Writing Through Fear: a letter from a middle school author

I am working on a new project right now — one that is shiny and full of the kind of promise that makes me both excited…and scared. Fear and I  are old friends when it comes to writing; we meet every book, right about now…as I hit Chapter 3 and wonder if this new idea is really is good as I hope it is, and if I’m really a good enough writer to pull it off.

So I was already thinking about that when I got an email this week from a middle school writer whose school I visited a while ago. I wrote back, of course, and also asked for his permission to share it here, with you, because I know many of you reading this are writers, too, and I thought you might have some interesting thoughts to share as well.

I’ve been meaning to write you for a while. I just have a few question I really need answered. You see, I am going to be a writer. I’ve known it since I was nine. I’m writing a book right now, but I keep running into the same problem: I’m scared. I know that I’m talented- everyone has told me. My mom says I have nothing to worry about. I worry anyway. Sometimes all I want is a glimpse of the future- just a reassurance that this isn’t all for nothing. I just want to know that I am going to succeed. I want so badly to get published. I want people to read my books- to love them. But I lose hope all the time. I’m so scared of failure and rejection, that sometimes I can’t bring myself to write. And it makes me miserable. When I am writing, I go into a sort of state. Even after I leave the computer, I’m living in this world I’ve created. I just can’t help smiling and thinking: this is real, this is within grasp.

So, I just want to know… Did you ever feel this way? Were you ever discouraged, or unsure? Afraid of failure? I just don’t know what to do. I want this so badly.

I don’t know if you’ll be able to respond… you’re probably very busy. But if you do, I will appreciate it so much. I have been dying to speak to a real author, who might understand and be able to offer advice where others cannot.

Thank you,
MS Writer (whose name I promised not to use here)

So there it is. I read this email three times before I sat down to answer, first because it is an amazing letter and second, because this young writer faces so many of the same struggles that I do.  I think perhaps there’s a myth this all goes away once you’re published.  It doesn’t, at least for me.  What gets better is knowing that if I do my job, if I sit down and write, Fear will eventually get bored just sitting at my heels and sulk away after a while. It’s the sitting down that’s important. The commitment to write anyway.  I’ll share my full response to MS Writer in another blog post later on, but right now, we’d both love to hear your thoughts. 

Do you ever feel this way?
Are you ever discouraged or unsure? Afraid of failure?
What do you do about it?
And whether you are published, or unpublished so far, how do you remind yourself…

"This is real. This is within reach."

35 Replies on “Writing Through Fear: a letter from a middle school author

  1. I’m just having this sort of fear for the first time. The first book is written and going out into the world; how will the second book measure up? What if I lose the momentum? Or worse– the magic? And yet when I actually sit down to write, after a few minutes, I forget about the fear and am just writing again. I used to feel it when painting murals, too– when you do well, how do you continue to measure up? And I think the answer is just that you do what you do, and when you get into the creative flow, the fear falls away.

  2. Oh, honey.

    The fear is the point. You can not do this without the fear, and here’s why:

    Right now, you are the only person who can see your story. It exists only for you — no one who isn’t inside your head can know it. We can’t see it, hear it, imagine it, know it — until you give it to us, with your words, your story.

    What a tremendous responsibility. What a burden. Of course you’re scared. Think of every fairy tale you’ve ever read: the hero/heroine sets off on an epic journey because they HAVE to, there’s something they MUST do, because no one else can do it and it must be done. Along the way, they accomplish amazing things, but in any tale worth its salt, they’re also afraid. They’re afraid of the perils they face, but more than that, they’re afraid of not fulfilling that responsibility, of not doing the thing that they must do. That’s why they keep going — and that’s why you’ll keep writing.

    You see, being a writer is a very heroic thing. You’ve got this story, this vision, and you would have the world know it. Of course you’re afraid – that fear is there to remind you that you’re the only person who can do this, you’re the key to the hidden country, the portal to the world beyond. You are the person who can do this and you are the person who must do this.

    In time, that grows to be a wonderful thing. It will define you as a storyteller, giving you even more access and insight into your stories. Not everyone has this fear; it is a very special sort of thing. Welcome the fear and learn to make it work for you: it will be your companion all the way to greatness.

  3. What a wonderful letter and what a wise child! When I wanted to be a writer as a kid, I had no fears or doubts I would make it (however, I didn’t believe I would ever get married because no one would want me). I think I was too dumb to be afraid!

    I’m afraid now, just as you are, Kate, because I’m starting a new project, too. It’s scary and wonderful at the same time. I think that’s healthy. The minute I think I know it all, that I can do anything, I’m in real trouble.

