Writing Through The Fear Of Words


Though I on occasion feel confident in calling myself a writer, I am, more often than not, someone who downright despises, and sometimes outright hates, words and the idea of words. This is in large measure because they are very powerful things. Powerful things I can get mightily confused by. Words scare the beejezus out of me. I am often upset and downright baffled by grammar and syntax. My gut twists and swells over the placement of commas and semicolons. I am terrified of form and context. I am bored, unmoved and unmotivated by words. I rarely delight in single words and their meanings. I often think that the shape and feel and sound of a word should mean something else entirely. "Meningitis doesn’t sound like it should have anything to do with the spine! It feels... it sounds like a nasal issue".

I do not think in words. As long as I’m thinking about words it feels as if I will have a heart attack, hyperventilate, pass out. My fingers freeze up at the sight of the keyboard, and then with much effort, they settle into typing. But this typing is like a schizophrenic ballerina with a broken ankle. Am I dyslexic? Something else? Something worse? I think in pictures, and therefore, I find that cinema — ah, yes! The movies! — as an art form is a better siphon for filtering and understanding the world around me.

Words were never the enemy. Writing was never a crutch, a burden.

And yet, there have been those times I have cried over texts, found illumination amidst letters. I find that writing is still the relatively easiest way for me to get an idea across to first myself, and then, perhaps on occasion, others. The secret for me here rarely lies with the words themselves, but rather within the words, or to be more precise, between the words, between the lines right where the emotions, the feelings, the electric moments have been invisibly paved by the author. In knowing this do I then feel something myself. I suppose one could call it authenticity — of course authenticity is going to mean something a little different to everyone.

This fear of words stems from, surprise, surprise, a place of shame. If I want to briskly ignore myself in such an equation as this, I get general, philosophical, and say it’s all a part of the Westerner’s condition. This may be true, but it’s not a point to further dig into here. To look back at myself, we must turn and greet my childhood.

I am 7 years old. I have yet to learn how to read. I’ve been dictating stories to my parents for years. I draw comic books everyday. I am 8 years old. I am learning how to read. I take my time. I am 9 years old. I am now writing in beautiful cursive. I have just read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I am a horrible speller. Shouldn’t every word be spelled the way it sounds? I am stubborn in my process. I don’t want others to tell me I am wrong. 9 years old is the age when adults cut the crap with kids, and kids begin to sling it faster and more furiously at each other than ever before. I begin to have crushes on girls. But why are they so mean? I feel like shit. Any sense of self I’ve been building up since the womb is being raided by outside forces.

The storm that is school is deafening. My writing gets very dark. I write about Death (scythe and cloak), about cursed library books that drag curious children inside their supernatural pages with gnarled branch-like limbs. Stephen King would be proud. My teachers tell me to work on my spelling. I don’t know how to fight back, so I get scared and I shut down. There, closed up in a ball, I begin to feel embarrassed and then ashamed of what I feel I can’t do or am told I am supposed to do. The fear of the other settles in. The fear that they’re all better. Phantom judgments — what will they say? — make home in my gut. The they becomes all encompassing, unknowable, faceless, and has an utterly powerful hold over me. As adolescence approaches that shame of not being good enough in another’s eyes transfers to words, which up to that point have been a useful tool to lay down pictures. What am I not doing right when I write? It only gets more complicated from there on out. I am 12 years old. I write. I am 16 years old. I don’t understand. I am 21 years old. I have to stop thinking. I think too much. I am 26 years old. I write.

Two weeks ago I started tutoring elementary aged children at 826LA, an after-school program originally started in San Francisco by literati-maestro with a thousand hats, Dave Eggers. Though I’ve worked with children before this is the first time that I can, somewhat objectively, see in their writing my own trials at their age, and I recognize now that I had the most powerful writing tool at my side all along: the imagination.  

In a week I will be 30. I am writing. I don’t make a living doing it. But I write by my own terms. My own truths. I am still afraid of words. I laugh. Still afraid of old friends, friends who never turned their backs on me, friends who lifted me up out of the deluge. Words were never the enemy. Writing was never a crutch, a burden. Writing through the fear, to the heart of it all was the best possible path I could take. I am writing. I am still afraid. I still feel like shit, and a lot of the time I have no clue what I am doing, but I am writing and... Oh. Hey there. It all makes a little more sense now.

Ben Umstead

Column by Ben Umstead

Born in New England, bred around the Capital Beltway, and schooled in the heart of Hollywood, Ben is the East Coast Editor at Twitch. He can once again be found wandering the streets of Los Angeles in the hopes of spotting the ghosts of Ray Bradbury, John Fante and/or Charles Bukowski.

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pauldhartFilm's picture
pauldhartFilm September 10, 2013 - 9:18pm

This may merely deal with the written word but it speaks to anyone who creates in an artistic sense. The internal critic that plagues all creation is difficult to negotiate. The external flack that hampers the implementation of inspiration, even from a young age, factors in to how we perceive what we write - what we create.

Fight the noise that causes fear in your process and listen to what Ben has so succinctly described as the roadblocks of creativity above.

Graham Paul Donovan's picture
Graham Paul Donovan from London is reading Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre September 11, 2013 - 6:38am

What a great article. Thanks.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine September 11, 2013 - 8:48am

I agree, this applies to all types of art. Sometimes it is a struggle. Great, personal take, Ben.

Ben Umstead's picture
Ben Umstead from L.A. is reading Speedboat by Renata Adler September 15, 2013 - 11:33pm

Thank you all for reading. I really wasn't sure how this was going to hit, if I was even coherent enough to make sense to an audience of, well, any size. I'm glad that something of my own journey could be apprecitated by others.

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons September 30, 2013 - 12:40am

Thank you!  A nice  way of reminding us that we all have insecurities  threat we can overcome, or at least draw from for our writing. 

Ben Umstead's picture
Ben Umstead from L.A. is reading Speedboat by Renata Adler October 8, 2013 - 12:45pm

You're most welcome. It's a helpful reminder, most certainly, just to be vulnerable and transparent in one's process is a gift we writers have. If anyone can lead me towards more pieces, more voices like this I'd appreciate it.