Writing and Fear: An Origin Story

My first creative writing was the spiral notebook journal in grade 4. Each member of the 4th grade class was required to write three-quarters of a page each school day. Why not half? Why not a full page? I guess this was the result of some behind-the-scenes bargaining to which I was not privy. Nevertheless, three-quarters of a standard notebook page was the requirement. Realistically, this could be as few as three well-thought-out statements, but for whatever reason, the compulsory nature of the task soured it for me almost immediately. I rebelled. I tried writing with large block letters with a 2x line height. I tried doodling. I probably even offered up seventy-five cents as some kind of punning bribe. The results came harsh and frequent, and in a lilting red pen cursive whose memory to this day gives me chills: “UNACCEPTABLE.” “RE-DO.” “WRITE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TODAY.”

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My thoughts were private. My theories were personal. If I was simply to record facts about the day-to-day goings on in 4th grade, then fine, but I couldn’t find any compelling reason for it beyond the simple fact of looming punishment for noncompliance. I soon found myself in a pickle: Betray my own privacy by conforming to the spirit of the assignment, or (and this is what I actually did) perform the task technically with the most inane bullshit I could conjure.

I discovered meta writing much earlier than my peers. I found that writing about writing was not only fulfilling the scholastic requirement, but it was a creative form of protest. Almost every entry into my journal ended with “Well, almost three-quarters of a page. I’m almost there. Whoa, these cursive letters are stretching wider and wider by the word. There, exactly three-quarters of a page. Happy?” If I could have turned that into a cursive stamp, I would have.

The thing was, I knew that the entries would be reviewed by my teacher, for whom I had virtually no respect. It wasn’t that I was undisciplined or bad kid or anything. I think I had a fairly keen bullshit detector even at 9 years old. So I wasn’t willing to bare my soul to someone I didn’t think was worthy of it. So I gave her what I thought she deserved: Unadulterated drivel.

Why was I paranoid? Why am I now? I still fear people finding out how I really feel about things. I’m afraid my opinions and feelings will be used against me. Why? I haven’t paid enough to therapists to get there. But I think I’m still struggling with the idea that to write something meaningful, it does have to be, to some extent, personally derived. You can force into the vocal chords of characters (even ones you expect readers to despise), but there’s still the lingering fear that it will be used against you, to criticize your character. I deal with this, and I’ve had to try to thicken my skin a bit in anticipation of the surely negative reviews that will come along with the good ones as I shove my publications into the world. Fear is my Achilles heal, no doubt about it.

The thing is: In 4th grade, all I focused on were the girls that I liked. My grades were okay, but my daydreaming was 90% girls. I couldn’t share those thoughts, I thought, because the teacher would find out, and then maybe my parents would find out, and then those embarrassing dinner conversations would become more frequent, and then I would have to just wither and die. If that sounds insane, then welcome to my head.

These days, it’s: My day-job is on the line. I want continued comfort for my wife and I. Twitter is a fucking minefield. What if what I create entices waves of backlash unlike I could conceive and it ends up with social exile or deportation? These are severe and unlikely end games, but my mind goes there. Is it worth the risk to try to make a little cash from creativity, when real creativity involves risks that could be so off-putting to strangers that it could end in financial punishment or even violence?

These are the fears. In some weird way, I’m a fourth-grader, fearful of showing my real feelings to an audience I underestimate. But I’m moving forward, hoping against fear that the positive to be gained from readers who will connect with what I have to offer outweighs the negative from those who won’t. Neurosis, man. It’s a full-time gig.

If you’re a writer, or a creator in other ways, I’d love to hear feedback on how you deal with the fear of putting things out there, or what your struggle looks like.

Thanks for reading.

12 thoughts on “Writing and Fear: An Origin Story

  1. I deal with the same thoughts and feelings towards creative output all the time, especially since I do stand up where my reviewers are constantly giving me feedback in real time.

    It’s the fear I have of saying what I actually mean, how people will interpret it, and how they’ll react. I know what I intend to portray, but ultimately people will think of it how they will. Lately I’ve been trying to create as if I’d die tomorrow, knowing there’s only a short time left and whatever I HAVE to say or write should be the very next thing I say or write. Even writing that sentence I was hesitant because even saying death around norms spawns a tree of panic. They call it morbid, I don’t.

