Columns > Published on August 13th, 2019

8 Signs You Are Afraid of Writing

If you want to become a writer, you must become comfortable with fear.

It’s easy to dismiss the fear of writing. Easier to not recognize fear and writing are infinitely conjoined. You didn’t become a writer for the adrenaline thrill, after all. Writing is not like being a Navy SEAL or a firefighter. You are not risking your life when you write, so you believe. You imagine your fear of showing up to the blank page is silly and unfounded.

One of the top phobias people regularly report is the fear of public speaking. This is often touted to show the irrationality of humans. But modern society is structured in a much different way than the environment we evolved in. Throughout most of our history as a species, social standing has been inextricably linked with survival. If you were part of a small tribe and said something so embarrassing that nobody wanted to speak to you anymore, you might be cast out and starve to death, be eaten by predators, or killed by another tribe. Even now, if you were at your nephew’s birthday party and got so drunk that you hit on your brother’s wife or pissed in the punch bowl, you could potentially be thrown out of the family. And the next time you needed a place to stay or for someone to loan you money, you'd find that nobody was willing to help.

Our words have always been powerful. And a part of you recognizes that when you sit down to write and feel fear grip you, even when you try to convince yourself what you feel is silly.

But if you let fear rule your writing, it can bend and distort your words, weaken your voice, and prevent you from becoming the writer you want to be. So here are several ways that fear may be crippling you and making your work less than it could be.

Understand that your fear of writing is real. And it could potentially destroy everything that is important to you. But Robert Frost was correct when he said, “The only way out is through.” If writing is important to you, you will wade through that fear. You will identify the ways that fear is negatively affecting your work, and then work to move through those obstacles.

And you will keep writing.

Understand that your fear of writing is real. And it could potentially destroy everything that is important to you.

Overwriting

If you come across an overwrought, rambling piece of prose, it will often lead to a writer hiding behind a thesaurus. Stylistic writing can be beautiful. But it can also be a way for writers to bury themselves in the mechanistic process of word choice. People are terrified of looking like fools, especially those in the literary world who pride themselves on their intelligence. They can be scared to say “I don’t get it.” So creating a piece of writing that appears to be smart, with words heavy on the syllables and sentences like jagged coastlines at night, is a way writers attempt to shield themselves from potential fallout from condescending readers.

Writers can also overwrite to soothe the voice of anxiety in their own head, in an attempt to create the “perfect” work, kind of like someone who has OCD arranging and rearranging a collection of books. Instead of allowing the words to flow, and allowing the imperfections that inevitably come from writing, they obsess and ruminate over every detail, instead of looking at the bigger picture, because they think control is going to fix their fear.

Underwriting

The opposite of overwriting is underwriting. There are those who have written down to the bones, sucking the moisture out of their voice, because they’re afraid of the messiness that comes with allowing their style to develop. Writing that reads like everyone else’s writing is safe from stylistic criticism. But if you decide to show people your true personality, you open yourself up to the vulnerability that comes from being different.

Developing a style requires that you fall flat sometimes. That you risk sounding silly. Writing is such a complicated mathematics that it’s rarely a clean or straightforward process. Maybe you think you’re e.e. cummings or Cormac McCarthy for an embarrassing amount of time, and so refuse to use proper capitalization or dialog tags. For every good metaphor you write, you can expect to write at least six mediocre ones, and several flat out terrible ones, so don't hold back.

Fade to Black

How does the saying go? Nobody is more prone to random bouts of unconsciousness than a YA protagonist. (Okay, I made that up.) A fade to black—either because the protagonist fell unconscious or merely because the writer decided not to get into details at a climactic moment—can be a good way to build suspense. But it’s also a great way to divert attention or skip over parts of the book the writer doesn’t actually know how to write.

You can do this once, maybe twice in a book. Any more than that feels like you’re hiding from something. There’s never any real payoff for the reader. Books are great because you can use your imagination. But that doesn’t mean there needs to be big, empty gaps of information interspersed throughout the work because you don’t feel capable of writing when things get scary, suspenseful, sexy, or tough.

If you don’t know how to write something, the solution isn’t to avoid writing it. That’d be like never working out your weak leg because it feels weak. Or just skipping leg day all together. Instead of masking the weakness that you feel, you reveal it through imbalance. You start to look like an inverted triangle made out of chicken legs stuck into a cheesecake.

Listen, you don’t want your writing to be the proverbial skipping leg day of literature. (Remember what I said above about terrible metaphors? It’s too late. I already wrote it, so we’re leaning into it now.)

You have to write through what you don’t know how to write. That’s the only way to truly progress.

Absurdism

Okay, absurdist fiction is one of my favorite genres, and my fiction often carries an absurdist flavor to it. I was also a huge comedian in elementary school because I realized being silly and outrageous masked my anxiety.

This is one I’ve been especially guilty of, even though I’ve been guilty of all of these to some degree or another.

