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!

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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. Near the beginning I was going ‘wow… that IS scary… yikes…’ but by the end I had a story idea based on a writer conquering her fear and… (yeah you’re the one who suggested it…).

    Awesome post! I’m not going to say it’s the best. I’m not. It can’t be. (But it gave me a story idea and none of the others did, so that’s a plus! (well it did that on purpose but still… let me be happy about the idea!!))

    I am going to reread this. Over and over. It’s motivational, inspiring, and it brings to light the biggest part of being a writer and blows it up for the world to see.

    Hm. I just had the most traitorous thought. (Why don’t I erase this message, save it ’till tomorrow, and write an extremely negative review first? That would be soo wonderfully ironic. It would. And I love irony.) But I’m too nice for that. Not when you’ve done such an amazing post. Again. (Also I’m wayy too nice to more than consider it, haha.)

    Keep up the good work, KM. I’ve learned so much about story structure from you… (and now I get to cringe at all my previous writing. Like the one that didn’t even have a climax, ended in the wrong spot, had ‘robotic emotion’, and had so much potential but then, like, didn’t… but thanks, because my future writing will be better for it!)

    Happy writing,
    ~~Tiffany Smith

  2. Nora Spinaio says

    Thanks for this. I have long known that fear was a big issue with me about my writing.

  3. Amazing post, as always. Like that birthday card, I think this is one I’ll save.

    Also, I seem to recall you have a November birthday! Hope you had a great day and are excited for all that a new year holds 😊

  4. Thank you. God knows this post was exactly what I needed today. Being vulnerable is always so scary, and yet it is only there that a person can really connect with others -and that’s scary too, in its own way, because… what happens after? It could change you, and I think changing (even good changing, even growing) is the scariest thing of all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Vulnerability is the essence of good fiction. We create it at a remove, since we portray it through characters, but it is still our own vulnerability that has to shine through if the truth of the fiction is to resonate.

  5. Thanks for this post. I never gave fear a thought in my writing. At this point I’m just trying to master enough of the craft so I don’t come off as some kind of incompetent. My view is that I will welcome constructive criticism but if someone doesn’t like my story, that’s just too bad. I’m sure not going to lose what little sleep I get over it.

  6. I especially like your fifth point about turning our fears into truths. I suspect most writers aim to do just that. And then there’s Harper Lee’s advice: “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”

  7. Thank you so much! This is not only beautiful and inspiring in itself but also exactly what I needed right now. Again, thank you so much! You are a fantastic writer and your blog is one of the most precious gems on the internet.

  8. The is a keeper! I love your posts, always, but this one is outstanding. thank you! 🙂

  9. Sally M. Chetwynd says

    When I feel that fear (which for me ends up being “stuck” because I don’t know where to go or how), I let the whole situation percolate on my back burner for some time – sometimes months, while I work on something else. Once I get to a certain point of percolation, I start brainstorming on paper, scribbling anything and everything without editing. This can go on for quite some time, too, depending on what I’m wrestling with. But all of a sudden, in the middle of this stream-of-consciousness noodling, there is my answer, be it the path my protagonist needs to take, the ending of the story, or means by which I can worm my way through the protagonist’s tangled emotions.

    This technique led to the toughest writing I’ve ever done (in my recently released second novel), but I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge – I could feel myself growing! And it led to that authenticity you mention.

    It’s hard to either ignore or process negative comments on one’s work, but as you point out, if we seek the good in the comments, if the reviewer is giving heartfelt feedback, it can go far to improve our work so we don’t make those mistakes again. On my second novel, I have had some very interesting feedback, some of it that I could interpret as negative, but coming from a fellow writer, I take it as he intended it.

    Maybe I’m weird (actually, I know I’m weird), but I find others’ comments on my written material fascinating, for each reader colors his/her interpretation of any reading with his/her personal experience. Sometimes our work strikes a chord that we hadn’t even thought of.

    Anything worth doing is worth working for. Good growing, all, with your writing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love this, and I believe it is so true. So much of fear isn’t because we *can’t* move, but because we don’t know *how* to move. I’ve always believed we only find the right answers by first being able to ask the right questions. Brainstorming and scribbling on the page is one of the best ways I know to do that!

  10. Once again you have inspired me Katie. Where in the world did you get your wisdom? Perhaps from courageously writing and not stopping. I, on the other hand, who has suffered from years of chronic migraines, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress most of my life, but I still work hard at being grateful for all of the blessings I do have. You have inspired me to get back to my writing, which I abandoned several years ago because of fear. I have a big job ahead of me with gathering all of my notes and letters together to make sense of a story I want to tell; my story. I keep you in my ‘inbox’ for this very reason. Thank you so much, Katie.

    Jan

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writing may be an act of courage, but I think gratitude is the *biggest* act of courage. You go. 🙂

  11. Encouraging to read KW, and just the ticket I needed to get back into my current project. Thank you!

  12. Embla Miriam says

    Katie, I would like you to know that every evening, I have the habit of writing down at least one thing for which I am grateful. Yesterday, that one thing I happened to write down was “K.M. Weiland’s writings.” 🙂

    Thank you for this post. It is so, so inspiring, as are so, so many of your other writings!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That seriously just made my day. Conscious gratitude is something I’m focusing on right now too, and you’ve just given me something new to be grateful for myself. So thank you!

