I get positive feedback from my readers. That fear will never go away though. I’m not sure why it’s there but I choose to let it help me rather than hinder me and I just continue to write. I just tell myself that it’s better to have written than not to have written anything at all. From one writer to another, I say hang in there and believe in yourself and know that you can do it 🙂

    • thank you so much! =D it’s such an encouragement to me to know that even successful writers fight The Fear. And yes, it should be something I use to spur me on 🙂

      • Yes, you are not alone! And thanks so much for showing me that I am not either! I have always wondered why I don’t like anything I write but never knew there were others who felt the same way. Keep up the great work and just make sure you write something each and every day and you will do just fine 🙂

        • 🙂 something I did find really helpful (I should have mentioned it in the original post) was reading John Carey’s biography of William Golding – one of my favourite authors. He was constantly terrified of writing, and every time he submitted a manuscript for a new book to his publishers he assured them it would be terrible. They had to work really hard to tell him all the time that he was a great writer and they loved his work 🙂

  14. I felt this, in ways I cannot describe. It got to me, knitting my insides together, a sudden irrational grips me. What if all the words I have written for NaNoWriMo are actually not worth repeating, and the story not good enough…

    I guess that where hope comes in. It stilled my despair and lifted my spirit…

  15. Mei

    Oh I definitely have quite a bit of fear of failure when it comes to writing. It’s part of the reason that I don’t post on my blog very much. I’ll get half way through a post and suddenly be like “what the hell Mei…nobody cares about your experience brushing your dogs teeth today or how his butt sniffing fetish got both of you skunked while jogging last week” ….sigh

    ps thanks for commenting. I can never figure out who my subscribers are by just their email and so I always feel bad for never visiting their blogs!

    • see I tend to think that the subject matter of the writing doesn’t matter too much (at least for the kind of blogs you and I write), so long as you write it in an appropriate and/or amusing way. For eg – I would love to hear about your experiences brushing your dog’s teeth, cos that sounds like a nightmare and potentially very funny. Especially since I’m not the one about to have my hand bitten off 😉

      ps: you’re welcome =D

  16. “Because words matter to me more than almost anything else, I have a responsibility to get them right.” — I love that you said this.

  17. Margy Rydzynski

    Keep at it and give NaNoWriMo a try next time. You don’t have to write the next Great American Novel. You don’t have to write anything that makes sense in the end. You’d be amazed at what comes roaring out of your head. You may spend the next year revising it, but you will be better for it.

    Oh, and thanks for liking my post.

    • Don’t tell anyone, but…reading everyone’s posts about NaNoWriMo has made me think I might even give it a go next year. I’m British though, so I think I’m automatically disqualified from writing the next Great American Novel. (The Great British Novel is not a thing, it seems.)

      PS You’re welcome – I like your blog, and that post made me laugh =D

  18. What a great post and sooooo very timely for me. I really wonder why I write sometimes – it’s a real can’t live with, can’t live without type thing. Thanks for visiting my blog and for the like…it’s always nice to have a butterfly land on you!

  19. Thank you for liking my blog post.. I just read your article and it was like listening to my own voice, deep inside. I always say ‘one day I will write a novel’ and yet here I am… I cannot even find the first word for it, and yet, I have written something every day of my life… creative writing used to be so much easier when I was younger, I had tonnes of ideas, just wrote because it was fun, and then something happened… it was as if my very own dark materials daemon simply left and took all the creativity from my soul. All I was left with was being able to write about myself, openly, but still, only about myself. And, like you, it is not the only thing I produce that is creative – I have my photography which doesn’t scare me as much (unless I am being paid for it, but that’s another story). Writing, paid-for content writing, doesn’t scare me at all – THAT I know I can do… So why can’t I just sit down and write? What is it that we need to be able to do so and is it something that can be learned or do I simply have to wait for a muse? My favourite poem is Paradise Lost… muses visit Milton at the beginning of it… so why not also visit me?
    Come back and see me soon – hope you join in with the Writing Our Way Home small kindnesses on 27th November – I am going to try! We can compare notes! And by the way – I think you write beautifully.

    • YES to all of what you just said! I am exactly the same: when I was younger the words just poured out of me. And now – the writing I get paid for, that’s ok, I know I can do that. But the rest of it is much harder going. Have you read the Enderby books by Anthony Burgess? The poet Enderby gets cross with the ‘bloody Muse’ and yells at her for buggering off at inconvenient moments. Then he thinks perhaps the Muse won’t like being yelled at, and tries to placate her again =D

      Thank you so much for the compliment 🙂 I love your photography by the way – absolutely stunning. x

  20. EJ

    Thanks for coming by my blog and liking my post!
    I love the writing part of writing, it’s editing that’s hard work for me. Really, really hard work. I think it comes from the same place though, because once I see what I’ve written, I know how much work I have to do!
    I used to read advice that said get each word/sentence/paragraph/page right before proceeding. If I try to do that in my first draft, it’ll take six months to write a sentence. And when I look at it six months later, I’ll want to change it all again!

    • Yep, I used to do that too – make sure everything was perfect before writing the next bit. But that Does. Not. Work. At least not for me. Too much of a perfectionist – I’ll never get anything written if it all has to be perfect before I can make any progress!

  21. monkeyfacekim

    Thank you for liking my posts!
    I also feel the same way when I start a new, blank document! And when I do start, I always want to edit everything! I have to crush my inner editor when I write! 😀

  22. riverstwilight

    I’ve worked through several fears regarding my writing.

