How to Overcome Fear as a Writer and Embrace Your Profound Courage

Long ago, someone gave me a birthday card that said “Fearless.” For many years, I tacked it on my bulletin board above my desk. Even now, it’s one of the few cards I’ve ever saved. I kept it because while a part of me resonated with the idea that I might be fearless, the rest of me just yearned to be—because I knew I wasn’t. I knew I had to learn to overcome fear as a writer or a person.

I look back on my life and realize that my fears, although often suppressed, were always present. Someone once asked me in an interview what I thought made me productive and focused, and I knew the answer was that I was running, always running, from the fears that I wouldn’t measure up.

So in some ways, it’s a humorous irony that I became a writer. Being a writer means putting yourself constantly into the storming heart of the most frightening parts of existence.

Writers can’t hide. If we try to avoid authenticity and vulnerability, our writing inevitably fails—and that is a devastation in itself. To choose this life is to choose to stand naked—before ourselves and, sooner or later, before the whole world.

Eventually, we must put everything out there be judged—from our punctuation skills to our very sanity. The ego is constantly battered, because of course we never measure up. The best thing we’ve ever written isn’t perfect. It’s full of holes for someone to point out. Even more poignant, if we’re really honest, is the truth that we don’t even need someone to point out the holes. We know them all. We know some scenes are boring. We know our characters are occasionally representatives of ourselves at our most whiny and unlikable. We know our logic and even our philosophy is sometimes without defense.

If we publish, we know we may lose more than money. We may lose face. Even if we’re lucky, we know we’ll get negative reviews—sometimes evisceratingly bad reviews. We know people are likely to ignore us as the utterly ignorable little people we are. And if they do notice, we know some of them will take it upon themselves to call into question our very humanity.

The stories and the characters that are so precious to us—and so symbolic of the precious inside parts of our own experiences—will be logically and sometimes brutally torn apart by others. And more often than not, when we read their words, the part of us that bleeds the worst is the part that knows there’s truth in what is being said.

Sometimes we want to give up. Sometimes we do. Sometimes publishing one more book, even one more post—putting one more piece of ourselves out there to be judged—seems too hard. Sometimes just the writing itself is too hard—the discipline of putting one word after another, the rawness of facing our own inadequacies on every page.

But we keep writing.

The fact that we often cannot help but keep writing does not lessen the truth that in continuing to write, we are engaging in a tremendous act of courage. Do not underestimate this. Ever.

Writing as Both Fearsome Compulsion and Courageous Choice

Cynthia Ozick gives us this beautiful statement:

If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.

She’s also quoted as saying:

[Writing is] a kind of hallucinatory madness. You will do it no matter what. You can’t not do it.

As writers everywhere can attest, there’s much truth in that. Why else would we throw ourselves into the breach time and time again?

But I daresay the words we continue to brandish in the face of our fears do not always come so compulsively. It’s true that sometimes we are brave without thinking about it. We write, we publish, we wait for a response—without overthinking it. But sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes creation is John Hammond’s “act of sheer will.” Sometimes it is a deliberate howl into the darkness of our own fears.

Perhaps that’s the point. Putting the vulnerable and untested parts ourselves into the exposed irrevocability of print may be one of the most frightening things a human being can do, but it is also one of most fundamental and powerful ways in we which we fight to overcome our fright.

In truth, I’m thinking about all this today because I’ve been pondering my own reaction to a negative review. It’s a review of a story I wrote long, long ago, when I was barely an adult, when I was another person entirely, back when I was still learning so many basics of the craft. I wouldn’t write the book again, not in the same way. The person I am now would write it so that many of the things the reviewer disliked would have been corrected. And probably that is why the review made an impact on me at all; it is always the bad reviews I agree with that hurt the most.