    I think ultimately it comes to a fear of rejection, the ultimate push back on our need for acceptance. Except with writers and creative types, a lot of us tend to explore the roads of the mind and thoughts less traveled. I certainly don’t intend for a destination when I start a creative journey, it’s more of an emergent pattern I hope. Other time a ball of shit.

    I constantly work on ignoring the fear, worry, and doubt which roll around in my mind because those are the chains that prison my creativity and, more importantly, my happiness.

    P.S. I’ll look at this post in less than a year from now and say I was full of shit.

    • Peter: Thanks for this feedback. Standup is a different animal, and instant feedback can be exhilarating or terrifying. And I’m totally inboard with the danger of not being able to stand by what you’ve created after enough time passes. We’re fickle, changing animals, and I’ve definitely been embarrassed looking back on past works. Not all, but several. Keep plugging. Don’t doubt yourself.

  2. Would you prefer?
    Assignment: What I did on my summer vacation. (300 words)
    I suspect, more than concerning him/herself with the content of your journal, your teacher simply wanted to get you in the “habit” of writing. If you saw what some of my current college students turn in as “writing” with incomplete sentences, lack of subject-verb agreement, ambiguous or non-existent pronoun referrals, and, of course, bad spelling, you would want to praise your teacher for insisting that writing is important and something that needs to be practiced.
    You may have heard of that book “The Tipping Point” which suggests that people (e.g. Bill Gates, the Beatles, etc.) have to do something for 10,000 hours before they get become masters. Apparently, to hone their considerable genius, Gates wrote code until his fingers bled and the Beatles played in German clubs for hours upon hours . Even pro basketball players practice shooting innumerable free throws. Read Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science” in which he describes surgical teams that have increased the efficiency and effectiveness of routine precedes; doctors learn to refine their skills with meticulous planning, intricate teamwork, studied concentration, and rigorous post-op analysis of their performance.
    I’m not trying to defend all teachers since I’m sure that some give out arbitrary busy work just to fill time. But, the majority of us, I hope, are trying to instill work habits that will eventually pay off. In your case, I think it did.

    • Dick: Thanks for reminding me of the tipping point theory. Starting has always been the hardest for me: the daunting amount of incompleteness. But like so many things, writing is easier once you just do it. Your perspective as an educator that sometimes you have to make people do (or repeat) things makes sense–it’s establishing some discipline regardless of whether students bring self-discipline. Maybe there’s no fighting chance without establishing some good habits.

  3. Are you noticing a different level and/or amount of fear with releasing literary output compared to musical and/or performance-based output? I actually thought of you when releasing my latest album under my own name, which scared the hell out of me. I’m not a fan of having my birth name out there as a product to be judged and possibly ripped apart. It seems like it’d be a little more personal. Something that helped was realizing you’d put out multiple albums under your name and that you’re still here and functioning and creating work I absolutely am a fan of and admire.

    I’m not sure if the fear ever goes away or if moving forward is a case of being comfortable with the fear…or kicking the fear in the nuts. Any rejection is going to sting a little, but it also seems to be a motivator at times, in a personally defiant way. Somebody’s always going to be negative about anybody’s creative output, which might be a sign that the creator is doing something right, and there’s certainly a cushion if the negative reaction is toward something that might not be as personal to whoever created it. On the other hand, when I’ve broken through and released something (mostly music in my case) with, say, lyrics that are showing a vulnerable side, any good reaction blows away the negative reactions.

    I remember in college, in a poetry writing course, the professor said he was frustrated with me because I seemed to have leaped ahead the confessional/emotional parts of poetry and began firmly settled in the absurdist realm, kind of like picking up a paintbrush and starting off with cubism instead of learning how to draw a basic human form first. Or maybe not. At the time, I didn’t hear what he was saying, as I was in my early twenties and knew everything there was to know. Years alter, though, I appreciated what he said and, while I’ll still happily write songs about my cat or my shoes, there’s definitely value in his words. Maybe (not in a grim way at all) facing my own mortality helped with lessening the fears of being open.

    I’ve been thinking about what you wrote here a lot since I read it. I like this post a great deal, and it’s actually a nice combination: being revealing/opening yourself up and whatever meta tendencies are present: Writing openly and revealingly about your uncomfortableness with being open and revealing. If anything, it’s a cool step to have taken.

