Top Four Writers' Phobias, and What to Do About Them in 2018
By Katrin Schumann
I write a lot about writers’ insecurities because for 99.9 percent of us, fear lurks behind the brave faces we put on. Depending on where we are in our careers, we may all be afraid of different types of failures, but these deep-seated anxieties rarely go away completely.
Most artists learn to live with fear—and some learn to use it to drive toward better work. I might even dare to say that if you don’t experience doubt or fear, you should be worried. Overconfidence usually doesn’t serve writers well.
Here are some tips on how to make friends with what scares you.
1. “Everyone is more confident and successful than I am.”
You walk into a conference room filled with writers happily chatting about books. Or you’re at a reading and people are making a beeline for the “famous author,” asking for exactly what they want. They’re not hanging back. They’re not uncertain about what to say. You are the only one riddled with doubt—you’re probably the only one here whose writing is actually crap! Why did you even come?
There are a thousand nasty iterations of this phobia. Creative types are often introverts, so negotiating the community and business side of the writing world can be especially tricky for them. And for those of you who work things through by writing, having to think on your feet in a high stress situation—in front of people you want to impress!—is nigh on impossible.
The wonderful truth here is that practice makes perfect. Go to enough readings, participate in enough workshops, stretch yourself socially, and eventually you’ll get the hang of it (and you’ll come to realize that everyone has their own private, hellish version of self-consciousness).
- Push yourself to attend more events … to keep growing, we all need to make connections with other writers and with writing professionals.
- Volunteer at an event so you have a purpose.
- Give yourself permission to hang back and observe—as long as you’re learning something, you’re not wasting time and opportunity.
- Practice different techniques for getting conversations going—a great one is to ask people, “So, what work are you excited about?” which shifts the focus from you to them (and every writer likes to talk about their work).
- Fake it till you make it. This simply means smiling, being friendly, showing up, listening, and learning to talk about your work coherently.
2. “The ideas that interest me are drivel. No one will care about what I have to say.”
A friend of mine wrote a popular book based on her love of quilting. Personally, that word in and of itself is enough to send me to sleep, but I loved her book. Why? Her authoritative voice, the way quilting was used as an entrée into an exploration of family and nurturing, the simple language. Jennifer Eagan admitted that writing a historical novel about the old New York waterfront was terrifying after the experience of winning a Pulitzer for “The Goon Squad.” But she spent years researching and writing about her obsession, because she was compelled to do so by some mysterious artistic impulse.
Writers have to trust that the ideas that move and motivate them deserve to be explored. Yes, at some point in the writing and editing process they must shift focus and consider the reader in order to create work that connects with others—but until then, have at it.
- Banish judgment, as much as you can, in the early stages. If you can allow yourself a shitty first draft (as Anne Lamott explains in her seminal essay on writing) all the better.
- Write for your ideal reader. Keep this kind, interested, encouraging person in mind as you struggle with turning abstractions into story.
- Be open to feedback but take all commentary with a grain of salt. Not everyone is going to like your idea. However, if people are consistently uninterested in your story, then…
- … work on developing your craft so that you can take what you find interesting and make it come alive for others.
3. “I just don’t have enough time/ talent to finish this project. It can’t be done…”
Most writers struggle with doubt about the validity of their projects at some point in the process. The single easiest way to avoid failure and misery is to find reasons not to write in the first place. There are a million and one excuses why you can’t write today… and they’re all valid—but they’re also basically irrelevant.
The number one reason people don’t get their books published is because they quit before finishing. But if you have time to watch TV or check Facebook or read, you have time to write.
- Figure out what motivates you and recognize that one size does not fit all.
- Touch your work for at least ten minutes a day. This includes thinking about your project. Before you know it, this will snowball into an actual writing practice.
- Focus on the smaller goals along the way to publication. Your goal doesn’t have to be getting published—it can be completion. It’s hard to write an entire book, and simply finishing it is a huge achievement.
- Enjoy the process. We all experience the thrill of flow at times, but writing can also be a slog. Get up and jump around. Blast some nutty music. Go to a gallery. Play with a dog or a guinea pig. The shot of joy you feel will allow you to bring some of that positive energy to your work.
4. “My writing is never, ever going to be good enough.”
You read the bestseller list and your heart sinks: you’ll never be as clever/ imaginative/ insightful/ as George Saunders, Zadie Smith or Eckart Tolle. You’ll never be lucky enough to accidentally tap into the Zeitgeist, like Kristen Roupenian (who got a $1 million two-book deal after publishing a short story called Cat Person).
I could go on and on… I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t despair of not being able to live up to the high standards of the writers they admire. I believe that even writers you may think of as being impervious to envy or jealousy are just really good at hiding it. It is totally human to compare yourself to others.
- Accept that the fear of not being good enough—of being overlooked and underappreciated—is real, and we must all learn to live with it. Sorry, but it will not go away the more successful you are.
- Practice loving kindness toward yourself. One way of doing this is to actively change your self talk. Try acknowledging what you achieve each day by making a list of every single thing you get done.
- When feeling envy, do something generous toward the other writer; for instance, tweet about them, write a good review, or send them an email. In her essay, The Green-Eyed Writer, Robin Black says, “there is something incredibly cleansing about forcing oneself to be gracious when one feels slammed by another’s success.”
- Meditate or chant, or find some repetitive action like running or swimming, that clears your mind and allows you to let go of the destructive feelings overtaking you.
- Do something fun with someone you love… and then get back to writing.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann
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