As is always the case when a negative review hits home, there is a part of me that is scared to try again. It’s not a wholly reasonable part of me. It’s that sensitive, ego-driven part that feels as if this judgment of old, old words is somehow a judgment of my worth as a person. It’s also the part of me that loves that old story, in all its comparative shabbiness and naïvety, and that now feels as if that precious part of my life should have been kept shielded and private where it could not be scorned by others to whom I wasn’t skilled enough to communicate clearly.

I hear the words of that review—and others before it—and I am afraid. I know I haven’t yet understood how to remedy all the flaws I know about (never mind those I don’t). I know that when I come to my desk tonight, what I write won’t be perfect. I know that despite all efforts, I’m going to do it again—going to put myself right back in the crossfire. Ultimately it isn’t the criticism of others I fear, but the echo of agreement from within myself.

And yet, when it does come time tonight for me to write, I will. There will be a part of me that’s afraid—afraid of making the same mistakes, afraid both that I might shame myself with an exposure of my inner truths and also that I will betray those truths because my skill isn’t—and never will be—capable of conveying to others my own depth of experience. But I will write.

I will write, not just because of Ozick’s “hallucinatory madness,” but because I choose to write. I choose to keep going. I cannot choose to be fearless. But I can choose to be brave. And so can you.

5 Ways to Overcome Fear as a Writer

Sooner or later, fear (and it’s evil twin doubt) are feelings all writers experience. When you discover yourself feeling fear, take it as a sign that you’re doing something right. I used to tell myself to “write scared.” If I wasn’t pushing myself just slightly to the brink of discomfort, then I knew I was probably just settling, on one level or another.

So write scared. And as those fears arise—sometimes just little niggles and sometimes life-threatening monsters—try the following five ideas to help you use, live with, and perhaps overcome fear as a writer.

1. Feel the Hurt of What Scares You

For some people, this first step may not only be a no-brainer, but part of the problem. Some people have no difficulty accessing, feeling, and identifying their emotions. In fact, for some people the biggest problem is indulging too much in those emotions. But for me, as someone who has struggled with emotional repression, my first step is to make sure I am feeling the hurt or the fear.

Instead of immediately stuffing it or rationalizing it when it comes up, I try to notice it, look it square in the face, and literally feel whatever sensations are showing up in my body. My go-to defense is usually rationalizing my way around an unpleasant feeling (e.g., “I shouldn’t be upset; I agree with that person after all” or “who cares if one person didn’t like the book when I know lots of others do like it?”). Rationalizations are all fine and well in their place, but they don’t substitute for emotional honesty.

2. Choose Humility Over Defensiveness

Fear is a response that occurs either because something hurt us or because experience tells us something could hurt us in the future. When we are hurt because a critique partner or family member criticizes a raw story, the experience is often compounded by our fears of what it means both about us as a person (“I’m a terrible writer!”) or the future of our dreams (“this story is doomed!”). In these situations, it’s incredibly easy (and often somewhat gratifying) to become defensive—sometimes to the point of turning the criticism right back on the other person.

More often than not, defensiveness is counter-productive. Unless we’re masters of self-delusion, our retorts aren’t likely to make us feel any better and they may indeed block us from making necessary corrections. Although humility should never become an excuse to let others dictate your view of yourself, your work, and your world, it is an invaluable tool for refining not just your understanding of story, but your understanding of life and yourself in it.

After you’ve given yourself some time to feel your hurt without getting defensive, take another moment to ask if there’s a core of truth to what the other person is suggesting. They may be dead wrong. But they may also be offering the key to your next great discovery—if only you have the courage to not just face your ego’s fear but walk on through it.

3. Embrace Your Own Wonderful Bravery

For many years, I have kept handy a quote from journalist Bill Stout:

Whether or not you write well, write bravely.

I do not always write well. That I write better today than I did yesterday, that perhaps my most recent novel is better than my first is in no way a guarantee that what I write now will be good enough to matter to anyone but me.

But I do write with all the bravery and honesty I can muster. This is a truth I can claim—and be proud of.

