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When Fear Gets in the Way
by Moira Allen

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

I am 21 years old. I am sure that I can be a very good writer; this isn't just my opinion. The problem is that I have no energy and no inspiration, although I have brilliant thoughts. Can you help me find inspiration?

The problem you describe is not so uncommon. What you're looking for, I think, is not so much "inspiration" as "motivation." You have lots of ideas, but you don't have the drive to sit down and put those ideas on paper.

I would bet that one problem is that you are already a busy person. Are you in college? If so, you probably have a lot of homework and writing assignments to do as it is, and you may be finding it difficult to sit down to "creative" writing after having to do so much "required" writing. Do you work? Again, it's often very tough to find the energy to write after a full day on the job. These are problems every writer faces.

Another problem may be the expectations you have of yourself. You have brilliant thoughts, and that's great. But do you expect your writing to be brilliant? You may have concerns that what you put on paper isn't going to live up to the brilliant ideas in your head. This, again, happens to most of us: We can "see" what we want to say, but it never seems to come out that way.

Do you feel that when you try to write, you must produce something worthwhile, complete, meaningful? Do you expect yourself to sit down and write an entire story? Try writing with no particular goals -- writing scenes, exercises, bits of dialogue. Remind yourself that the first things you write may not "measure up" at all to what you dream of writing. That's also the way it is for most of us. Our first efforts are rarely that good.

Writing is like any other skill; quality comes from practice. No one would expect you to pick up a paintbrush for the first time and paint a masterpiece. They would expect, instead, for you to daub some color hesitantly on a page, and maybe produce something that bore some faint resemblance to the ideas in your head. Same with sculpture, music, or any other art, craft, or skill. The gap between what you imagine and what you can create in the beginning is often huge and dismaying.

The only way to cross that gap is to sit down and write. Don't worry about how good it is, or whether it measures up. Don't worry about whether you can sell it, or whether anyone else likes it. Start getting those words on the page, even if only a few at a time, and you'll find that it quickly gets better and easier. Don't ask anything of yourself except the time required to put down the words.

Time is the key -- motivation and discipline are the tools. You can wait forever for that feeling of "inspiration", of burning desire, to strike. One day you'll wake up and realize you got old and it never did. Writing does not hover overhead, waiting to bless us; it must be captured, with a net, and wrestled forcibly onto the page. We have to tell the muse, "heck with you, I'm going to write today whether you show up or not!" And then sit down, and do it, even when we feel like slow, boring hacks.

Discipline will help you carve out a period of each day for writing, any kind of writing. Try to start with 15 minutes of your day. (In time, you'll find it hard to stop, but right now, it's hard to start.) Find exercises or ideas that you can "play with" without placing heavy-duty expectations on yourself. Write not for the sake of creating a specific product, but simply for the sake of exercising this skill.

Consider taking an online writing course that requires homework. Nothing "motivates" like having someone else tell you that you must write a certain number of pages in a week! Suddenly you can no longer afford to wait for inspiration; you must write anyway! And that's when you find that inspiration really isn't something that strikes from above, but something that you dredge up out of yourself only when you have made the commitment to seek.

Getting Past the Fear

I know that I can write. I have hundreds of ideas, either written down or dictated on tapes. I have read over 30 books on writing. I really don't believe that I suffer from "writer's block". [But] I get this awful feeling in my stomach, whenever I try to sit down and actually write something. I have the ideas in my head, but the words don't come out on paper. I can't seem to get a running start. How do I get past the feeling? What is it? I hope that your advice will be useful to my dilemma.

The feeling is "fear." It is one that we all face. It doesn't seem to matter whether you are a "new" writer or an experienced one; we still get these feelings. Some of us get them when we face any new project; I know I do, and I've been in the business for more than 20 years.

The reason I have been in the business for 20 years, however, is not because of "lack of fear," but because I have managed to sit down and get those words on paper in spite of those feelings. Feelings can be very uncomfortable, but they will not actually hurt you. They are simply your mind's way of saying, "Hey, I don't think I know what I'm doing here, and I'd be a lot more comfortable if you let me do something I feel 'safer' with."

Writing is not a safe activity. It involves a high probability of rejection, of not getting the words the way we want them, of failure. We can fail in so many ways. Not having our work "accepted" by editors is only one way; another is to simply fail to "live up" to our own expectations of ourselves.

One question you might want to ask yourself is what your expectations are. Do you expect to write flawless prose immediately? Do you find that what you write doesn't live up to what you "imagined" -- those scenes in your head that never come out as you pictured, on paper? (We all have that problem too.) Do you find yourself constantly "editing" your ideas before you can get them written down?

Do you expect to be criticized, rejected, or humiliated by others who read your writing? Note that this is a conflict of "expectations." The first problem is that you expect that your writing must be good to be worth doing. The second problem is that you expect that others won't find your writing "good enough." Thus, you may feel that since you can't write well enough to overcome the criticisms of others, you shouldn't be writing at all.

Do you believe that you should be able to immediately sell what you write? If you believe that (a) your writing should be saleable, or it isn't worth doing, and (b) you have doubts about whether it is saleable yet, then (c) you're likely to block yourself from actually doing it.

And yes, "block" is the operative word. If you can't write -- i.e., you can't actually put words on paper -- then you have a form of writer's block. Having wonderful ideas is not "writing" -- the act of writing itself is what separates those of us who have wonderful ideas, and those of us who actually become writers.

How do you get past the feeling? The first answer is "you don't." You write in spite of the feeling. You acknowledge the butterflies, take a Pepto-Bismol if you have to, and write -- even though it feels terrible. The only way to get past the feeling is to go through the feeling, rather than (a) waiting for it to go away or (b) trying to work around it. It's like exercise -- if you wait until you feel energetic enough to want to exercise, you'll never do it.

That's the first answer, but here's another -- if the act of writing ties you up in knots, try an approach that you are already using with some success: Dictating. There's no law that says that "writing" actually has to be done with fingers and keyboard (at least to start). If you have a great idea, dictate it onto tape. Then, transcribe the tape. Once you've done so, you will have already achieved the basic act of "recording" your idea -- now you no longer have have to worry about "writing" and can concentrate on editing and polishing what you've already created.

Another option is to look into software like "Dragon" that allows you to dictate directly to your computer. In this way, you bypass the taping-and-transcription steps; the computer "types" your words as you dictate. Many people find this very useful -- many find it easier to "tell" a story orally than to "type" it physically. You may be such a person. The software requires some time to "break in" (you'll get some amusing results in the early stages), but I've heard that once you've become accustomed to it (and it to you), it works quite well.

Don't be afraid of fear. It's natural; it won't hurt you. The only thing that will hurt you is letting that fear rob you of the joy of creating.

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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