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So You Want To Write A Book: Creativity and Fear

A few weeks ago, my whole body was shaking as my right index finger was poised to press SEND. The email on my laptop screen was a request for a “blurb,” aka a testimonial, for Graveyard of Safe Choices, my memoir about weighing the costs of authenticity and becoming brave at any age. I had a list of authors—some famous, some less than famous—with whom I had some personal connection.

Their testimonials would help elevate my manuscript as I pitched it to agents and editors—the gatekeepers in the book publishing industry.

That rush coursing through my body? I recognized it. It was fear. What if no one said yes to my request? What if no one even deemed my request worthy of a response?

I thought of the hours—truly the years—I had put into this book project. My story, my life, my choices, AND my ability to effectively communicate all of that on the page—were about to be put on display for the world to judge …

FEAR. It shows up for creatives, it shows up for writers.

Let’s first acknowledge that writing a book is a big hairy audacious goal. Over 80% of Americans say they want to write a book sometime in their life, but less than 2% will actually achieve that goal.

Perhaps you are one of those people who have decided to take action instead of just dreaming or talking about writing a book.

But once that thought moves from dream to action, an unwelcome companion will inevitably sneak up on you. Fear. Fear of starting. Do I really have anything new to say? Will anyone even care? Fear of getting through the messy middle. What was I thinking when I said I could write a book? Fear of being rejected when you reach the finish line. 

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear writes a letter to Fear. It’s so good I’m quoting it in full here:

Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities—but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.

Let’s unpack this letter:

Fear will always show up in the creative process. Why? Because creating is bringing something into existence that wasn’t there before. As Liz Gilbert says, you are entering into the realm of the unknown. And the unknown is scary.

As writers, you are taking the story or big idea that’s been in that nice safe private space—your head—and exposing it by expressing it on the page. That’s vulnerable. That’s scary.

So when fear shows up in your writing process, accept it. It’s natural. Don’t judge yourself for feeling afraid.

So if you are scared shitless to send out an email asking a sort of famous person for a blurb, THIS IS TOTALLY NATURAL AND HUMAN. It’s nothing to be ashamed of :)

That’s part of the reason why I shared that little story with you. It’s so easy to have the voices in your head beat you up for feeling afraid, thinking you are pathetic to be scared to send a stupid little email. It’s so easy to let fear stop you.

And if you are wondering what happened here? 

I did press send, even though it felt scary and vulnerable. I pressed send several times. I’ve gotten 3 yeses so far, one no responses, and one no, albeit a very nice no from a very busy octogenarian best selling author. 

Remember, don’t let fear drive your decisions.

Liz Gilbert says she makes space for fear. So how does a writer do that?

Let me tell you a story about one of the writers I’m working with now. Let’s call her Sam. Sam came to me with several ideas for a book and through my Find Your Story process, we landed on the one idea she wanted to explore in her self-help book. I sent her to do some research on what other books were out there in that empowering women space. This is called competitive title research. It’s important to understand what other titles are out there in your category and how your book will add to the conversation.

Sam later reported to me that her initial research left her feeling like she had nothing new to say. It had all been said before. By people way more famous than her. Why would anyone care what she had to say? Fear and self-doubt, a cousin to fear, crept in. So what did Sam and I do with this fear? First, we acknowledged it and then we dug into it. I took Sam through a process of getting really clear on what she has come to the page to say. Why she is the perfect person to write this book. What unique twist or fresh angle she will bring to the subject matter. So one antidote to fear is to acknowledge it and dig into it. Sam didn’t let her fear stop her. By digging into her fear, she’s now more clear than ever about what she’s come to the page to say.

Here’s another author’s take on fear and the creative process:

“Are you paralyzed with fear?” Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. “That’s a good sign. Fear is good. … Fear tells us what we have to do … The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

As a writer, have you ever had a moment like that? That moment of absolute terror when you knew with certainty that the super scary thing was the exact thing you had to do? I had one of those—and you’ll have to read my memoir, Graveyard of Safe Choices, to find out all about it!

What’s your creativity over fear story?

I’d love to hear it.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Fear will always show up in your writing journey because writing is bringing something into existence that wasn’t there before and the unknown is scary.
  • Let fear come along for the ride with your creativity but don’t let it drive your decisions.
  • One antidote to fear is to dig into it.
  • Fear can provide you with useful information; it can point you in the direction of exactly what you need to do.
  • Don’t beat yourself up when you feel afraid in your writing journey. In fact, if you aren’t afraid at least some of the time, you may be playing too small.
  • Be afraid and do it anyway. Take action on that book you’ve been dreaming about. Life is too short to stay stuck or to play small.

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