A Thought on the Fear of Writing Badly




The enemy of creativity is not perfectionism, it’s something that’s becoming more common a figure in our lives and something that we’ve never had much of a problem with until now–now that we have too many of them.  Our creative enemy is one of choice.

Making choices—while writing, while drafting, while editing, and while polishing—is one of the most important but also most unconscious things we do as writers. In the end, writing just comes down to choices, the same as any art, the same as anything in your life. A million little choices. Writer’s block happens when you stopping making choices.  Because you’re afraid of making the wrong ones, this leads you to then want to make the right ones, which makes you hyper-aware of yourself and, worse, your art—you want to say something significant or perfect or legendary. This is where your ego comes in. Or, you just want it to be right. This eventually dries you up. The best way to throw someone off balance is to keep telling them to keep thinking about not falling.

We need to push through.

But nothing—nothing—can be done unless we make choices; and making choices involves faith. Faith in ourselves as artists, faith in the story and its characters, faith in what I see and feel that the story should be. I could always change my mind, but then I’m right back to where I made that choice. It’s difficult. So know your enemy. It’s not lack of talent, it’s not lack of ideas, it’s not your parent’s or anyone else’s fault. The problem is not even perfectionism.  It’s just a reluctance to make choices (easy ones as well as difficult ones involving your own personality but, ultimately, involving the pursuit of truth through words) because of the fear of failure, which ultimately the fear of being vulnerable.

One of the reasons why writing is so difficult is because it involves the most mentally challenging and notoriously slippery conscious-making art forms (we use language, a rigid, unforgiving form of knowledge by way of our senses, which is a loose, multifaceted form of knowledge, to tell stories about people and things happening) to make something that on average takes about three or fours years, in its longer form and if it’s any good. Every other art form can be forced into its own production, even on accident. It’s why it’s so difficult to tell if something is good or not in the visual arts, and why, in the music industry, you can just throw things into a laptop to get a hit song. With poetry, you can get lucky, with plays you can have some interesting characters to help you, and with short stories, you can find an audience if you have a keen voice and/or an interesting style. But with the longer form, literature, rarely will you have a great work of art that’s thrown together. What this means is that these specific writers need to spend time on their story. Sometimes, a longer time than usual, in the beginning especially; and the longer time you spend with it, the more doubts you have. It becomes then more about trying to short-circuit your mind—the very mind that also helps you to create and compete—to get anything done.

Again (do you understand what I just wrote there? Let me repeat it):

In order to finish your work and keep finishing more works, you need to trick and sometimes even ignore the state of mind that you’ll later need to complete your work.

And suddenly, so gravely true is the quotation, “Not many people have killed themselves trying to read a book, but many have killed themselves trying to write one.” Where else in the art world is a figure of a human being so pitiful as one trying to write a novel? No one can see your draft until it’s at a competent standard of completion or even just at logistical sequence, and when you do show it, nine times out of ten, it will not be what that piece will look like at the very end because so many stories turn on a chapter’s presence, a turn of phrase, or a character’s omission or addition. What would ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ be without Boo?  ‘Anna Karenina’ without her suicide?  ‘Death in Venice’ without the death at the end?  And what would ‘The Sound and The Fury’ be like if Faulkner had gotten his request for using different colored fonts?  Or Woolf’s novels written in a safe, linear style?  Choices make the book what it is, for better or for worse.  And not just one choice, but most times, a million.  It’s any wonder any books ever get written at all (maybe that’s why nothing significant has come out in the last decade or so, nothing that stands out as a classic or nothing from a writer of breadth or mastery).

It all comes down to choices, and we as creative people want to make the right ones. The enemy of my creativity is not perfectionism—I know I’m not perfect nor do I want to perform perfection in my stories. Nor is it money nor fame nor sex nor any other object outside of myself. And the enemy of my creativity is not my mind—there are two minds of me anyway, so to blame all would be to blame both. The enemy of my creativity is my fear, which comes in many forms and has many accomplices, but only goes by one name—fear of being vulnerable. Edna St. Vincent Millay once quipped, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”  For good or bad, here we are, folks, with our pants down.  This quote comes closest to how it is not just to write what you think and feel but to publish it and to live with it. As our lives becomes more and more exposed to the Internet and those of every kind and temperament on the Internet, I fear that there will be more and more of an instinct in our literature to not be vulnerable, to play it safe, to try and win friends and influence people, or to try and be ironic and crass.  Added to this is the other class the craftsmen, the whores, and the vain–those who write by a formula, those who write for money, and those who write to be liked–and you see the literary world we live in.

This fear, this fear of vulnerability, is the key to creative freedom. I do not possess a lack of that fear, no one has ever or will ever have a lack of it, and I will tell you, the harder it is for you to say, the harder will be to write it. But I have courage.  Courage is not the lack of fear, it’s performing a duty in spite of being afraid.
I’ve found my enemy today. Now let me study this fear, be conscious of it when it overcomes me. Let me realize that it’s internal, an animal instinct, and not anyone’s affair. This is my cross to bear and my enemy to do battle with.

Everything—everything—stems from this fear that blocks me.
Don’t be afraid. We are all afraid of vulnerability. Know your enemy. Be wary, like the watching of a wild animal. Study it, watch it, and when the time comes to battle it, treat every scrap like it’ll be your last.

Chant with me–

Let me not be afraid.

Let me not be afraid.

Let me not be afraid.


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