  4. Fear and Writing

    I don’t know many high achievers who don’t work under the lash of fear. “Imposter Syndrome” is common to almost everyone who makes a mark in the world, but it’s also common to those who don’t — the difference is how you respond to “If they only knew me, they wouldn’t have accepted me.” Some retreat, some advance.

    One specific issue to be dealt with here is the definition of success. When I was 20, I began a novel with the goal of being a professional novelist — published and selling well. I gave myself 15 years, but, by the time I reached 35, I had come to a deeper understanding of my own skills, my own needs and the definition of success. And, as I gradually realized that I would never be Philip Roth or Joseph Heller, I also was finding other ways of writing that were satisfying and that paid the bills. Most important, I had completed two novels, which weren’t published but which kept me from dreaming about something that wasn’t going to happen. By the time I was 35, I had scratched the itch and was ready to move on, as a writer and as a person.

    And, guess what? Another 15 years after my self-imposed deadline had passed, I began selling young reader fiction in serial format to newspapers around the world. My challenge now (as that market dries up) is to go back to the goal of selling to book publishers.

    As for fear, well, several years of daily journalism taught me to push that aside and get to work. Daily deadlines don’t leave you a lot of room to curl up in the corner and obsess over your insecurities.

    It’s like this: Tony Esposito, an NHL goalie, used to throw up before every game. Today, he’s in the Hall of Fame. I suppose that attack of nerves was pretty upsetting at first, and he probably could have quit the game. Instead, he simply understood that, yeah, he’d throw up and then he’d suit up, get out on the ice and have a great game — again and again and again.

    After awhile, fear stops being real fear and just becomes part of your routine. And, I’d say, a necessary part. If you’re not scared, you’re not trying to stretch your talents far enough.

    — Mike Peterson, Lebanon NH

  5. Fear grips us all

    Wow, his passion really came through in that email, didn’t it? And I feel like that is what’s going to help him make it.
    His passion. His dedication, his love of doing it.
    I definitely get scared that I’ll never make it, that this idea is stupid and I’m wasting my time writing it. But then when I read back my work, there is always something about it I’m proud of, and each new work I am learning and progressing and getting better.
    But the fear is always there.
    That said – I believe in myself. I am yet to be published, but I got an agent last year and she is shopping my debut novel right now. I have more confidence now than ever because I feel validated, someone in the industry believes in me. But even if I didn’t have an agent yet, I would still be writing, because I believe in myself. And I think that’s the most important thing.
    So yes, I get scared, but I push through it and keep doing it because I believe in my own abilities and know within me that I WILL make it. I WILL!

    I hope he does too.

  6. What an accomplished letter from such a young person!! And, although it is so comforting to hear that even published, wonderful writers feel the fear, wouldn’t it be great if at some point, the fear disappeared?

    I do what you do–I write in spite of the fear. I take it one step further, and write with coworkers, other writers who can help keep the fear at bay. We set a time, and each write on our own for an hour or so, and then come back and talk through the fears and pitfalls and triumphs. Writing should not be a solitary endeavor! Although many think that it has to be!! Knowing that I can’t bow to the fear–that I have committed to getting words to the paper–that others will hear about my progress–that I am accountable to other writers, and not to the fear–that keeps me going.

    I am going to be hoping for the best for this young writer!!

    Heather Kelly

  7. Fear of writing has been dogging me for years. I found writing a blog at least makes me feel like a writer. An unexpected bonus is my writing has improved and a voice I really like has emerged.

    A beyond-bonus is, the encouragement I’ve gotten as a result of the blog posts actually kicked me hard enough that it knocked me out of the fear mindset and got me back to thinking I’m-going-to-do-this. I have since gone from thinking I’m going to do it to doing it!

  8. I cannot believe a middle school kid wrote this letter, it sounds so adult. I could have written it. I think it’s very hard when you’re starting out, full of hopes and aspirations, to know that what you’re working on is good enough to be published (or will be someday). I mean, you really don’t get that kind of feedback until it’s actually, you know, published. I’m curious to hear your response to him/her, maybe it’ll help me too!

  9. How funny, I just wrote about this yesterday! I look for people who’ve blazed the trail before me for inspiration and armor. I feel an obligation to rise up to the challenge if I want the honor of following in their footsteps, no matter how far back.

  10. Art and Fear

    Kate (and all) — There’s a good book on this general subject, appropriately titled Art and Fear, by David Bayles. Check it out.

    Chris Tebbetts

  11. That is such a great letter. I read it and was like – wow, that’s a middle schooler???

    I think we are afraid on a bunch of different levels. We’re afraid the story will never be as good on paper as it is in our heads, we’re afraid others won’t like what we write, we’re afraid we’re doing it all wrong – there is SO much to be afraid of.

