How to Deal with Being Afraid of Your Writing

“In order to move others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility.” ~ Joseph Conrad

Considering the highly personal posts on this site, it may seem strange to hear that I have a problem sharing my work. Writers who have been in this position will recognize my anxiety not only in its description but in the work itself. The work tends to be far too tight, wrung clean of many emotional passages as described above. And yet, as Joseph Conrad said above, when I was drafting the work something helped me toss aside the normal sensibility to produce original works that had the potential to move others deeply.

Over the years, I’ve learned to take great comfort in the process of revision. It’s a safe place. A place where no one needs to read what I’m working on, or if I do share it, it’s “just a draft”.

As a draft, the story retains all of it’s potential. However, after each revision, it gets a bit more difficult to carry off the next round. Friends who may be involved in the process lose interest in reading yet another rendering of the same old scene. The author (i.e. Me) begins to whittle away at the real energy behind the characters and the dialogue. Those moments of complete abandon that formed the near magical paragraphs written by someone else end up falling to the wayside in favor of safer alternatives.

For example, below is a paragraph from a book I wrote six years ago. The text comes from the seventh revision:

Thompson sounded like her father. His hand had worked its way down to her hip and it made her cringe. He was old enough to be her father. Trying to let the genie out of the bottle, Thompson rubbed her hip, but Renee was iced up, a ghostly harbor in the arctic. He rubbed harder.

Now, let’s go back to the very first revision:

His hand on her hip made her cringe. He sounded like her father. He was old enough to be her father. He was rubbing her hip, trying to let the genie out of the bottle. She was cold inside, frozen like some ghostly harbor in the arctic. He rubbed harder, trying to loosen her, make her warm.

Of course, dealing with paragraphs in isolation is not very helpful for getting past a fear of sharing the work. I know that you, the reader, have no context here so the paragraphs probably mean next to nothing. Who is Thompson? Who is Renee? What is the relationship between these two? Why on earth do all male writers insist on stereotyping women as frigid and then slap on tired metaphors about the arctic and assume they are creating art?

If we lay aside the bad writing for a moment, the real question is – why am I not sharing the whole page with you?

Frankly, the page in question makes me feel uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. The whole scene is uncomfortable. I use the excuse of poor writing to hide it away, but the subject itself is what I’m really trying to shove into a corner.

If I shared the entire book, you would see the fear reflected throughout the story. There are places where I go way off track, trying to distract myself from the real core of the story. The result is a disjointed hodge-podge.

Get on with it…

The real way to deal with your fear is to stop beating about the bush and put it out there.

It doesn’t matter how it got written. If the story meant enough to you to work on for weeks, months, years (decades?), you ought to share it. So, I’m going to put up the chapter that includes the paragraph above.

Although the book had a few very bad titles (including The Slaves of Burt Thompson), I eventually settled on Revisions. Revisions is the story of Burt Thompson, an award-winning novelist in his later years who feels like his entire life’s work is a failure.

As a cure for the “ills” of storytelling, Thompson takes it upon himself to forget language, to completely divest himself from the ability to understand or use words. He figures that if he doesn’t have the capacity to understand language he can be free from the stories that plague him and insist on being written (does this sound familiar?).

The novel begins with Thompson after he has achieved his dream. However, even though he is completely happy with his new, language-less self, a drama erupts around him as his agent, his ex-wife, and a young writer try to unravel the mess and restore Thompson the Novelist.

Disclaimer: The entire text of Chapter 15 just seven pages) is in the linked PDF file below. I feel like I have to say that this is not sunshine and roses. It contains adult themes, adult language, and some truly awful writing. If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite, let me just say that I’m putting this up because I believe that fear of sharing deeply emotional work is something all writers deal with.

Chatper 15 of Revisions

10 thoughts on “How to Deal with Being Afraid of Your Writing

  1. “The real way to deal with your fear is to stop beating about the bush and put it out there.” I am writing that on my forehead, Jamie… and perhaps it will sink in. You’re a hero (bad writing or no!) for putting it out there; and I’m taking a coffee break to read Chapter 15 right now. Thank you.