Absurdism is when your writing becomes intentionally ridiculous or bizarre. Think The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It can be a great device to reveal the silliness of social conventions or tear apart our preconceived notions of reality. But if not used purposefully, absurdism can become a comedic mask to hide the writer’s own anxieties. Either to keep the writer from delving into topics deemed too serious, or to hide the fact that they don’t have the guts to follow through. They don’t have enough faith in their own writing to be serious and take things to their logical conclusion.

Absurdism without purpose just becomes a flailing circus trick. It’s the sincere “I love you” that’s flattened by the nervous gotcha! that follows.

So much like the class clown who’s hiding a serious anxiety disorder, these writers use absurdism in the hopes you won’t notice they’re afraid because they’re waving their arms around and wearing a huge red nose.

Unreal Characters

Fiction is about character, because fiction is a roadmap for understanding what it means to be human. Plot, style, environment and word-choice are all important, but none of that means a damn thing if you write 50,000 words without characters. A novel without characters ceases to be a novel and becomes a textbook. In that way, characters are everything. And the way they’re constructed, and how they act in the story, defines the story itself.

But writing characters is hard. So oftentimes we rely on formulas instead, or we don’t develop them enough that their actions seem realistic. They become wooden, flat puppets that just follow the routes we’ve laid out for them. Or maybe they become ridiculous stereotypes or caricatures. Maybe they act in strange, inhuman ways and you can disguise it as “artsy,” to cover up the fact that you really have no idea what you’re doing.

It’s difficult to write real characters when we don’t even understand ourselves most of the time. And to actually write characters that feel real and take risks and display strength would mean having to peek out from underneath our desks and looking at reality for what it truly is. It would mean having to access our own flaws and strengths, and comparing them to the characters we create. It means baring our neck to the universe and hoping it doesn’t get our head lopped off.

Writing in the Wrong Genre

I loved science fiction growing up, but I thought I wasn’t smart enough to write it. I also loved horror, but I thought I didn’t have the kind of imagination to write terrifying scenarios. So through my teen years I trudged through writing a slurry of washed up fantasy stories like I was a tumor growing on Neil Gaiman’s back.

I didn’t think I was good enough to write the thing that I loved. But I didn’t actually start to love writing itself, and grow and improve, until I wrote those things I actually wanted to write but was supposedly so terrible at.

Oftentimes writers won’t actually write in the genres they like and read because they think it’s not for them. They feel inadequate. Unworthy. And it feels easier to fail at something you don’t actually want than something you really do. That’s how our messed up brains can rationalize these kinds of moves.

So writers often settle for circuitous routes to try to satisfy their desire to write, by writing in genres they think are “easier,” creating characters or plots or situations that are simple enough for them, and then they wonder why they keep hitting walls in their ability or grow bored or frustrated.

Not Editing

Plenty of writers can complete a piece of writing, but then they fail at one of the most fundamental parts of the process because they don’t go back and edit the damn thing. Writing it down in the first place is the easy part. But actually going back into the guts of what you wrote takes courage.

Writers who are afraid to edit will usually make up some convincing story about how they’ll get it right next time, or they don’t need to edit, or editing would suck away the magic spontaneity of the moment, or it’s hopeless anyway, so why bother? They realize that they can’t have perfection, so they won’t even try.

Not Even Starting

You probably know all the excuses to avoid writing: You don’t have enough time. You’re tired. You’re hungry. You sit down and your mind begins to wander. You’ll write a novel when you retire. You’d rather play a video game instead. The blank page fills you with blind panic. You’re not sure what’s at the bottom of this bottle of whiskey, but maybe there’s a treasure map leading to a chest of old doubloons and you better drink the whole thing just to be sure.

This is when fear has gripped the writer so completely that even starting feels like a monumental task. And the brain employs all sorts of psychological and physiological tricks to get you to avoid doing what you’re afraid of. It’s why you can sit down to write and an hour later, blink and wonder why you’re at the bar or haphazardly cleaning the ceiling fan. It’s as if your whole body has turned against you.

Sometimes just starting to write is the most difficult thing you can do. The first and greatest hurdle. Once fear gets a hold of you, it becomes easier to live inside of its circumference. It becomes easier every day to say no, and your future as a writer gets a little dimmer.

But once you take that first small step, everything can change. It will be messy, imperfect, and potentially terrible. But if you could see the future that awaited you as a failure that didn’t even try—and I mean truly see it in high-tech, stereoscopic detail—you wouldn’t even feel as if you had a choice.

The Solution

I had started out this article creating a solution paragraph for each section. But then I realized that the solution to all of these problems is basically the same.

You must remember that you cannot stop fear by merely willing it away.

You must remember that you will be afraid, and you must still write through it.

Once you have identified the ways in which you let fear control your writing, you have tons of resources available. There are already thousands of pieces written about how to create good plots, make realistic characters, write in different genres, and edit properly. These aren’t difficult to find. But identifying what these problems are for you personally, and realizing you need to work through them, is the first and most important step in learning how to work through fear.

And after that, you must allow yourself to become vulnerable to the possibility of being destroyed by the things that you create.

About the author

Autumn Christian is the author of Ecstatic Inferno, We are Wormwood, and The Crooked God Machine.

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