The One Thing that Separates Great Writers from the Rest

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Not just anyone can be a writer.

Common wisdom says that writing takes persistence, a relentless belief in your own imaginary worlds, and the kind of thick skin that can take constant rejection. And yes, the pursuit of writing does call for all of these qualities, but perhaps hardest of all is the subtle demands it makes on a person’s store of courage.

To be a writer, a true writer who reaches their full potential, you have to move out of your comfort zone every single day.

Most people habitually operate from a place of fear. They stay in the job they hate because it provides a steady paycheck. They cling to the relationships that have been dead for years because they’re terrified of being alone. They resist change in any form—eating in a different way, dressing in different clothes—because change is unknown. And when fear dictates your choices, the unknown is something you refuse to let into your life.

Writers, on the other hand, can only truly grow by finding a place to live and thrive within the unknown.

Most of our fears come down to self-judgment, and the preconceived notions we have about how others might judge us. As we consistently practice moving out of our comfort zone, we learn to release these fossilized ideas based on fear. We move into a space where we can accept the fluidity of the present moment, and the uncertainty of the future. As you let each moment unfold in front of you as it happens, you can accept whatever that moment brings you. Maybe there is pain in that moment, and maybe you do feel rejected or judged. But maybe too there can be surprise and delight, a connection you didn’t expect, a leap forward you never thought was possible.

As you examine the boundaries of your own comfort zone, consider these common fear-triggers for writers:

Telling others that they consider themselves a writer
Showing others their work
Joining a writing group
Finishing pieces (e.g., writing the ending to the story, finishing their novel, etc.)
Accepting/considering outside feedback
Standing up and reading their work in front of a group
Submitting their work to be judged (e.g., to journals and magazines, agents and editors, etc.)

The boundaries of your comfort zone depend entirely on you. If you’re a bestselling author, maybe you’re afraid of writing something different, a novel people would never expect out of you. If you’re a writer who’s never shown anyone your work, maybe you’re afraid no one will like it. If you’ve always wanted to join a writing group but never have, maybe you’re afraid the other writers won’t accept you.
It really doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum. Every writer is on their own journey, and at a unique place within that journey at any given moment in time. What matters is that you identify where you, and then do your very best to move forward. That means doing something that scares you.

This week, look at your own writing life and think about the next step. Contemplate your fears and take one conscious step to move out of your comfort zone. Turn down the volume on the voice of your inner critic. If you’ve been thinking about joining that writing group, do it. If you’ve been considering sending out your short story to an online magazine, send it. If you’re terrified of public speaking, stand up and read your latest poem out loud to your spouse or your best friend.

The key to doing this successfully is to give yourself permission beforehand. You grant yourself permission to make mistakes. You grant yourself permission to be imperfect. And you grant others permission to be themselves—judgments and all—without taking it personally, knowing that it has nothing to do with you.

Give yourself permission to be you. Grow into the writer you really are.

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34 Comments

  • Reply Ty 19 August, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    I think I ping just about every one on your list of common fear triggers. I try really hard not to let them get in the way. Really Glad to hear I’m not the only one.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 19 August, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      You are totally NOT the only one. That’s why I wrote this article, because it’s such a challenge for me to move out of my own comfort zone. So happy to hear that this resonates with others. Thank you so very much for your comment!

  • Reply Katie Anderson 19 August, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    I really enjoyed this article. I understand this pretty well. When I was younger I was afraid to do many of these things. I slowly grew out of some of those fears. I just read on another blog that there’s no “aspiring” in writer. You either are or you are not. Thanks for stopping by Nox Canto.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      Thanks for stopping by here and commenting! I had a hard time with the “aspiring” label too. I used it to describe myself for many years before I just said, “To hell with this! I’m a writer!” And now I never think of myself as aspiring anymore. It’s good to be just a plain old writer.

  • Reply Christina Lay 19 August, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Hi Lauren. Great post! I agree that writers have to overcome fear everyday, just to be brazen enough to put words to paper. Then every step brings up another fear. I was surprised at all the feelings that came when my first novel finally came out as an ebook. My god, people will actually be reading my book! It’s like having your brain turned inside out for all to see, and yet, it’s what I always wanted. Thanks for discussing this never ending challenge in such an inspiring way.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      I can totally relate. When I finished my first novel the very first thing I wanted to do was burn it! I know that sounds really weird, but I truly had the urge to do just that. Needless to say, I managed to refrain from burning the manuscript and now I’m still shopping it around. But you’re right, it is EXACTLY like having your brain turned inside out for others to see.

  • Reply Jon 20 August, 2013 at 3:01 am

    A wonderful post Lauren and so very true. I even come across the ‘micro-fear’ from time to time – when writing or editing is going really well, I’ll have to stop before I run into a passage that doesn’t work and the self-belief flies out of the window again.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      Haha, I’ve experienced that too! Isn’t it funny how writers have all these fears and “micro-fears”? Almost as intriguing as micro-climates (here in San Francisco we have a lot of those).