Last night, I took a walk under the November moon to process the hurt feelings and inevitable flash of fear that resulted from that negative review. There was, at first, the familiar threat from the wounded and scared part of myself: You don’t ever have to share your writing with anyone ever again!

From that comes a little flicker of false security, but it is quickly followed by the more mature and wise voice that says, No, of course, you will write again. And how brave you are to do so, my darling. How brave you are. 

And with that, I am at peace again—because I know I’d rather be brave and get hurt than be a coward in safety.

When you find yourself most afraid—when your insecurities are roaring their loudest—don’t forget that you are brave. Your writing may say truths about you that you don’t always like to face. But the one truth it always says is that you are a lionheart. Roar that back into the face of whatever scares you most.

4. Follow the Fear

Take your bravery in your hand and turn back around to face your fears full on. Claim “write scared” as your mantra. The very fact that you are afraid of what your writing says about you—and what others, in their turn, say about that, is something you can write about. They are opportunities to learn and to grow. More than likely, your fears are red arrows pointing straight at the thing you most need to work on.

Fear exists to protect us. So look at what you’re afraid of and why. You may have to dig past the surface, but what you find may well be something that is causing you real pain or holding you back in some vital way. Learn to hear what your fear is telling you.

Whenever you start feeling too safe or complacent, look around for something that scares you—whether it’s giving your story back to a critique partner whose honest feedback hurt you, or writing a scene that hits too close to home, or being honest about something that’s hard for you to admit even to  yourself. Lean into the fear. Conquer it, and it can no longer threaten you. There are still so many things I’m afraid of—in both life and writing—but there are also so many things that used to scare me but that now I have all but forgotten.

5. Turn Your Fears Into Truths

Finally, remember that everything you feel deeply in your own life is grist for the mill. Humans have this innate hubristic idea that we know so much about life–and I daresay writers are the worst offenders! But there’s knowing things and there’s knowing things. The more we know, gleaned from the depths of our own growing awareness of our lives, the more we can write with authenticity.

The person who left me that negative-but-ultimately-inspiring review didn’t know it, but much of what they criticized in that old book was due as much to my inexperience in life as any inexperience as a writer. They couldn’t know that, but I know it. I know my former self wrote with all the honesty and understanding she had. My current self tries to do that too but with the benefit of a decade’s worth of added experience—part of which includes the reflection brought about by a book review that hurt mostly because it was unwittingly a critique of that former self.

The only way writers can share words and stories of awareness and honesty is if we are doing our best to be aware and honest with ourselves. As our perspectives simultaneously refine and broaden, our stories inevitably become better. There’s no fear in that idea—just delightful hope.

***

That writing is often scary is actually one of the most exciting things about it. Some people jump off cliffs, some people ride bulls, and some people write. After all, as the T-shirt says,

If you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much room.

By that logic, I don’t think there’s a writer alive who’s taking up too much room. Put your hand over your heart, feel that fear in your chest, breathe deep, and jump. Perhaps at the end of the day, it’s the thrill of conquering our fears that makes the words worth writing and life worth living.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you overcome fear as a writer? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your pain and fear with us. One of the scariest things for me is thinking I’m alone with my fears. I’m so grateful that you’ve created this platform (& wordplayers) where we can share and know that we are not alone with our fears in the writing world. There is great comfort in just that. I will be reading this post again! Thank you!

  2. Carl Kjellberg says

    Hi Katie
    Reading your post, I am reminded of the words of writer Rene Brown who writes extensively of the subject of vulnerability. She says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” “To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.”

  3. Carl Kjellberg says

    Sorry that quote was from Brene Brown.

