What to Say to Yourself When You’re a Writer Struggling with Crippling Fear

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When I started writing my first novel I was scared to death. I didn’t even know it was  a novel at that time, but I was terrified nonetheless. I was afraid of sounding stupid, of discovering I had no talent. I was petrified that I was being utterly presumptuous by even calling what I was doing “writing.” Me—a writer—what a joke!

But what really gave me that sickening feeling of fear was the act of physically sitting down in front of the blank page. It was so emotionally uncomfortable I felt like I would rather being doing anything else.

During this time I did a lot of comparing. I looked around at other writers and assumed that they had their shit together. If someone was published I thought it was obvious that they were far more intelligent than I was, and much, much more competent. I believed that these other writers, who were successful and accomplished, felt no fear. That they had reached some magic place in life where the fear moments dwindled and then winked out, one by one, like stars extinguished by the dawn. I pictured them sailing around between book signings and literary events, clinking glasses and dropping witty, insightful comments every other second.

And then I finished my novel.

I still didn’t feel accomplished. In fact, I was even more scared. Now, it seemed I had a mountain of work ahead of me in editing and revisions. And then what? The thought of querying agents was terrifying, the thought of self-publishing even more so. When would the fear moments start disappearing for me? When would they be totally gone?

Well, flash forward ten years. I’ve written four novels and I’m working on my fifth. I published my guide for intuitive writers, The INFJ Writer, earlier this year. I’m a writing coach with my own business and I do freelancing work on the side. I get requests for interviews and emails from people who tell me The INFJ Writer has changed their writing life. So, how am I doing on those paralyzing moments of fear?

Yup, they’re still going strong.

The fear never stops. No matter what milestones you hit in life, you will always be trying to peer up the road, just a bit, and slightly quaking in your boots at what you might find there.

We always hear that fear is an illusion, but that’s not true. Fear is very real. It’s the stories that fear spins that are false. Fear will tell you that your idea for the novel you want to write has already been done and no one wants to read that type of thing anymore. Fear will tell you that you’re lacking some key ingredient in your personal makeup that all “good” writers have. Fear will tell you that if you self-publish your memoir on Amazon your Great Aunt Sally will end up reading it and hate you forever because of what you said about your cousin.

Fear has one goal—to get you to lose yourself in whatever story it’s spinning at the time.

Whenever fear snags us we feel it immediately in our bodies. Your head might start aching, your throat might constrict, or your stomach might drop. Whatever physical sensation occurs, it will be uncomfortable and your first urge will probably be to suppress it. But this is exactly the moment when you should pause instead and go deeper into the feeling. Examine the thoughts that were running through your mind when you started feeling not-so-good. And when you’ve nailed these thoughts down, use your writer’s imagination to picture the opposite.

What if your new idea for a novel only seems  like it’s been done before? What if you’re going to write a new twist into an old story and that new twist is just what readers have been waiting for? What if you actually do possess the key ingredient in your makeup that makes for an excellent  writer and it’s something you never would have suspected? What if, unbeknownst to you, your Great Aunt Sally never did like that annoying cousin of yours and is only too relieved that someone in the family finally spoke up?

By asking questions we start taking apart the fear, and not only do we see how flimsy the fear story is, we see the dozens of different outcomes life might hand us at any given time.

Anything can happen in this world. Literally anything. It’s our job as writers to keep questioning. It’s our task to peel back the layers of fear and say, “Yes, but what else?”

You can start by identifying your top three fears about writing. Every fear you have has a story attached to it, a story that fear has been repeating to you, over and over again, sometimes for years. So what story is attached to each of your top three fears? Is it really true? What would the opposite of that story look like? Could that be true instead?

A successful writer is not the writer who has published a long list of books, or won a long list of awards (although both would be very nice). The successful writer is the writer who moves through each moment of fear as it comes, and doesn’t let the fear stop them.

Every time you get ambushed by a new fear moment, pull out your questions, and then start moving through it. It’s by moving through fear one moment at a time, never giving up, that the best writers finally get where they want to be.

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6 Comments

  • Reply Charity 15 November, 2016 at 10:59 am

    *hits imaginary like button*

    Excellent post.

  • Reply Christy Esmahan 15 November, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Thank you, Lauren! I’m printing this one out to pin on my wall, in front of my computer, to re-read it as necessary! 🙂

  • Reply Alison Brodie 17 November, 2016 at 2:35 am

    I’m consumed by fear at this moment. It has stopped me dead. This particular fear is to do with marketing my upcoming release. There is SO MUCH to do, so many tangled routes to take. It’s like going through a jungle without knowing which path to take. I have made huge mistakes – I pushed the publication of my release beyond Amazon’s 30-day limit and they took my book off Amazon! What a disaster!

    I was fortunate when I first started writing. I did it as a hobby, it was my secret passion. I didn’t expect it to be published but I really enjoyed writing the story and how my characters came to life and wrote the story right in front of me! I couldn’t wait to get back to it every morning. At the finish, I did send it to an agent who snapped it up and got me a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton.

    This was when I knew real FEAR. Hodder wanted my second book asap – but I didn’t have a story! I had no ideas! The pressure was so intense, it paralysed me. Eventually the book got published (to my surprise) but it put me off writing for a long time.

    From that experience, I know that I cannot write under pressure, either from myself or from a publisher. Fear will stop your story coming to you; fear creates a barrier between you and your characters. The times I’ve had a story come to me was when I wasn’t even trying. I would never sit down with a blank piece of paper and a blank mind. No, no, no! I wait for the story to come to me in its own time, then I scribble down notes and when I think I have enough for a book, I write the whole thing out – fast – without stopping. That’s whe you know if the book is viable or not.

    I believe the secret to writing a good story is to enjoy writing it. To take your time. Write when you feel that overwhelming urge to write, when your characters are clamouring to be heard.

    I’ve read hundreds of articles, blogs, how-to-write books, but this is the first time I’ve read an article about the FEAR that writers go through. This is an excellent post, that for me has really hit a nerve, and given me hope; knowing I am not the only one who suffers.

    Thank you Lauren Sapala. x

  • Reply Danie Botha 19 November, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    “Anything can happen in this world … It’s our job as writers to keep questioning. It’s our task to peel back the layers of fear and say, “Yes, but what else?”
    And by doing that we stumble upon courage.
    Writers and authors are by nature of what we do, brave people.
    This doesn’t necessarily make us smarter or better, only “trained handlers of fear.”
    As our friend Mark Twain once summed it up, “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear–not the absence of fear.”
    You can ask any public speaker and they’ll tell you (if they’re honest), that right before each appearance and speech, they experience “butterflies and a degree of anxiety.”
    The art is to learn to channel the fear, the adrenaline to give you lift, like the flow of air over a plane’s wings–it raises you up, up, and up – make you soar.
    It’s not easy.
    It’s an art.
    But we can learn this.
    If we practice it every day.
    Thank you for the post and words of wisdom, Lauren!

  • Reply Hilary Custance Green 21 November, 2016 at 11:38 am

    As so often, your post is timely for me. Because of the writing, which I never expected to get very far, I am now dealing with an even bigger fear – public speaking. I have given 5 lectures so far on my last book so far, but tomorrow night I am shadowing the Toastmaster at the local speakers club… and I’m terrified. I will work through it as you suggest.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 November, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      Oh good luck Hilary! Public speaking IS terrifying. I will be thinking of you!

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