Writing without Fear

by the time December 1st came round I knew I was on a roll. By then I had a story to tell, and I would be damned if niggling doubts, or a crippling fear of failure was going to stop me.

Laziness: this is as good an excuse for not writing, or being creative in general, as any. This was the reason I would give for my procrastination until just over a year ago when I decided if I was ever going to call myself a writer I needed to do it every day. Up until then my writing had been sporadic, punctuated by large periods of inactivity. I put this down to laziness, and while I admit to become a writer it helps to become familiar with discipline and routine, it also takes courage and self-belief.

So, I decided to enter the 2014 nanowrimo event, where for the whole month of November the challenge was to write a 50,000 word novel. I’d been struggling with mine for the last five years and saw this as the nearest thing to motivation as I could manage. I had placed a metaphorical gun to my head, and had a month (in fact less: I didn’t start until the 7th) to finish my novel, or else face seeing my dreams splattered against the wall.

As it turned out by the end of the month I was still short of the 50,000 word mark (even though I had already written 18,000 previous to the challenge), but it didn’t matter, because for 21 days straight I had written daily. Something, in all my years of writing, I had never even come close to. Ah, you may think to yourself, so this is how he cured himself of being such a lazy bastard. No, this was how I cured myself of being fearful. This was how I learned to write without fear. I knew if I was to take on the NANO challenge I would have to write every day, no matter what the voice in my head told me, no matter how cheesy or dreadful my storytelling, character building, or prose seemed to me: I didn’t have time to worry about all that.

So, by the time December 1st came round I knew I was on a roll. By then I had a story to tell, and I would be damned if niggling doubts, or a crippling fear of failure was going to stop me. I simply decided to ignore all the dissent in my mind and just fucking write. Every day. Whether I felt like it or not. But most days I did feel like it. That’s an under-statement: I was chomping at the bit most days.

On April 23rd I sat in my back garden and wrote the final sentence of the first draft of the novel which had been haunting me for the last 6 years. I don’t mind admitting I shed a tear or two. It felt as if I had scaled my own personal Everest.

Now I’m not going to pretend what lay in front of me was a masterpiece, far from it: character names and cities had changed over the course of the first draft, some of the dialogue definitely needed work and the time line of the story wasn’t yet concrete. To make matters worse, I had written entire sections of the book first on my laptop and then by hand, only to keep see-sawing between the two approaches until I was left with a manuscript which existed both in physical and virtual forms. But even that couldn’t diminish my sense of pride.

The main motivating factor which drove me on through those five months were nine little words which became a mantra, it’s alright, I’ll fix it in the second draft. This affirmation helped keep the demons at bay, and day by day I could feel the fear fall away. Laziness had never been the issue.

The thing is, we are imagining that as soon as we sit down at our work space we will be left alone with ourselves and all the voices and people in our lives or past who say we can’t write, writing’s for others, the professionals. We expect because we are writing a short story or novel that the first sentence should be pure gold and a thing of perfection. And when we find ourselves wracking our brains to come up with a Man Booker winning first line or paragraph, and we can’t, we imagine we cannot write, or we imagine the derision if our favourite writer or teacher could see the crap we might produce instead. It’s crazy, but we end up using our imaginations to stop us from doing just that.

Even before sitting down to write my thoughts out for this blog there was still a small, distant voice which doubted whether I would be able to put anything down. Perhaps for some, if not all writers, that will always be the case, but I have found, and maybe I’m pointing out the obvious here, all you have to do, and can do, is simply sit down and write. Write the first thing which comes into your head. If you’re starting a new chapter, but aren’t sure how to kick it off, read through the last one, and then, without any more ado, just carry on the best you can. You may cringe at the words and sentences which appear, you may even hate what you’re putting down, the thing is, you are writing and you are in the act of creating. You are being true to your promise to write, and this is infinitely better than avoiding it.

After a hundred, or several hundred words you will probably find you are starting to fall into a flow, seduced by the process of writing as your mind lets go of the outside world, all the bullshit it entails and fully engages with your emotions and imagination. Your writing, even in this short space of time, will start to improve, and don’t be surprised if you come up with a line or even whole page of pure gold. Then the faltering “crap” which you first produced when you sat down can be edited or changed altogether, because this is a first draft, and the great thing about a first draft is no one will ever see the mess you had to deal with to get to your master piece. And when you finally put your pen down or close your laptop you may well be thinking to yourself, Wow, that was fun. Why aren’t I doing this every day? Easy. Because every time you subsequently come back to write or even think, Well, I suppose I should be doing some writing now, those same fears and excuses will resurface. Even if you had a good writing session last time round, the voice in your head may try and convince you it was just a one-off, beginners luck, you were in a different frame of mind, but this time you might not be so lucky. And yes, it can seem a grind to sit down cold and just write, but the more you do it the more you will come to realise that it’s just the voices talking. Don’t listen to them.

The more you write, the more you will work at your craft and refine what you do. You may always be visited by the same, small feelings of dread, but by then you will know they aren’t real, because after the first few lines or paragraphs it stops being work and becomes play, because that’s what art is, play. Artists are some of the luckiest people in the world simply because the creative process is the same as when you are a kid, playing with your toys, imagining different worlds, situations or people. Most people lose that when they become adults, and look for other avenues to lose themselves in. I suppose that’s why drugs, porn and computer games are so popular. But art is infinitely better than all of that put together. The page is our playground where we get to play God and go on incredible journeys where we find things out about ourselves and the world around and within us.

What we are most afraid of when it comes to sitting down before the great white landscape of nothing is failure. Maybe it’s this society we inhabit where we are constantly fed images and messages of perfection and success, but it seems we are not allowed to fail. The thing is if you have never failed how can you win? There’s nothing wrong with failing. Stephen King’s first two novels were never published because, as he admits himself, they weren’t good enough, and he only got Carrie published because his wife rescued it from the bin. So even the mighty King has known failure, and self-doubt, but did it stop him? No. Did it help him become a better writer? Of course it did. He didn’t stop just because some agent may have laughed at his early manuscripts and thrown them in the bin, he just continued writing because he’s a writer and that’s what writers do. Without this failure and rejection he could never have succeeded.

Post image: https://code.google.com/p/noto