    I was afraid of not living up to the writer I wanted to be. I was convinced that if I was not as flawless and brilliant as I believed my favorite authors were, that nothing I wrote would be worthwhile. I ended up at an exhibit of handwritten letters from writers to their editors and discovered that their handwriting was terrible and their rough drafts were as rough as mine.

    I knocked my favorite writers off of the pedestals I had for them and wrote a short story in which I murdered the personification of the ideal writer I thought I wanted to become.

    I was afraid that people would judge my writing to be trash, that I would be called a hack, that reviewers would latch onto every mistake and magnify it to the size of a skyscraper. I wanted to be blameless and beyond criticism.

    Then, Twilight got popular. Then, 50 Shades of Grey became a best seller. Then, I went to a writer’s convention and heard people finding flaws my favorite books. I realized that reading is subjective and there is no way to avoid the faults that people will eventually find in my work.

    In the introduction to American Gods, author Neil Gaiman describes a novel as “a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.” In other words, there is no such thing as perfection in writing. We describe what we see with our physical eyes and our figurative eyes and hope that other people like the way we do so.

    Just keep writing, be aware of what your specific fears are, and keep your eyes open for realities that will knock your fears down to size. It might take a few years, but you will be surprise how tiny those fears become when you aren’t trying to live up to your ideals. You will be a better writer than you ever imagined you could be.

    • Thank you so much for writing this! I may just print it out and keep it somewhere where I can see it often..

      You’re right about flaws in favourite novels. (What are your favourites, by the way?) As for the popularity of trash: I’ve always thought of that as indicating a flaw in the reading public, rather than primarily in the writer..

      Thank you again for your helpful, thoughtful comment 🙂

      • riverstwilight

        Happy to be able to offer a helpful perspective.

        I think the writers I most wanted to be like are Neil Gaiman, Peter S. Beagle, Ray Bradbury, Joan D. Vinge, and Madeleine L’Engle. All of their books on my list of favorites.

        The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is one of two I give as a gift if I know a friend hasn’t read them yet. The Hobbit is the other. The book snob in me wants to brag that I love everything by Tolkien, but the truth is that everything else he wrote put me to sleep. I really did try to read it all, but Bradbury was more fun.

        Watership Down and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are favorites as well. If you can find a copy of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, it is worth the time it took to look for it. Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and Heidi are still on my list as well. 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are breathtaking.

        Thank you for responding to my comment and for liking my newest post!

  23. Great post! I think all writers (if they’re honest) feel the same way. I know I do. Every time I sit down to write a new piece of flash fiction, I think “Can I still do this?”
    Hope your Nano is going well.
    Thanks for commenting on my link on Artipeeps! 🙂

  24. I agree, all writers mostly think they suck.. and you know, as Hemmingway said, “the first draft of everything is sh*t”. The key is being able to allow yourself to suck completely! The genius isn’t in the writing, it’s in the editing and revising. I see this every day and it’s so true. NaNo only works if you let yourself be really bad. So you use the same word three times in one paragraph. Or you can’t figure out the pithy way to say what you want to say. Write the non-pithy version, because when you come back to it to revise and edit, and find that perfect expression, the sun will shine and you will feel the glow of your inner (and often ignored) genius! I like your blog, my brother put me on to it!

  25. I promise it’s true! I won NaNo last year, and found that NaNo is really about getting a 50k story out of your head and on to paper. The revising and editing will bring it’s unique voice, cadence, and correct spellings! Sometimes trying to be good/great/perfect on your first draft is paralysing. I’m a total convert to allowing yourself to be a terrible writer in Nov! Maybe I’ll start a movement 😉

  26. I fear writing too!! Mostly it’s not the writing itself, but the fear that I will never have another new idea. Whether they are any good or not, well, that comes later.

    I highly recommend giving Nanowrimo a go though! I love it! Aside from the enforced writing, their are pep talks from various authors to encourage you along the way. I wrote a blog yesterday about the most recent pep-talk: check it out if your interested! 🙂 The basic premise behind it was that it is a writers job to write – not to judge the quality of the writing (because it’s too subjective for that), but to get it out into the world. http://heatherj22.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/inspiration-via-nanowrimo-and-our-final-winner/

  27. Pingback: Do you fear writing? Try these tips | onewildword

  28. I’m working through the classic book “The Artist’s Way”… a 12 week program for “creative recovery.” Also I recently read the book “The Courage to Write.” I recommend both for any writers afraid to embrace their true creative selves.

  29. You have nothing to fear except fear itself.

  30. I love the Philip Larkin quote–I feel the same, this intense desire to preserve.

  31. Thanks for visiting my blog. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield talks about beating the Resistance that keeps us from our creative endeavours. I’ve written a recommendation of it here: http://wp.me/p1wS7s-mb

  32. Pingback: new year’s REVOLUTION | a different daylight

  33. Pingback: What Fear Taught Me About Writing | The Bleeding Inkwell

  34. This article described me absolutely. I can effortlessly, blog … like breathng … but my fiction writing is like bungy jumping when I know the cord has never been tested.
    It reminds me of another dynamic with my personality: I want to sing before a crowd but I get stage fright every time and won’t… which explains why I have never tried Karaoke not even after flooding my gut with liquid courage.

  35. Pingback: Confession: I was a shameful closeted writer | Jen's Pen Den

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