  2. @rjleaman Thanks, Rebecca! Please be sure not to use a Sharpie though or someone may think you passed out while reading my blog. 🙂

    @WriterDad Thanks, Sean!! I’m loving your mini-series on “The Quan”! Your sister’s final quote is pure gold:

    This was probably the only time not involving action figures that I was allowed in your room without being beat up.

    @xeoncat And thanks for saying so!

  3. Uncomfortable is good, isn’t it? Personally, I prefer reading work that makes me a little squeamish. It means that it’s real and that it has hit a nerve. I’d love to read the rest of this.

    As for the fear of putting it out there, this post resonates so powerfully it almost shook me off my chair. Nearly a year ago, I was working on my second unfinished first novel (does that make sense?) and a blogger (published novelist) proposed a great idea for kick starting creativity. Tim Hallinan (who also has an excellent Writer’s Resources section on his site) proposed The Dickens Challenge. The idea was for a group of people to dash off a chapter a week and post it, in order to banish the inner editor and see where we could go. I never imagined participating (moi?), but as the start date got closer, I couldn’t stop thinking about the germ of a story that had popped into my head. I went for it and so did close to a dozen others. It was fun and our regular blog readers, knowing these were first drafts cheered us on. It cured me of my paralysis, borne of perfectionism. And then — a reader/lurker posted about the folly of posting unfinished work. Most of the reasons she cited were things I couldn’t have cared less about (what if an agent reads your blog and sees this amateurish work? Huh? I was so far from thinking about whether I’d even end up with something I’d consider trying to publish that it made me laugh, and — Puh-leeze — as if literary agents have nothing better to do), but it shook my confidence and it made me feel self-conscious and embarrassed. I took all those posts down. Sadly, I lost the momentum I had going on the story for at least three months. Thankfully, I got it back and I’m nearly finished with a start to finish rough first draft and I do have a writer friend I can share new work with and that helps.

    I wanted to agree with your point and applaud you posting your chapter. I wish I had not allowed one snarky person to pummel my confidence and ruin what had been a productive and enjoyable experience for me. Write on!

    Lisa Kenney’s last blog post..Raw Clay and Alternate Endings

  4. @Lisa I know exactly what you mean.

    Back in 1998 I started writing a story that literally had me crying as I was typing it. “Jessica’s Hands” is an unfinished work and even though I haven’t looked at it for almost ten years I can still remember nearly everything about it. However, it was so intense that I set it aside and in losing that steam I could never bring myself to pick it up again.

    I’m glad to hear that you were able to get back to your work! If you need another writer friend to share it with, just drop me a line! 🙂

  5. Jamie, ah yes I am still amazed that I write for a living although my work for clients is not as emotional as writing your own words with your name on it. However, it has helped me get better at facing the fear. I still have those moments but have come to realize that I am simply the vessel. I tell the story and it will become something different to each person who reads it. They will view it through the lens of their experience, their perspective. Some will hate it, others will love it but none of that is what will make a good or bad writer. I will write crap and occasionally I will have moments of brilliance. I am glad that you took this leap. I liked the chapter and it left me wanting to read the book. Keep writing dear friend, and keep sharing. 🙂

  6. @Karen Thanks for the kind words as always! I’m glad you liked the chapter!

    What you’re saying there about being a vessel reminds me of an email I received from a new reader:

    I stumbled upon your blog, while seeking something else. I believe that something else were your words all along. What a gift to give someone who cannot find the words themselves for the pressing thoughts that are mere ghosts, until they escape to what makes sense.

    I know that my writing may not be the best, but I keep trying because I love it. 🙂

  7. Sharing creative writing can feel a lot like walking around the city naked. It’s taken a while for me to be able to get there, and I’m not really comfortable with it yet, but I’ve taken a very Nike attitude toward it all: Just do it.

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