inding the courage to write
“I worry that I’m not good enough,” says Joy Bautista Collado, although she can’t define precisely why. “I need courage.”
And, even though other people encourage her to write, she doesn’t try to publish much because of her fear. “My biggest insecurity,” the writer from the Philippines confides, “is that English isn’t my first language and I’m afraid that I’ll get criticized because of that.” Joy has this fear even though her command of English sounds perfectly fine to me – and even though she is fluent in two other languages (which is more than most of us can say!): Filipino and Ilocano, a local dialect that is as different from Filipino, she explains, as English is from Mandarin Chinese.
Some of her fear arises, she believes, from hurtful comments made about an article that she wrote three years ago about chairs in bars. “I did research,” she says, “but I didn’t do enough.” Joy would like to write memoir material but, for that, she needs to “save up more courage.” Ironically, the one type of writing that she finds liberating is to write about her fears.
Meanwhile, writer Nida Sea confesses something that held her back from writing much for two and a half years: the need to interview sources. “I was afraid,” she says, “and I wondered “why do I need to talk to people?’”
She tried to write using secondary sources from the Internet, but that didn’t produce the quality she needed. “I kept hearing the same thing over and over again: you need sources,” Nida says. “I figured that interviewees would think I was an idiot and might say to me, ‘why did you just ask me thatquestion?’”
She eventually plunged into conducting an interview but “sweated my entire shirt up” during the process. She traces her fears back to when she worked at a pharmacy and a pharmacist would criticize how she interacted with other people.
So, what should Joy and Nida – and let’s face it, all of us – do when fear rears its ugly head?
The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear
To figure out how to help writers get past their fears, I talked to Ralph Keyes, author of the classic writing book, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. This book has been in print for nearly 20 years, a rarity in today’s need-something-new-now world. Ralph is also the author of the bestselling Is There Life After High School?, a book that was made into a Broadway musical and produced around the world.
“As writers,” he explains, “we’re timid. We’re anxious about being judged, about what people will think. Will people see through us? Will we be exposed? We feel like frauds and, even though we can try to hide that feeling, once we put words on paper, we’re out there swinging – and someone might swing right back at us.”
Ralph, who also teaches writing, says that some of the best writing he’s ever read is from less experienced writers. “Once a writer gets a certain degree of experience,” he explains, “he or she becomes smoother in the craft of writing and can write around a subject. More experienced writers know how to protect themselves with words – and, although I can find myself admiring their smoothness and their craft, I also find myself wishing to read writing that comes from the heart. I’d rather read something I really want to hear, even if it’s not quite as elegant.”
We need solutions!
People often ask Ralph if writing under a pseudonym – also called a pen name – is the solution to transcending fear. After all, they might reason, if no one knows that I wrote something, then I won’t have to suffer the fallout if it’s criticized.
To answer that question, he shares the story of William Penn, a one-time soldier who later became a Quaker pacifist. When someone asked Penn if it was time to put down his sword, Penn reply, “Not until you’re ready.”
So, should you write under a pseudonym? According to Ralph: only if you’re not ready to write under your own name. Using a pen name may allow a writer to work around fear, but it does nothing to help a writer work through fear, which is the real goal. That’s where the good stuff resides.
Ralph puts it more eloquently. “Writing,” he says, “is an act of courage and you get better by facing it, rather than by shortcutting and sidestepping nerves. Besides, what if a piece of your writing appears under a pseudonym and it’s well received – and you get no credit?”
Instead, he offers the following recommendations:
- Start off by taking writing classes and workshops, and share your writing with others. This gives you a chance to check out how others react to your writing in real time, to see – face-to-face – how they respond.
- Otherwise, you’re home alone, thinking you’re a nut and that, if your cousin Lou from Topeka reads what you wrote, he’ll never speak to you again.
- Determine what parts of your writing people found to be the most brilliant and keep improving your work.
At these workshops, you can hopefully:
- Read your work aloud.
- Recognize that there is no perfect piece of writing.
- Be receptive to honest feedback.
- Avoid being defensive
- Take notes about feedback being given.
- Avoid giving an immediate respond.
- Give yourself time to cool off and objectively review your notes.
“Here’s the reality,” Ralph says. “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing anything of consequence. Once you hit the point of fear, you’re finally writing something worth reading about. Ideally, writers should provide one another with reassurance and buck one another up. Poet Anne Sexton, who was quite candid, once said that the reason she attended a workshop at Antioch College was to get courage – as it should be.” And, once you realize that people aren’t trashing you, you can carry that feeling into the next step – that of publication.
Ralph also refers to the memoir of Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club, in which she shares details of her dysfunctional family with blunt honesty (including the fact that, when their house was being renovated, the man needed to dig bullets out of the walls!). “In an essay,” he says, “she shares how terrified she was that people would want to dismiss her as a lunatic once they read her book. Instead, people approached her on her book tour, saying, ‘This is what my family was like, too! I’m so glad that I’m not alone.’ Carr therefore concluded that the definition of a dysfunctional family was any family with more than one person in it.”
“People recognize the courage,” Ralph says as he summarizes Karr’s experiences, “and they respect that.”
What about you? How do you work through your feelings of fear? Please share in the comments below