Picture a scene from a horror movie—it usually goes something like this: The heroine sits on the couch to watch television after putting the kids to bed. She’s alone, it’s dark out, and it’s pouring buckets of rain outside. She turns up the volume on a breaking news story about an escaped convict hiding in the area. Just as the newscast ends, she hears a banging noise. She sits up and listens…there it goes again. She slowly wanders through the dark house, flicking on lights and waiting for the sound to lure her in the right direction. She thinks it was her imagination, but then, she hears it—creaking in the basement. After a moment, she eases the doorknob open and is faced with the drafty and dark silhouette of stairs leading into the unknown. She takes the first step down.
At this point, you should be screaming, “Don’t go into the basement!”
When writing fiction, it can be difficult to overcome your initial fear of the unknown. This is our natural, reflexive response when we perceive danger; we protect ourselves from all the terrible scenarios that might happen. Unlike a movie though, real life often requires us to face a multitude of fears in order to progress. But, as writers, we have another layer of fear—the one that keeps us from finishing the draft or sending out queries. The one that might keep us paralyzed for weeks, months, or even years. Like our horror movie heroine though, writers must go into the metaphoric basement.
So, what lurks in the dark that we’re so scared of? Writing is hard and messy, no doubt, and we have a normal resistance to endeavors that may not work in our favor. Ideas don’t always lead where we want, and the best paragraphs can seem awful after too may sessions of editing and rewrites. Add in your own inner voice of self-doubt and those negative Nancy’s in your life, and it can be a perfect storm of fear based on “what-ifs.” The best phrase to sum it up is, “If I don’t start, I can’t fail.”
The problem with not starting is that you want it. You want to write so bad that you’d give up doughnuts for a whole year just to finish something, but fear of the unknown gets in the way. Although most writers will continuously struggle with fear throughout their careers (so consider yourself in good company), the most effective way to combat it is to write your way through it. You’re probably now thinking, “If I could write in the first place, I wouldn’t need to read this post.” So, to make it clearer, you need to let yourself write—badly and without direction.
Yep, I said it. Write bad. Write terrible. Just write.
The unknown will always exist, and you’ll never have all the answers in the beginning. None of us do, and none of us ever will. If you confront your fear by writing, you’ll begin to diffuse its hold on you.
Think back to our horror movie heroine as she’s standing at the top of the basement steps. She’s wondering what might be down there. She knows she might not like it, but curiosity has already gripped her. And that’s what we, as writers, have to do also. Go into the basement, give in to curiosity and wonder even when you don’t want to. Follow the thread of ideas that your inner critic says are crazy, write down notes on a story that you think you can never do. If we hover at the top step, then turn around and shut the door, writing will never get accomplished. That would truly be the most fearsome thing of all.
The next time you find yourself staring at a blank page and you’re ready to abandon it for an easier distraction, I urge you to go into the basement and see what amazing things are lurking in the shadows. That escaped convict might have some interesting things to say.
How do you face fear in your writing life? Do you write through it, or have you found another way to combat the heebie jeebies?