Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ask Cheryl a Question: Overcoming Fear

Sometimes fear keeps me from writing. How do I overcome it?

Great question. In one form or another fear is probably the number one culprit that keeps us from going after our dreams. Fear is often insidious, disguised as procrastination or poor time management, but it can be debilitating in any form. I guess the first thing is figuring out what are you afraid of.

For the beginner: Are you afraid of trying to write because you might find out you’re not very good at it? Are you concerned you might give it your all and never get published? Recognizing that something is holding you back is a huge step. Now take another one and figure out exactly what it is you’re worried will happen.

First, understand this: The first thing you write won’t be publishable. Neither will the first book, most likely (okay it does happen) and maybe not the second. But you will never learn, you will never grow, you will never know that you can, until you put the words on the paper. It took me a long time to figure this out, so if I can teach you this and it sticks, I’ll consider my job done: They are only words. You can write more.

Repeat it: They are only words. If they’re not great, you can toss them out and write more. There are plenty more words where those came from. Thousands, millions, in all sorts of combinations and patterns. You don’t have to get them all right the first time.

Whenever a new member joins my RWA chapter or my critique group, I understand their nervousness. I was in their shoes once. I make it a point to tell them: We all started out in the same place. Years ago my brother knew I was writing, and he brought me a newspaper article of a published author whose husband had been transferred to the air force base in my city and she was starting an RWA chapter. I’d never heard of RWA. I was too inexperienced and uncertain to even call the contact number. Another year or more went by and one of the chapter members was featured in the Sunday paper. My brother brought me that one, too and said, “You have to get with these people.”

It took me weeks to get the courage to call. And when I did, I got an answering machine and hung up without leaving a message. I felt completely out of my league. I knew I’d be stepping into a world of English majors and professional people, and I was just little old me making up stories on my old electric typewriter.

Well, I finally did it. I made the call and left a message. The woman called me back and she was warm and welcoming and delightful. I went to my first meeting with my knees knocking and learned everyone there was someone like me – someone just making up stories for the pure love of it. It was months later when I finally showed a manuscript to that founding published author and she Xed out page after page and wrote “nothing happening” in red in the margins. That hurt. She also showed me the things I did well, and showed me how to change and fix and rework the story. She was the first person who said to me, “You can do this.” Her name was Diane Wicker Davis, a warm Southern lady who mentored other writers and shared her knowledge. She passed away last year and everyone who knew her remembers her laugh and her encouragement.

I pushed on after her critique, learning, studying, rewriting, until a few years had slipped by and a stack of rejections had piled up. I can remember becoming frustrated and being so hungry for someone to tell me I could do this thing.

No one can tell you whether or not you’re going to sell a book, publish fifty more or be a success. As much as we’d love for there to be, there’s no writer’s crystal ball to foretell the future. We all wonder if we have the stuff it takes. As beginners we wonder if we have an inkling of talent. Once other writers and readers validate our talent, we still wonder if it’s good enough, if we have what it takes. It’s good to acknowledge that we don’t know it all and to have a desire to learn and grow. But sometimes doubt holds us back. We shoot ourselves in the foot by creating and feeding feelings of inadequacy, by being unwilling to stick our neck out there and show our work. Submission requires opening ourselves up to criticism and rejection. I know a few writers who don’t even submit for fear of rejection.

Confidence comes with practice and with maturity.

Consider an athlete. He might have a desire to run a hundred meter race. So he goes out and gives it a shot, but he doesn’t do very well. Why not? He didn’t practice! He didn’t study how other runners achieve endurance through diet and exercise. He doesn’t know how good he really is until he’s trained by learning all he can, eating properly for energy and muscle and all that -- and after he’s ready, after he’s prepared, stretching to limber up and then RUNNING. Then running again and again and again until he’s fast and he knows he’s fast, and he’s ready to compete.

In many ways submitting a book is a lot like that. Your manuscript will be compared to all the others that cross an editor’s desk. It will be scrutinized for its ability to make the publishing house money in the marketplace. The only way you can have the confidence to know you’re submitting something with a chance of making it past that test is to learn your craft and practice, practice, practice. Work at writing and work at it until you get better, until you hit your personal stride.