  13. There’s a new stickie note on my computer. It says:
    “I cannot choose to be fearless. But I can choose to be brave” (K. M. Weiland).
    Yes, I can.

  14. Eileen Hickman says

    Thanks for sharing this. Your tips are great, but its your personal courage to keep writing in the face of fear gives me the courage to do the same.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think fear is a little different for all of us. What scares one doesn’t necessarily scare another. But I do think that the act of writing points a finger at each and every fear sooner or later. It’s a great tool for that, really!

  15. Thanks for a wonderful post. Yes, writing is scary and it makes you very vulnerable. I have recently taken the step of seeking out critique partners and beta readers. It wasn’t easy to hand over my work and to accept some of the unfavorable feedback I have received. However, as you say, once you get over your initial hurt and defensiveness, it’s the unfavorable feedback that’s the most valuable. When others point out the flaws in our work, it gives up the opportunity to improve it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As much as I appreciate great critiques, I *still* don’t like that part of the process. Honestly, I probably never will. But it’s tremendously necessary in helping us see through our blind spots so we can improve.

  16. I’ve encountered so many writers who act like negative reviews don’t hurt and aren’t a big deal. The message I get from that was one of my abuser’s favorite refrains: you’re too sensitive. It implies that feeling hurt is some fatal flaw, and I deserve to be hurt if I’m fragile enough to feel pain.

    Thank you for your honesty and wisdom. Just knowing that someone like you can still be affected by a negative review is comforting. I’m going to try these tips. I keep having trouble writing without a couple of negative reviewers in my head making me second guess every decision I make. Maybe trying to reframe my efforts as brave will help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I will say that the more negative reviews you receive (as well as the more positive reviews), the easier the criticism becomes to put into perspective. But I doubt negative reviews will ever be something I can just shrug off. As they say, you hear the one negative review much louder than the ten positive ones.

      And, yes, I have definitely come to believe that it’s important to acknowledge the pain. This doesn’t mean we wallow in it, but it does mean we don’t judge ourselves for experiencing it.

  17. Just what I need to read! So encouraging. Thank you so much!

  18. AWESOME, a very COURAGEOUS read and like others, precisely where I was at today. It’s so comforting to read other author comments and to realise just how universal this is. Suddenly I don’t feel so alone in that fear, I can see that it’s normal. Thankyou for the many quotes that I’ll be adding to my wall!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There is much aloneness in being a writer. It’s not a team sport. But you’re right that it’s so easy to forget that there are millions of us out there fighting through the same challenges. I take a lot of comfort–and courage–from that myself!

  19. Thanks so much for this beautiful post! It’s just what I needed. I feel this way every time I even post something on Facebook for crying out loud. I really dislike that platform, but sadly, it’s what everyone uses and yet the worst place to post our authenticity when looking for validation I suppose. And yet, at occasional times when I really let myself write something from my depths in public, there are a few people that it brings to tears or touches in some profound way. So I know I must find a way to persevere through the insecurities & find my own platform of some kind.

    This fear you speak of is such a deep deep subject that ties into many archetypal & social facets that I could write a book about that topic on it’s own from my experiences. If only I were a real writer. Sigh. I’ve been silenced for so many years due to my fears, traumas & more when all I ever wanted was to be a writer. It seems I’ve done everything BUT that. I even gave up in following the experts who teach the craft. But not you!

    Your more recent forays into sharing more personal aspects of the writing craft are tapping into some of the authentic voices in the world that are longing to be heard. That takes a whole other level of bravery and I applaud you for being vulnerable. Thank you & much love…don’t stop!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you write you’re a “real writer.” 🙂 It’s true we’re all moving along a spectrum of increasing knowledge and skill, but there is no invisible line you suddenly cross that makes you a “real” writer. There are, of course, certain landmarks, such as being published, that can provide specific validation. But that just means you’re a “published” writer (or whatever). You can’t get there without being a real writer first. 😉 So I would encourage you to think of yourself that way. Every time you put words on paper or screen, you’re a writer.

  20. Facing Fear is taking yourself out of your comfort zone, this is where you learn and grow. If we don’t learn and grow then we stagnate. We must face fear frequently in order to grow, whatever our profession!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. I read a good quote this week about how “fear is just excitement without the breath.” I’m trying to remember to breathe into my fears and find excitement instead.

  21. I live in fear of rejection. There is nothing worse than hitting submit.
    And yet, I still do it. I guess we writers are masochists.

  22. Wow, I needed to read this. Thank you for sharing this vulnerable experience and using it to not only delve deep, but to transform it into inspiration for others going through the same battles.

  23. Oh my goodness I am so fearful of putting my book out there and readers not liking my writing style! It has held me back for so long, I am so glad these are normal feelings 😃 for other writers, I am
    Sure not all but some! This was an excellent post thank you for sharing this.
    Rebecca C. Lee

  24. Yolanda Allen says

    Girl, you’re my rock! I truly appreciate you.

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