Bookbag: Exorcising the fear of writing


You want to write. You want others to read your words, praise and publish them. You imagine yourself sitting in a chair, effortlessly churning out copy. You dream of submitting your work. And yet you can’t. You’re paralyzed.

You’re not alone. The world is full of writers who can’t summon the courage to start or to finish a story. For years, I was one of these, and on many days, I still am. The dreams of a novel and a memoir, a dramatic TV series, lie dormant, haunting me. An unfinished story that I thought had promise sat in my hard drive, unfinished. All it would take is opening the file and start typing. And yet I put it off. 

At times like this, I turn to Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, whose book, “How to Write: Advice and Reflections,” is an inspiring guide through the emotional minefields of the writing craft. I recently revisited the book, culling the most persuasive elements of his case about fear.

Before a career that would spawn several books, including one that recounts the making of the atomic bomb that won him the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, fear blocked Rhodes every step of the way. 

“If I began a short story or worked on a novel in the evening at home I drifted into trance states and couldn’t push through, couldn’t continue and finish,” he writes, “I had writer’s block before I became a writer. Nor was the quality of what I was writing even close to what I wanted it to be. I wrote Joycean or Faulknerian pastiches; when I tried to write in my own voice I overworked my sentences to the point of affectation. I was three hands clapping. I was too tight.’”

Sound familiar? 

“You may not suffer from such a condition,” he goes on, “but many people who want to write have difficulties getting started similar to mine. I know because I notice their response in the audience when I lecture about writing and mention fear: they look relieved.

The affliction starts early.

“Most of us were punished for telling stories when we were children,” Rhodes says, “which inhibited verbal invention with a flinch of shame. We learned in school that the rules of language are rigid and the standards of literature insurmountably high. So we storied away effortlessly among ourselves but went blank when the teacher asked us to open our notebooks and write. Unless you’re a paragon of self-confidence, such conditioning has its effect on you. Nor does society encourage the buoyant hypnotic state where the creative imagination floats.”

“Fear,” Rhodes continues, “stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”

The only solution, he writes, is to ‘write your way beyond your fear.” And the only prescription, oft told, is “to plant your ass in the chair.” 

Fortunately, Rhodes goes beyond that bromide to offer additional advice. 

“When the fear is upon you,” he says, “write for yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write as long you do it regularly. Set aside an hour or a half hour daily or as often as you can. If you don’t think you have time, keep a record of how you spend the quarter hours of your day and see where you can borrow (most people spend most of their time outside of working hours watching television).”

Here are two others tips Rhodes offers to battle anxiety and promote productivity:

“Steal an hour from sleep on alternate early mornings if there’s no other choice.”

“Use writing equipment you’re comfortable with—a pencil, a pen, a typewriter, a computer.”

And if even initial efforts inspire fear, Rhodes advises blocked writers to move into a “comfortable frame: write in a letter to a person you trust and file the letter (or mail it, if you prefer).” He reminds us that Tom Wolfe wrote his first Esquire piece as a letter to his editor. Rhodes suspects that Wolfe, a pioneer of nonfiction narrative who was a newspaper reporter at the time, chose the approach “because the pomp of writing a magazine piece was inhibiting.” The editor did one cut: he removed the salutation and published the piece.

There is much in Rhodes’ book to admire and learn from, from his suggestions to keeping a writing journal to advice on the business of writing, along with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at his journey from a fear-ridden hopeful to a hugely successful and productive writer. But there’s one piece of counsel that has stuck with me. Reproduced in large type and laminated in a single page, it rested on my writing desk for years where its wisdom prodded me to bust through writer’s block many times. It’s worth the price of the book alone. 

“If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another.”

It may be the wisest piece of writing advice I’ve encountered. After re-reading Rhodes’ book, it inspired me to finish that short story, and while I’ve yet to find anyone willing to publish it, I’m proud of the way it pushed back the fear of failure. I trust it can help you on those days when fear stands in your way.

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