Sure, sometimes self-doubt is much deeper, it’s inadequacies we’ve carried with us from childhood and relationships and past hurts and experiences. But there’s help for those things, too, in recognizing it and getting help if need be and working on it. You’re a valuable person. You’re worth it. You deserve to give yourself the gift of improving yourself and reaching for your dream.

What else holds you back?

Fear of Embarrassment
Honesty time. This is actually your pride getting the best of you. We all had to start somewhere. We all wrote crap when we first started--well most of us anyway. When babies first learn to feed themselves and walk, we don’t make fun of them; they don’t know any better. You didn’t get on a bicycle the first time and smoothly take off.

Training wheels aren’t embarrassing to a four-year-old. Why do we think our first attempts at writing are humiliating? You have to be willing to make mistakes.
You have to be willing to be bad. You can fix bad. You can’t fix nothing.

Sometimes we’re just our own worst enemy!

Fear of Failure
What if I do the very best I can, give it my all, and fail? Failure means to fall short; failure is a lack of success. This is where your thinking needs to change. Set realistic goals, which is another entire subject. If we go back and look at the realistic goals we planned for ourselves, we can see where we didn’t fall short in our commitment or resolve or our mission. If you take the steps you planned to reach your goal, you succeed in doing the things that are within your control. Taking that action reduces fear and increases your options. Since failure is defined as an omission to perform an expected action, you haven’t failed if you’ve taken the steps to reach your goal.

Failure is not in being rejected; it’s in not taking the steps.
You can succeed by changing your thinking and your self-defeating behaviors.

And here’s the question I’m famous for asking. I ask it of myself and then I ask if of others who hesitate: WHAT IS THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN?

Okay, people, we’re talking about writing a book here, not jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle! The worst thing that could happen?

Your first three chapters could suck bilge water and need to be thrown out. Remember, I said there are more words where those came from.

It could take you three years to sell a book once you know how. This is my story – it is so bad?

You could write four books over twice as many years, not sell a one and give up. So? You met wonderful people, you had a great time, you learned a lot, and you stayed out of the casino. What was the worst thing about that?

I’m giving you things to think about. I’m asking you to face your fears. I’m suggesting you take steps to put doubt and lack of confidence under your feet and stomp on them a few times -- then don’t pick them up and resuscitate them!

Fear is a lack of knowledge. Learn all you can about yourself, about how you work and the things that get you motivated or the things that hold you back and then take the menace out of them by taking positive action to put them behind you.

How do you want to do things differently to see better results?


  1. Cheryl, so much of what you wrote can be applied to so many things in life. I work with Special Education kids and so many of them are afraid that they cannot do 'it', whatever it may be that they won't even try. May I use some of your statements to encourage them?

  2. Great heartfelt lessons Cheryl. As Connie said, to be applied to so much in life. I'm at the same point in my job. Hating it, yet afraid to leave and try something different after 10 years there. Thanks for the encouragement, even though I'm not a writer.

  3. Talk about hitting the nail on the head!!!
    Even after people I trust with my life with have told me you can do this, you can write. The gun comes out once again and finds a way to keep my butt out of the chair.

    Great article!


  4. Great stuff! I'm going to make Andrew read through this as well. Think he might take it better from you than from me. Who needs to be in bondage to fear?!?!?

    Lovin it!

  5. Great blog! I really enjoy this feature.

  6. Consider me inspired! Even a guru needs a kick in behind now and again.

  7. Wow, what a great blog! It really hit home tonight as I'm busy trying to get something presentable put together for critique. I'm going to print it out and hang it on my bulletin board! Thanks again, Cheryl!

  8. Fabulous article, Cheryl. I know that several 'fears' do relate to me. Thanks for putting this out there for me to read!

    Dee Ann W

  9. Betsy, a friend just resigned after 21 yrs banking to take care of 3 grandkids, including newborn boy. I had to be laid off THREE jobs I grew to dislike before I moved on to ones I enjoy, adore & MUCH better match!
    Julie, had same thought to print & post.
    Connie, I too work with students with disabilities who are sometimes discouraged.
    CHEERS to an inspired author, Cheryl, who was surely seasoned in the trenches!