  • Reply Candace Johnson 20 August, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Great post, Lauren! You really articulated what keeps most writers from moving forward. But those who do are rewarded exponentially–perhaps not always financially, but in so many other ways. I’m sharing this motivating post with several authors I work with.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      Thank you so much for passing it on! I really appreciate the support!

  • Reply Katie Cross 20 August, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Wow, this was fantastic!

    I used to think I was the only writer who lived in denial about it for 15 years, but then when I met other people, I realized that i’m totally normal.

    Even to this day, when I take my writing very seriously, I still have a hard time talking to people about what my book is about. I love feedback, fortunately that’s never been a problem for me.

    Thanks for this great, buoyant post!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 2:40 pm

      I find it SO interesting that most writers usually live in denial about being a writer for so long before they come out of the closet about it. What is it that makes us deny our writing gift? Maybe we sense how tough the path ahead will be and so we resist it?

  • Reply Teagan Kearney 20 August, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Hi Lauren. Thanks for your encouraging post – I think writers need all the support they can get – and your words give a lot of that.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      That’s so awesome to hear. Thank you for these kind words 🙂

  • Reply Justine Covington 20 August, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Great post. My husband (not a writer) thrives on fear and risk-taking…business or otherwise (scorpions might be his only Achilles heel). He makes me so nervous sometimes! I’m not afraid to tell people I’m a writer or get feedback (years as a tech writer has given me tough skin), but I’m afraid I’ll be on the precipice of finishing my work, never to make that final jump. Must keep this post in mind as I wind up my book. Thanks!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      We should both take inspiration from your husband! We will fear nothing, except scorpions. I think we’ll be pretty successful writers if we can stick to that 😉

  • Reply ilona 20 August, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks for visiting my blog! This is a great post, especially the reminder to thrive within the unknown. As a first time visitor, I was struck by the design of your blog and the images you’ve chosen. Makes me feel right at home.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 20 August, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Thank you so much! All the images are pictures of street art around San Francisco that I’ve taken. It’s a beautiful city with gorgeous art on so many of its public walls. I feel right at home here 🙂

  • Reply Holly 20 August, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    For many years I’ve toyed with the idea of writing, and giving up my day job for the joys of freelancing. This week I made the decision that I’m going to do it (the freelance, not quite ready to give up the day job – one day!) Reading this post gave me so much courage. I have been scared to even really tell anyone because I feel afraid to fail, and that others will scoff at my decision. Your post made me feel proud of my small step – thank you so much for sharing.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 August, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Wow! You have no idea how inspiring this comment was for me! It was the first thing I saw this morning when I opened up my laptop and I think that’s a sign. If you can be that courageous then I can too. I’m going to do something that really scares me today, like send off one of my manuscripts to a dream publisher. Thank you SO MUCH for leaving this comment. You are awesome and you are going to ROCK your new freelance career. Also, are you on Google+? I’ve found hundreds of supportive writers there and lots of helpful writing communities as well. Would love to connect with you somewhere on social media and help you promote your new career!

  • Reply Evelyne Holingue 20 August, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Thank you, Laura for your candid post and also for stopping by and liking one of my blog posts.
    Go writers!

  • Reply Emily 21 August, 2013 at 4:57 am

    Hey Lauren, great blog so far! Found you on Lilica’s place, from her Sisterhood nominees – glad I did 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 August, 2013 at 8:45 am

      Oh that’s awesome! Thanks for stopping by and hope I see you again soon 🙂

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 21 August, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Great article and reminds me of a Stephen King quote: “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 August, 2013 at 3:31 pm

      That totally IS the scariest moment. I heartily agree!

  • Reply Al 21 August, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    I love great advice and reading about how each person see writing in full. Fantastic view…

  • Reply loretta 21 August, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Finally had a chance to come see your new site! Looks great, with excellent thoughts on writing, as always!

  • Reply Andrea 22 August, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Thanks for the encouraging post! I recently had to stand up and read my work in front of a group…. definitely great to face those fears.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 August, 2013 at 9:07 am

      The reading in front of a group fear is one I still struggle with, but I’m working on it a little more all the time. 🙂

  • Reply Tracy Morgan 22 August, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Such inspirational words. Thank you for leaving a like on my post today – it made me come here to have a look and this was just what I need right now. I love writing, would love to try and make a go of it, yet get discouraged. Thanks for this!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 23 August, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Of course! And all writers get discouraged. In fact, I would even venture to say that feeling persistently discouraged about your writing is the hallmark of a true writer. So you’re on the right path!

  • Reply Boris 22 August, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Great post! Very true what you say as well. All art and creative expression is intertwined with personal growth and generally, living life! Not many people see that though, even artists/creatives!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 23 August, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      Yes, I think creative expression is definitely intertwined with personal growth. Both journeys are long, daunting, and messy. Thanks so much for noticing and observing that I do intertwine the two on this blog 🙂

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