I used to write without fear. I didn't know what I didn't know. Like a child playing in front of the open grate, mesmerised by the flames and warmth but unprotected by a fire guard, I would write until I was roasted on one side, with nobody to pull me away. Partly this was because I didn't know any different; I'd always written - since being a child - and since nobody had took much interest in it, then why should they take much interest in warning me off? During my twenties I wrote a couple of novels, a number of short stories; beginning to photocopy them for distribution to a few friends, occasionally getting a poem or story published. This didn't happen until my late twenties by which time I was probably unteachable, caught in my own bad habits.
I began to take things more seriously: first a competition entry; then sending off to agents and others. I applied, and finally got on, an M.A. I still wrote with abandon, why shouldn't I? The fear came slowly, I think. Not the course, or my tutors or my fellow students - more the work was to blame. This new novel was different somehow. It could burn me. It could take me places I wasn't keen on going. It was more than a story. More than a tall tale. Slowly, I burned, slowly I moved away from the flame, put precautions in place. Then the writing world, which I'd known of, but never had much of an entry-point to, seemed ever nearer, and I approached that equally without fear. Beware of sabre-toothed tigers! At some point I began to write out of terror rather than unaware of the terror.
The fear was helpful. It kept my words under constant surveillance, it made me aware of their limitations; it made me think of what I needed to do to make them better. Fear made me a better writer. It made me a slower writer, it made me a more scared writer. Yet, the old fearlessness somehow remained. It would take a late night session; a glass or two of wine to intervene. But I'd trained myself to write breathlessly, fearlessly and that training held me in good stead. Only in the morning would I wonder what I'd done - think about this other fearless self that wrote at night and left something that I could only wonder at in the sober morning. Then the fear helped, I suppose, it clarified the confusions of the night before, it worked into the detail of the fearless work. At least sometimes: other times it stopped me. It stopped me from following through on the idea or the piece.
Time went on. I am older. I am a curator of old work now, as much as writer of new work. That was a different me, I think, that fearless one. It is better to be terrified; and to make sure things are perfect before you show them around; before you consider their vulnerability - yet I need the fearless writer to write the damn thing in the first place; the fearless me was the one that got to the end; the terrified writer is needed to look on this work with horror and make it approach some kind of completion. The fear has exactly the same role as my lack of it once had. It is to enable.
I think the fear started to show its head with me once I became active online. Up until then—and we’re talking about a thirty year period—I wrote for me and had no contact whatsoever with other writers bar from the occasional scribble from a kindly editor. Once I became active online, and more importantly once I started to be read and to realise that everything I wrote and would write would be read then the fear set in. Beforehand I was writing for me and me alone and if anyone else happened to get something out of what I’d written well that was just a bonus. Now, for the first time in my life, I sit down to write a novel with a reader in mind. And that’s scary. Is that fear helpful? Yes and no. I was always a bit of a perfectionist but knowing one will be judged can cause one to play it safe or to give up too soon on what, given enough time, might have turned out to be a worthwhile project. The poems are different. I’ve always written them purely for me and will continue to. The poetry is pure. You need to have something for yourself.
Great post. I like this message, and I have listened to you saying this in other posts and it has helped me a lot. I have ‘unplugged’ some of my fear and definitely feel a lot better about writing recently. I sometimes worry because my problem is that I am not a perfectionist but that I rush things and I know my grammar isn’t always great,. At the same time I am getting good feedback about my writing from my readers and this spurs me on. Personally I think as long as I am getting my message across and my writing isn’t too incorrect, I can learn as I go. I think sometimes we forget that life is a process and we can only excel at something by doing it and learning. Thanks for being a great example.
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