    So, what I do is tell myself during that scary first draft that the story is for ME and me ALONE. I want to know what happens. I want to see how things turn out. I must write the story for myself first and foremost. Later I can decide if I want to revise and make it sparkle and get brave enough to share it with others. But during the first draft, I have to write just for ME, and that helps get rid of some of that fear.

  12. It helps me so much to know other writers experience the same fears and angst, but also come out the other side. It’s very reassuring to remember my feelings are usually temporary and that if I keep at it, those negative feelings will be replaced by positive ones.

  13. What an amazing letter! I had that kind of insecurity in middle school, but couldn’t explain it nearly as articulately. MS Writer is, indeed, a writer.

    I feel the fear every single time I’m working on the first draft of a new book. I HATE writing the first draft. It’s like pulling teeth without anesthetic. Every time I get that “OMG, my (insert number of previous books written here) book(s) were a fluke. There’s no way I can do this.”

    One thing that helps me is remembering something that Laurie Halse Anderson said about having to find the right tools for each book you write, because each book requires different tools. So now I try not to panic when I’m working through the first draft, and just remember that it’s about finding the story and figuring out which tools I need. I just want to get it on the page to see what I’ve got so I can get to the fun part, which is revising.

  14. I hear you, Delilah… There is most definitely something different about writing once that first book is out there for people to talk about. I hope this new one goes well for you!

  15. What a great point that is – the healthy attitude of knowing that there’s still so much to learn. Thanks for taking the time to comment on this!

  16. Re: Fear grips us all

    I am thinking good thought for both of you right now – and congrats on signing with an agent! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here!

  17. See? I’m so glad I posted this and asked for input because having a community of writers is something I forgot to mention in my response, and what a great way to overcome fear. Thanks, Heather!

  18. I feel this way sometimes, too, Liza…like my blog gives me the training wheels and keeps me pecking at the keys even if I’m not making huge progress on a bigger project. Thanks!

  19. That’s one of the things that struck me about this letter, too, Karen – I kept thinking that I could have written it myself! I think those feelings are so, so common in writers of all ages.

  20. I love this, Lisa… a first draft just for you. I fall into the trap of letting too many voices join in those early drafts sometimes – agents & editors & reviewers, when really I’d be better off to put those concerns off at least until the revision process. Great advice- thank you!

  21. You and I are kindred spirits – I love revising, too. And I was at that same retreat with Laurie, and I find that I pull out those words about different tools for each project often when I’m struggling.

  22. I think things like this show up just at the time you need them. Interestingly enough, apparently a lot of us are needing to hear it right now, too. Thanks for sharing it.

    I didn’t realize until reading this entry how truly afraid I get when the new stories come. And you’re right–it’s right at Chapter 3 when I seem to start the doubting. It’s so good to know that we have friends along the way. 🙂

  23. What a fantastically articulate letter. There’s a sort of passionate terror in being a writer, and putting so much of yourself into your work, and not knowing whether it’s enough in the eyes of publishers or reviewers or readers. I am scared a lot. For me it helps to remember why I do it at all. I tell the stories for me first, to find out what happens to my characters. I’d do it anyway, because I love it and I can’t not, regardless of all those other eyes and expectations.

  24. I love the idea of telling stories to yourself first – I’m going to post that on my bulletin board full of wisdom. Thanks, Jessica!

  25. This kid who who wrote you is a lot wiser than me!
    I always wanted to be a writer, but it didn’t scare me back when I was a kid. Until we had an author visit in my school and I found how he had to deal with my class, a really hard bone. Then I started thinking I couldn’t be in front of a class or do some signings (I was too shy). During my teen years I almost forgot about the author thing but wanted to be a translator (less visibility right?).
    Now, as a grown up, fear of getting in front of a classroom is the least of all. I’m fighting with my story every day, wanting it to make sense to everyone, fearing it won’t be as wonderful as I can imagine it. But I keep trying fighting the fear as it comes along. Some day I may have to deal with fear of the classroom but that’s another story (been in classroom for other activities and it wasn’t really bad at all).

  26. I think every writer has felt this way, and that’s why BIRD BY BIRD has been such a successful book. BBB speaks to this very thing, and I find myself turning back to it again and again.

    And for me, the most important measuring stick is: “Am I saying what I mean to say? Is this story the one I need to write, and am I letting this story breathe, to the best of my ability?”

  27. Re: Fear and Writing

    Not to drag this metaphor out any longer, but to point out how synchronicity works, I just heard on NFL Live, former Denver Bronco Mark Schlereth say that there was never a game — pre-season, regular season, playoffs or Super Bowl — where he didn’t throw up before the game. Former NFL coach and player Tony Dungy said, “I never had to worry about that part. I could never eat before a game.”

    Play scared. It’s how you reach the Super Bowl.