Writing and Fear: My Creative Struggle

“I hate writing, but I love having written.”

Those words of wisdom were uttered to me by a colleague of mine a few years ago when I was dawdling around the office kitchen, avoiding the story I needed to write waiting for me at my desk, and I have never forgotten them since. Yes. Yes. That is exactly it.

Writing is a painful process for me. I work in journalism, and most of my hobbies (zines, blogging, self-publishing) involve the written word, and yet after filing hundreds of stories and publishing several zines full of my own writing, it has never become easier. It is not so much the actual writing that is painful, but the idea of starting to write that scares me. I do everything I can to avoid putting those first tentative words down on the page. I go through my notes, write outlines, and conduct more interviews before I move on to more obvious forms of procrastination—scrolling around the Internet for far too long, completing unrelated chores, archiving my emails—all the while feeling a deep-seated anxiety in the pit of my stomach knowing that the inevitable will eventually arrive. The moment when there is nothing left to do but write.

The strange thing is, once I commit to that idea and start to compose those first few sentences, I almost immediately become absorbed in the activity, not looking up for long stretches of time—half an hour, forty-five minutes, an hour. I don’t feel the time passing, the story takes shape, and within a couple of hours (which feel like minutes) I have a first draft. Writing is one of the only activities during which I experience flow.

Largely because of the enormous hurdle I force myself to scale each time I begin to write, I rarely write without the fear of deadlines looming over my head. Without them, it is hard for me to feel desperate enough to start writing. This works out OK with my job, since deadlines are a natural and necessary part of a reporter’s life, but when it comes to my own personal writing, which is much different than how and what I write for work, I suffer. Unless I am held accountable by someone else, I find it difficult to locate the discipline and motivation within myself to actually write anything. I’m not proud of this, but it is the truth.

Last year, I forced myself to sign up for a personal essay and memoir writing class at the Crow Arts Manor at Milepost 5 taught by one of my zine idols Martha Grover, knowing that a writing class would force me to write. And write I did. A group of 5 or 6 of us turned in short pieces of writing and workshopped them each week for a couple of months. It was the most productive writing period I’ve had since I left college, and I hoped that the trend would continue after the class was over, but alas, it has not. Having that kind of structure with set deadlines was one of the main reasons I wanted to join the PDXX Collective, and while some weeks I doubt my ability to come up with something interesting for others to read, it has done wonders to improve the frequency of my writing. (Thanks, Mary!)

Obviously I still have some dragons to slay if I want to write the next great American novel or even just publish another zine (it’s been four years!) So for my own as well as your motivation, here are several books about writing that I have found to be inspiring and hugely helpful:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

From her website, it says that this book is “an embarrassing nonfiction narrative” about the process of writing. I can’t do it justice, so I will just post some of my favorite quotes from it:

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’”

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”

OK, ok, one more: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.”

It is excellent and hilarious and quietly passionate, and if you are even remotely interested in writing, you should read it.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

And lastly, Lynda Barry’s What It Is, which isn’t necessarily specific to writing but also to drawing and the act of creation in general. This book (graphic novel?) has tons of excellent writing exercises designed to get you over the initial fear of starting to create (something I desperately need.)

from Lynda Barry's What It Is
from Lynda Barry’s What It Is

Get out there and write! Just do it! It’s not as bad as you think it will be.

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