  4. This is a timely post since Joanna Penn has a recent interview on writing one’s darkness: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2019/11/11/write-your-darkness/

  5. Josh Patrick-Riley says

    There are a lot of times I don’t feel like writing, and lately I’ve figured out that’s because of fears my work won’t be good enough. I’ll be terrified that my writing won’t even measure up to what I’ve written in the past. I appreciate this article so much since I’ve been working on overcoming those fears, so thank you. Your advice to be courageous and face the fears head on is exactly what I needed right now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve been working a lot lately on facing fears in general. What’s amazing to me is how good we often are at disguising our fears. We can tell ourselves the reasons we’re not doing something, such as writing, are for any other reason–because once we admit we’re afraid, we have to face that.

  6. I often wonder how successful writers such as yourself handle the unavoidable negative reviews and feedback. I assume that at some point you either decide to never read them or develop some kind of impenetrable shield that protects your from their sting. But clearly this is not the case.

    I’m definitely not looking forward to getting that sort of feedback from my audience (especially the kind that bears truth within it). I know some of it will be soul-crushing. But hearing your own thoughts and experience encourages me to keep going. Whatever comes, it won’t keep me from writing on, through the fear and pain.

    As always, thanks for sharing your journey with us and for continuing to write with bravery and honesty. It means a lot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve been fortunate in that the majority of feedback I’ve received over the years is either positive or at least kind. In no small part due to that, I’ve learned to see much of the negative feedback in perspective. But there are always those occasional comments that hit home. They’re never fun. But they are growing opportunities. 🙂

  7. Robert Chang says

    I’ve been reading/listening/watching your blog/podcast/YouTube channel for years, and this is one of the most profound, honest, and inspiring things you’ve ever shared with us.

    I know there are writers out there who act like they don’t give a damn and have no fear (Terry Mixon of Dead Robot Society seems to be one), but I wonder if when not putting on a public face, they really are as unconcerned and fearless as they makes us think they are.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m quite sure there are people who are better at dealing with their fear than others. But we’re all scared of something. 🙂

  8. Sandra Baird says

    I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this honest piece of wisdom and honesty. The road is long, and it is wonderful as a writer to realize we all fight the same dragons.I have copied much of this post into my journal to light my way. Thank-you.
    Sandra Baird

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m reminded of Rilke’s quote: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

  9. What amuses me most about these types of topics is just how applicable they are not just to writing, but life in general. Once again, a post like this comes timely to me, as opportunities arise within my professional life that are precipitating fear upon me. Incidentally, my motivation to write fluctuates based on my stress.

    I am a Type 6 (enneagram), so fear rules my life.

    Your post had a few key quotes on it that may just set me on the path I need to walk. Thanks again, Katie. I think the point that most people miss in life is that there is no shame in fear – only in allowing it to defeat you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “no shame in fear – only in allowing it to defeat you.” Boo yeah! 😀 That’s a great quote right there!

  10. Casandra Merritt says

    Speaking of fears. I was working on a premise sentence and having trouble finding my protagonist’s goal, and I finally found the problem. This story seems to be more about the antagonist’s goal. Uh-oh! Is this a bad thing, and if not, would my premise sentence look different? It’s not that the protagonist doesn’t have a goal, it’s just that the antagonist’s goal is more “overpowering” and would be the one I would mention in the premise.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The antagonist’s goal will frame the conflict, but the protagonist’s goal is what drives the plot. This post might be helpful: Reply

  11. Hello!
    I have a question that doesn’t relate to writing directly.
    Sorry to be invasive, but I’ve always been curious about that.
    How did you learn everything you know? In school? Courses?
    And what’s your zodiac sign? :p

  12. Eileen Beal says

    A friend sent this to me.

    This — “So much of fear isn’t because we *can’t* move, but because we don’t know *how* to move” — spoke DIRECTLY to me/my issue.

    And Now that I actually know what the issue is, I know what I need to do to “know ‘how’ to move.

    E. Beal

  13. George Dreading says

    Katie I read somewhere once: “You don’t have to be perfect to be awesome.” With that in mind stop trying to be perfect and instead just be awesome. Trust me awesome is MUCH better than perfect!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.