The great John Wayne is quoted as saying,
“Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”
Writers know this feeling well. We face our own fears nearly every day in the writing life.
10 Frightening Demons Writers Have to Face
In honor of the Halloween season, I thought it might be fun to give each of these scary things a name and power. It often helps to name our fears so that we may better face them, and so that we can see they’re not as frightening as they may seem behind their masks.
Imagine, if you will, that each of the following is a demon haunting you, but that when you face it and bring it into the daylight, it loses its fearful power.
1. The Blank Page
You will be judged! How dare you think you can create anything of interest? Look at you, with your lame ideas. Just try to fill up my vast emptiness.
I will stare back at you and challenge the existence of your imagination. I will prompt your brain to second guess your gut, to question everything you thought you were going to write down. See me defeat your attempts at creation. Destruction is so much easier, so you see my work takes little effort, while yours is Herculean.
Weapon Required: A Child’s Heart
Remember how it feels to play. Remember that feeling that drew you to writing in the first place. Block out every other thought and tune into your desire to have fun, to play with the words and the rhythm of the prose. Remember what it was like when you were a child making your own books, or simply experimenting with your pencil on the page.
A spirit of play saps The Blank Page of its power, and allows you to create.
2. The Mailbox
Biggus Mouthus Swallowum Submissionus
Power: The Unknown
Just dare to send your submission through me. I will swallow it and take it out into the big bad world, where you know what is likely to happen.
Your work will be criticized, rejected, ridiculed. Others will receive your work and laugh! This person thinks he can write? She has the audacity to send this to us? What was she thinking? It will all be a waste of time and money (if you happened to use snail mail and stamps). You know it, so why bother?
Required: Suit of Armor
To show your work to others, you must develop your own personal suit of armor. Anything but rave reviews and acceptances will hurt, no matter how you try to gloss over it, so start creating your shield now.
The shield is not to stop the hurt, but to make it easier for you to bear it. Put your suit on, stand up, and realize that nothing that comes back in the mail can penetrate your armor, and you have only to be brave.
Workus Deemed Terriblus
No matter who I am—experienced writer, agent, editor, book doctor, friend, relative, other writer, book club member—I am seen by you as being in the ultimate position of power.
I can tell you whether your work is good or not, and you will believe me. I have my own opinion of course, and I may not be at all qualified to be guiding you, but because you’ve asked for my feedback, you’ve given me that power, and whatever I say can be used against you and your confidence as a writer.
Weapon Required: Honed Gut Instincts
First, give every criticism time. Whether aural or written, let it sit. Do not respond immediately. Give it at least a day to settle. Our instinct is always to defend ourselves and our work. You have to purposely guard against it by vowing to give it time.
Next, trust your gut. After enough time has passed to allow the initial pain to fade, ask yourself if there is some validity to the criticism. That quiet voice inside you will let you know if you need to make changes…or not.
4. The Rejection
We laugh at you like the mean girls at the lunch table! Your work isn’t good enough to join the work of “real” writers. What made you think you were worthy to join the pack?
We can make you feel like you don’t belong here, like you chose wrong when you chose writing as your purpose or your dream. You are just not cut from the “good writer” cloth. Give up!
Weapon Required: Faith
This is where you must have faith in your inner guidance—your inner sense of who you are. If you see yourself as a writer, have faith in that.
If you enjoy writing, and you are committed to getting better at it, all you need is faith and the willingness to keep going. Every successful writer agrees that having faith in oneself is critical to making it. Have faith, keep writing, and keep submitting. YOU decide if you belong or not.
Talkimus to Frighteningus Homo Sapiens
I am a writer’s conference, a writer’s group, a reading group or book club. I am an awards dinner, a book store, an agent’s roundtable. I am anywhere you must interact with others in the business, where you must own your identity as a writer and proclaim it as such.
You fear looking stupid, or being humiliated because you are not as experienced or smart or successful as those around you, at least in your own mind. My power is in your fear, and my success is keeping you frightened of your own ability and your own power.
Weapon Required: Focus Adjuster
Turn any networking event in your favor by removing the focus from yourself and turning it onto those around you. Ask questions. Be interested. Listen. Find out what they know, where they want to go, what their experiences are.
You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll forget about how you appear, which automatically raises your confidence, and makes networking something that is enjoyable rather than something to dread.
6. The Bad Review
Bookus Was Stupidous
No matter how many good reviews you get, I will haunt you. I will be the one truth, you will tell yourself. Your natural sense of self-doubt will confirm it.
The other reviewers were just being nice. They weren’t as well read. They were your friends. This one spoke the truth. This one that criticized your dialogue, your plot, your characterization—this one saw through your facade.
This is the one (or two or three or more) that is brave enough to tell you what you need to hear—that in all honesty, you should just quit.
Weapon Required: Stubbornness
It doesn’t matter. Whatever the reviewers say, it doesn’t matter in the long run. You are either a writer or you’re not. If you’ve completed and published a book, you’re a writer.
It’s up to you whether you continue or not, but when facing a bad review, allow your inner stubbornness to come forth. You know it’s there. You needed it to complete the project in the first place.
Writers write. Bow your head, clench your jaw, and go on, no matter what they say. You are a camel making your journey across the beautiful desert that is the writing life. Let them just try to make it as far as you have.