    • Jeff: I’m glad you took the plunge and ditched the pseudonym. As much as I like FTP, I think integrating your musical persona more closely with your own can only inspire harder work, knowing that your real name is associated. My first solo album (in high school!) was done under my initials, which I think was a subconscious way of distancing myself. But later on, I felt, “Why bother doing something I’m not willing to put my name on?” I guess it would be different if I were doing porn. (Maybe.)

  4. I totally get this. I’ve only recently given in to my writer side, and my first real piece that I did was actually a 1500 word fanfic piece for a few authors I really like. My husband wants to read it, but it’s YA stuff and there’s kissing, and this is weird, but I am sort of terrified of him reading it. People I don’t know? I don’t care about them so much because the general public only reads it if I win, and that alone is some sort of reassurance that I don’t totally suck. I told him he could read it if I win 🙂

    My NaNo project is a loosely autobiographical tale of how my husband I met in high school, and how my best friend dumped me with no notice and kicked me out of her life. I’m really terrified about most people reading this one . . .

    • Sarah: Interesting that the biggest fear would involve the ones closest to you, which makes sense because they are around and you have to deal with them. I have tended to worry about the great unknown, but I can understand not wanting to offset balance with a semi-autobiographical text that might rub loved ones the wrong way. Actually, I probably should think about this more than I have! 🙂

    • Lia: I seriously considered the pen name route, but I figured it’s too easy to be found out in this tech-savvy society, so why bother? So I’m trying to go all in. Thanks for your feedback!

  5. I am way late to the party on this one, but it was on my mind this morning as I am struggling to decide where to officially share my NaNoWriMo novel. I keep picturing my family members reading it and thinking “good Lord, dear, you’re a pervert,” while my pervert friends read it and think “damn, girl, you’re a nerd,” and my Warcraft friends read it and think “you’re a pervert *and* you got the lore all wrong.” And the biggest fear of all? That nobody will think those things because nobody will read it.

    I am extraordinarily fortunate that I don’t have to worry about career consequences with my writing, though when I was doing somewhat sexually explicit performance work in grad school, those thoughts did weigh on my mind. (Then again, I live in Silicon Valley, where well-paid engineers wear jeans and furry convention t-shirts to work and nobody blinks.) I have always said that I will not edit myself online to placate an employer or a potential employer, because I don’t want to work for anyone who would seek to control my thoughts or activities on my own time, but that’s a position of privilege. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I really don’t think employers worth working for give a crap about online presence unless you somehow cause a global shitstorm of keyboard activist outrage, and I don’t see that happening with you.

    When I first started writing “Little Ranger”, I thought that I was getting away from autobiographical storytelling by writing within a fantasy world. As I wrote, however, I found that not to be the case at all. I put Larianna in situations that I would never face myself, but at the same time, I found themes about sexuality, about the nature of friendship, about finding purpose in life, about motherhood versus self, about fear, anger, despair… all sorts of personal demons coming out. Even issues about body image came out through a shapeshifter character who struggles with it, even if she doesn’t say so explicitly. If “Avataria” (my aborted Second Life novel) cut too close to the quick, then “Little Ranger” allowed me to add a layer of perceived detachment before going forward and putting my heart and soul into it anyway.

    As to your writing, I would say that the only people who know how autobiographical it really is are the ones who know you well, and who love you for who you are. And even we’re just guessing. Part of connecting with people and feeling better about ourselves involves remembering that not everybody is inside our heads judging us at all times. (I have a very hard time with that myself.) A negative review of your writing doesn’t mean that the person hates you personally, even if they’ve attacked something that was personal to you; it just means they had some shit to say themselves, that’s all. More likely, you have the opportunity to be surprised by who connects with what you’ve said, and the opportunity to inspire others to put their stories (autobiographical or not) out there. I know you’ve inspired me greatly, and I suspect that I’m not the only one.

    • Meghan, thanks for your candor and compliments. I look forward to reading “Little Ranger,” however out of context I may be with no WoW experience. I’m sure the human truths will shine through.

      The aim is definitely to live in a context where being true to one’s self artistically can be a priority and needn’t be a concern, but for some of us it takes time and work and sometimes deciding to change the situation, insofar as one can. Fearing a clashing value system with one’s employer and the potential consequences thereof is usually as needless as worrying about anything else. Worry helps nothing.

      I won’t judge the lore, and I look forward to the parts which made you worry about being perceived as a pervert!

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