Fear of Writing
Updated: Aug 10, 2022
The first time I had a fellow writer tell me they had a fear of writing, I didn’t understand it.
I had been writing and selling non-fiction and a little poetry since High School. During that period, I felt the pressure of deadlines, hurrying to complete a piece and sending it off (in those days, in the mail). I had known the frustration of a piece not coming out exactly as I wanted it to, but not knowing how to fix it. I had experienced the sinking realization that an article that seemed full of promise was a dead end, and I had to find a way to make it interesting or forego the payment I was promised (and had usually already spent, at least in my head).
I had even received criticism. These were usually in the form of letters sent to the publication where my article appeared. If the criticism was over a fact, I was able to either say the writer was wrong or that I had been educated about something I either imperfectly understood or wasn’t aware of.
On very rare occasions, this criticism of a non-fiction piece was from someone who just didn’t like my writing.
This last kind of criticism surprised me and puzzled me. It didn’t puzzle me because someone didn’t like my writing, by the way. It puzzled me that someone didn’t like my writing to the point they went to the effort to write a letter about it.
The first time I received criticism like this, I developed a viewpoint that has stood me in good stead.
Nothing is universally liked. No one is universally liked. You may like a particular food, but others may become physically ill at the very thought of eating it. You may admire a politician, sports star, or entertainer, but other people may not be able to stand them.
The fact you like something and someone else doesn’t is more than a mere difference in taste. It means people have different viewpoints, experiences, values, and preferences that affect their judgment. It means one person loves something and another hates it.
As writers, we all hope people will love our work, but as adults, we should recognize that love is not universal. The truth is that most people will not even read anything we write. We should be happy when people do read our work, but not expect them to all love it.
When I started writing fiction, I didn’t understand that most comments about fiction fall into the “I like it” or “I hate it” buckets. More importantly, I wasn’t mature enough to understand that sometimes people were trying to help me improve, not just vent sarcasm about me or my writing.
I won’t go into detail here, but I sometimes tell the story of writing a Science Fiction short story when I was in college and sending it off to the top SF magazine which was headed by a legendary editor (who has an SF award named after him). I had the story returned, but in the envelope was a three-page, single-spaced analysis of my story, pointing out its weaknesses and flaws, personally written by the editor.
I understand now that this letter was a tremendous gift. That a legendary Science Fiction editor took the time to write it, instead of just slipping in a printed rejection slip, was a token of encouragement.
Like an idiot, I didn’t understand what I was given. Instead, I was crushed.
Today I’d know to re-write the story, fixing the flaws detailed in the letter. If I didn’t want to do that, I should have written another story, trying to avoid the problems in my original story, and submitted that. My immature reaction was to stop writing fiction and return to non-fiction, where my work generated sales, praise, and paychecks.
It’s embarrassing to acknowledge how stupid I was then, but my reaction helped me to understand a little better when other writers confessed their fear of writing.
People are afraid that fiction will reveal too much of themselves. They are afraid that readers may confuse them with their (sometimes unsavory) characters. They think family members or friends may read their fiction and recognize themselves in it, causing friction and upset (learn to mask characters and situations or go for honesty and suffer any fallout).
Most of all, they are afraid criticism of their writing will appear in the public arena, where everyone can read it.
This last fear is magnified today, where every reader can post reactions to Amazon, Tik Tok, a website, or a thousand other venues available to the reading public.
When I started, most book reviews appeared in newspapers, newsletters, and magazines. These reviews were done by critics vetted by the publication. As an unknown writer, chances were that if someone bothered to write a review of my books, they saw some merit in them. It wasn’t very interesting to bash an unknown writer who may never be read.
Now, of course, anyone can (and many do) sprinkle reviews around the internet, and the same personality who would take the time to write a critical letter has even fewer barriers to getting their negative opinions about any writer, known and unknown, distributed.
I can see this is a source of fear when writing for publication, but if you are meant to be a writer you will deal with this fear and write. I’ve talked about the influence of Zen on my writing and life, and Zen thinking helps me deal with these fears. Zen recognizes that life is tough; In fact, no one gets out of it alive. Zen thinking also teaches that no matter what hardships are in your life, others are suffering greater pain. A bad reader review on Amazon may be hurtful, but it’s not like having a missile land on your head or contracting cancer. Keep things in perspective.
If writing engenders fear in you, then learn to deal with it. Recognize that sometimes criticism is a gift. Come to terms with how honest or masked you want to be in your fiction. And, above all, accept that if you are driven to be a writer, you will find strategies to cope with fear and keep writing.