7. Public Speaking/Reading
Sacrificous Selfus On the Podiumicus
Tremble in front of me! I am the mighty public, the numerous set of eyes trained on you and focused on every perceivable flaw. I am the cough at the back of the room implying boredom, the withdrawn cell phone or tablet that alleviates the tedium of your talk.
You know you have no choice—you can no longer avoid doing that reading, or talking about your book on a news or radio show. Perhaps you were silly enough to think that you could broaden your career options by speaking at conferences or events.
I am the reminder of your own self-doubt. I am the force that puts your confidence (or lack of it) on the line for all to see. I am the demon that magnifies your faults, right down to that unsightly mole on your chin, as you stand at the front of the room.
I am all those unknown, critical faces. I am all those opinions that will form once you open your mouth. I am all the judgment waiting to come down on you.
Weapon Required: Your Hero’s Mask
Even if you don’t feel it, you can conquer this demon by “acting as if.” Adopt the posture of one of your heroes. How would your favorite author stand, talk, act?
Pretend as if you are him or her. Watch a video, and then copy the movements, the gestures, the tone of voice. The more you practice, the more you’ll get it down.
Then, when the event comes, use your ability to pretend (you do it all the time on the page!) to adopt the posture of a confident writer. The more you practice, the more the actions will become second nature, until you soon develop your own.
8. The Low Royalty Payment
Emptius Bank Accountis
You seek out the royalty payment as a reward for all your hard work. It is the verification that it was worth something.
You may write for other reasons—self fulfillment, to find meaning, because you think you have something important to say—but you like material rewards, too. Deep down, you crave a little cash to help support this writing habit of yours.
I am the absence of verification, the denial of that confirmation you seek. I am the seed of self-doubt. I am the start of the thought that this isn’t the life for you, that what you’re spending so much of your life doing is creating nothing of value.
Weapon Required: Gratitude List
We must remind ourselves of all the other rewards that came with writing and publishing a book. We must actually write them down to see them add up, and to realize that indeed, our talent has been verified.
Every reward must go on this list. The sense of accomplishment. The book we hold in our hands. The positive comments—every one—that we’ve received. The peace that came with making a dream come true.
The joy of hearing that someone “got” the story. The other writers and industry professionals we connected with as a result of the work. Every reward must go on the list.
We have to put it down so we can see it again, and realize that writing and publishing hold many rewards. Money is only one of many.
9. The Vacuum Years
Longus Spacious Endurus
Wherever you are in your writing life—aspiring, experienced, accomplished—there are likely to be vacuum years.
These are the times when nothing much happens. You work and work, but you get little feedback. Your manuscripts are rejected. Your stories place nowhere in contests. Nothing is published, or books are published to little fanfare. Perhaps you are still trying for your first book publication, or you’ve published many, and have run out of ideas or energy for writing.
Maybe you’re just discouraged after a particularly difficult year or two. You try to feel it, but that “spark” for writing seems to have gone out.
Humans are wired for feedback. Without it, you will question yourself. I am the demon of space and time. I will cause you to wonder if you’re still cut out for this, or if it’s time for a change in your life.
I will make you think that perhaps you’ve gone as far as you can go. Faced with my power, you will begin to question everything you may have once believed about yourself and your writing.
Weapon Required: A Student’s Mindset
What helps through the vacuum years is to learn. Go back to school. Take online courses, read books, go to conferences, work with a mentor. Practice the craft.
Focus on a weakness: setting, dialogue, characterization, point of view. Try different writing forms—short stories, poems, essays—or simply write a few pages focusing on a certain skill.
Dive deep into the craft of writing, and you’ll reconnect with what you love about it. That is the key to enjoying the vacuum years, and to keeping your brain so busy it won’t have time to bug you with doubt and fear.
10. The Final Question
Whatus Does It All Meanius?
The actor Jim Carrey said in a commencement speech:
“I’ve often said that I wished people could realize all their dreams of wealth and fame so they could see that it’s not where you’ll find your sense of completion.”
You started out with stars in your eyes, picturing interviews with Oprah and royalties high enough to support a second home on the ocean. Gradually, you learned the reality of things, but you still hold onto your expectations of what the writing life will be like, when you’re published, or when you’re a bestseller, or when you win that coveted award, or when….
No matter how it turns out—even if you do win big awards and earn significant cash—it will be different than what you thought it would be, and then I will appear with the questions.
Was it worth it? All those hours spent writing when you could have done something else? Does your work really matter? What does it all mean, anyway?
I am the power of regret, the stimulus for second-guessing yourself. Every writer, at some point in their lives—more often in the later years—questions whether she made the right choice.
I am those questions in the deepest recesses of your mind. I am the supreme power of your self-doubt. I am the ultimate demon inside you, the one you must face typically in your weakest and most vulnerable moments.
Did you just make a giant, colossal, unfixable mistake?
Weapon Required: Trust
Many of us would describe our desire to write as a calling. Something compelled us to write. No matter what happens as a result, we have to trust ourselves, and trust that the calling came to us for a reason.
Our culture is focused on money and material rewards, but there are a myriad of other ways writing can benefit us. How it may benefit you—even change your life—is as individual as you are.
Trust yourself, that you made the right choice, and that you’ll continue to do so. Take some quiet moments to check in with your deepest spirit, and find again the answer there.
Yes. I write. I create. I publish. I produce. What does it all mean?
Exactly what I decide it will mean.
What demons do you face in the writing life?