Cowardly Lion: What makes the Hottentots so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? Whadda they got that I ain’t got?
Dorothy, Tin Man and Scarecrow: Courage!
Cowardly Lion: You can say that again.
Of the writer’s needful things, perhaps the most counter-intuitive is courage. What’s so scary about writing? Writers just scribble down words, right?
Actually, though, if you have to really ask that question, you either haven’t been writing very long or you are just not paying attention.
Writing is lonely, scary and usually without immediate reward. In the first instance, you have to face the blank page. Whether it’s a piece of paper, or an empty computer screen with a blinking cursor, the first blank page is a horrifying challenge that frequently overwhelms writers. What if my stuff is not good enough? What if I sound like a jackass? If I actually put something on the page, will it be okay, or will I be revealed as a complete fraud? This is why writer’s block is so very terrible– usually it rears its head when something has challenged the writer’s (often) fragile grip on the self-confidence they need to start stringing words together– and getting back that confidence can be a terrible struggle.
A second source of fear is what others will think. Writing, if you’re doing it honestly, is baring your soul to potentially thousands or millions of strangers. We don’t usually think of it in such terms, but writing is a form of performance art. And the consequences of going onstage and blowing your lines (so to speak) can be devastating.
Once again, these are not original thoughts with me. One of the best books I know on writing, Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write, approaches the whole subject of writing as a problem in courage, how to find it, how to keep it, and how to use the fear of writing, or of what you are writing at the moment, in a positive way to empower your writing. I recommend this book to anyone who writes. Others have compared writing to a hero’s journey, or a warrior’s path. Whatever the metaphor, it’s widely understood that writing for public consumption is scary and difficult.
The only people who appear to be oblivious to this truth seem to be 1. very new writers who don’t know enough to be scared out of their wits, and 2. writers so sure of themselves (whether that certainty is justified) that they ride blithely above the terror that infects mere mortals. Both groups can be blind to what that fear is trying to tell us– that there are terrible pitfalls and hungry lions littering the writer’s path.
How, then, do you get past the fear? Mr. Keyes outlines any number of methods, and the precise constellation of techniques will vary from writer to writer. Personally, I get a lot of mileage out of telling myself that whatever I am writing at the moment is either a ‘doodle’, as if it’s a little squiggle I’m drawing on the margins of a notepad during a boring meeting, or that it’s just a draft, and all the evident problems with the piece will get resolved in subsequent drafts. I’ve also learned the hard way that perfection does not flow out the tips of my fingers; this encourages me to keep going even when I hate what I am doing and I’m sure I’m the worst writer since (insert your least favorite author here. I’m not going put mine in because I’ve already beaten up on Fifty Shades of Grey enough this week. Oops).
One lesson about fear that The Courage to Write highlights is that fear can actually be fuel for our writing, that if you write honestly about something that scares you, your writing takes off. Honesty of emotion, and tackling things that make you uncomfortable, can make for great prose. It’s a lesson, frankly, that I am still trying to internalize– it’s just too easy for me to keep things safe. But until I get past that reticence, I suspect my writing will not be all it could be.
One other aspect of writing that I group with courage is the necessity of growing a thick skin. Writers need this, and usually it’s one of the hardest items to acquire. Others might classify it with persistence, the next needful thing I intend to talk about, but I think of a thick skin as being able to take the critique that makes you feel like talentless cow-flop, thank the critique provider, and move on to the next critique. It’s the ability to pull the fiftieth rejection of your novel out of the mail, read it to see if it contains any helpful suggestions, file it and then send your novel out again the same day. It’s taking the one and two-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, again reading through them to see if they can help you make the story better, and then moving on, while keeping your ego in neutral and not responding to the reviewers, even if they’re obviously malicious (in fact, especially if they’re malicious, but that could be a whole other blog topic). If all that doesn’t take courage– like crawling forward while enemy bullets spatter around you– I don’t know what does.
So, brothers and sisters, if you’re scared when you write, good. It means you’re aware that you’re in danger, and that you need to find ways to press ahead. It may also mean that you’re closing in on something good. Pay close attention and listen to what your pounding heart is trying to tell you. You may score a major victory.
Next topic: Persistence.