Writing & Fear: An open letter to the #TeachersWrite community

Dear Teachers Write! campers,

 So… I hear some of you are kind of scared about this whole writing thing. Jen Vincent mentioned that many of the comments on her Teach Mentor Texts writing group blog post today were about anxiety over sharing your writing, or being good enough.  She thought I might want to blog about that, and she was right.

This is where you’re probably expecting me to say, “Don’t be afraid” or “There’s no reason to be scared.”  But I’m not going to say that.

Be scared. That’s absolutely fine.

Because you know what?  I’m scared, too.  I put up a blog post a few days ago expecting a dozen people to sign up for a cozy little online writing camp. And then I turned around and there were more than 600 of you. Way cool…but for sure, a little scary, too.

I’m also scared when I start a new book. When I was writing my first book, I thought this would be a temporary thing…that the second and third books would be easy and fun and fearless. But no.  Turns out they’re all scary in different ways, and making art – the very process of making art – is inherently fear-producing. (There’s a whole book about this idea, by the way – ART AND FEAR by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s excellent.)  But making art is scary in a good way.

You see… there are two kinds of fear. The first kind keeps you safe from things that might cause you real and imminent harm.


My son and I encountered this cottonmouth while we were hiking in the Everglades in April. We were scared, and we quickly identified our fear as the kind that saves you from danger. With this kind of fear, it’s good and healthy to  act on your fear and run away to avoid venomous bites and other potentially fatal things.

But there’s another kind of fear – the kind that we feel when we’re about to exceed the artificial limits we’ve set for ourselves. When we’re about to step outside of our cozy little boxes and try something new. Something that’s scary because we might fail. And what will people think?

I learned a lot about this kind of fear in March, when I gave a TED talk at the organization’s annual conference in Long Beach.

Photo by James Duncan Davidson – TED

There were 1500 people in the audience, including CEOs of huge companies, inventors, producers, engineers, a former vice president, and other leaders in just about every area imaginable.

One of the other speakers was Bill Nye the Science Guy, who said something that I am going to remember for the rest of my life. He told one of the other (scared) speakers, “If you weren’t nervous, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”  And he was right. I was terrified when I stepped onto that stage. Absolutely terrified. It was extremely uncomfortable. But I learned so much from the experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The kind of fear I was feeling is not the kind we should avoid.  It’s the kind of fear we should seek out because it gives us opportunities to be brave and to grow.   In fact, nervous writing camp member Colby Sharp reminded me this morning that Mattie Breen, the main character in Linda Urban’s brilliant novel HOUND DOG TRUE says it perfectly: “You can’t have brave without scared.”  It’s true.

That twist of anxiety you feel when you think about sharing your writing? Think of it as a big, huge billboard in your heart that says, “GO, YOU!! YOU ARE DOING SOMETHING AWESOME AND NEW!”  And after you do the new awesome thing, you will never be quite the same.  Your world will be a little bigger. And this is good.

So go on now.  Be scared. Be brave.  And write.

20 Replies on “Writing & Fear: An open letter to the #TeachersWrite community

  1. What lovely reminders… And also a reminder to read Hound Dog True. It’s been sitting in my huge ‘to be read’ pile for a long time now!

  2. I love this post, Kate! Especially the way you differentiate between life-preserving fear vs. false fear. A friend who was an anchorman once told me that the trick wasn’t to avoid fear, but to anticipate it and, when it hits, try to use it to empower whatever you’re about to do. I got stuck (everyone else backed out) giving a 1-hr *impromptu* speech to 200 professionals once, and tried to use that advice in the minute I was afraid my mind would go blank.

    I’m looking forward to starting the Teach-Write project tomorrow, and have already enjoyed connecting with a few participants who have looked me up. We’re all risking a bit, but clearly doing it in a positive forum!

  3. Hound Dog True is on my stack! Thank you for this, Kate. A former student & my daughter’s boss just spoke at the TexX talks in Denver yesterday, & I was just telling about your experience & how special it sounded, though nervousness was there throughout. I liked what you told about that.

  4. I am sick with fear whenever I start a new book. And halfway through writing a book. And when I turn in a book. All for different reasons. When I start a new book it’s because the insecure part of me believes that all the other books I’ve published were just flukes and really, I CAN’T DO THIS.

    But I make myself put on my Big Girl Pants and put butt in chair and do it anyway. Then in the middle there’s the voice that says, “O. M. G. This really SUCKS. It SUCKS SOOOOOOOOOO BADLY. I can’t believe you are actually writing this shizzle!”

    I have to tell her to STFU and just keep writing, even though she’s trying to convince me it’s shizzle, by reminding myself that’s what revision is for and how much I love to revise.

    And then when I finally turn the book in and the waiting, and the waiting…..

    And then if it does get published the reviews….

    I think a big part of being a writer is learning to be brave. Each and every time.

  5. Kate,

    Awesome post! I am so excited about this opportunity. I am a little nervous that I won’t be able to contribute enough to the community because I have school until Friday, June 23rd. After June 23rd, I will have more time (and my sanity:).

    Side note: I have my last Skype with Kathryn Erskine on June 18th. It will be the seventh Skype for my language arts class this year. You were the first – Thank you again for that!

    Thanks for organizing this excellent opportunity for teachers and writers. I can’t wait to learn and share.

    1. Feel free to join us later on when school is done, Andy – the posts are going to be scheduled so that you can join any time and have things make sense. Glad your Skype visits went well – you made great use of the technology!

  6. I really appreciate the fact that you have validated how we feel and also challenged us to press on through the fear! I can’t wait to see how much we’ll all grow as writers and as individuals.

  7. Kate, love your thoughts on sharing writing. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about writing: “I hate writing but I love having written.” I don’t really hate writing but I do struggle with it. Loved your closing about it’s ok to be scared but don’t let it stop you. Do you realize how many kids’ writing lives you are touching with this project??? It’s a pretty big number!

  8. Thanks, Kate, for encouraging me to step outside of my cozy little box. It’s quite comfortable in here, but I’m looking forward to mixing some fun and discomfort with some personal and professional growth!

  9. Love the post and love the idea that we need to make the time if it is important to us. In March I posted daily for Slice of Life and then stopped on April one. What was that about? Need to change the behavior!

    Today is final report card time but wanted to take the time to read your posts and at least respond here. Tomorrow the writing begins again! Thanks for the push!

  10. Wonderful reminder, Kate. Thank you! Of course, I wouldn’t be on here reading this post if I weren’t avoiding writing an article I’m afraid I’m not going to do justice…

    As a former middle school teacher who spent many years afraid to write and feeling more than a little hypocritical, I can’t tell you how much I relate to your #teacherswrite mission! Best of luck with it.

    1. Thanks, Kristen! (and once your article’s done, please drop me an email if you have time to join us for a day as a guest author!)