Many days, I would do anything else except writing, and then would spend the evenings watching Netflix and hating myself. My husband Marcus tried encouraging me, and it helped me loathe myself a little bit less, but it didn’t help me to write.
Can you imagine how angry I felt? How ashamed? How sad?
I couldn’t figure it out. I’d been writing on the side for twelve years, all while holding down jobs and running my own business. Why couldn’t I do it now, when I had all the time in the world?
Fear. Plain and simple. Now that my writing was no longer a hobby, I was paralyzed by fear.
My writing had to be good. It had to make money. It had to be my career.
Those were the thoughts that kept me scared and kept me feeling small.
It took eighteen months of struggle for things to finally change for the better. With the help of my therapist, I found a simple technique that helped me consistently write five to six days a week. To me, it was a small miracle.
Then, soon after this breakthrough, the Seattle Public Library asked if I wanted to teach a workshop for the Seattle Writes Program. You bet I did. I knew immediately what I wanted to teach: a workshop on FEAR & WRITING.
While creating this workshop, I drew from my own experiences but also from the experiences of other writers and the thousands of college students that I’d helped with writing during my career in higher education, to pinpoint the five reasons why people might fear writing. Here they are.
Reason #1: You fear you’re going to be bad.
This can happen whether you’re a good writer, a poor writer, or mediocre. In fact, I’ve found that the better a writer gets at their craft, the more they fear they’re going to be bad. Think writing will get easier with every book or story or poem you write? Nope. Once you’ve written something good, trying to match that level of craft again is challenging, and can bring up all kinds of fear.
Reason #2: You fear you’ll let people down.
Some people write for themselves. Others write with one person in mind. Still others write for groups of people. Whichever motivating factor resonates with you, fear can stem from thinking that you’re letting yourself or other people down because your writing just isn’t good enough. For many—myself included—this fear can keep you from writing at all.
Reason #3: You have fear from a creative wound.
While growing up, I never had a teacher tell me, “You can’t write. Just give up.” Or “You can’t draw worth crap. Stop trying.” I was lucky. But many people were not. Many people have had teachers, adults, or peers criticize their writing or art so harshly that whenever they try to create something, those critical voices crowd in and stop them in their tracks. For the record, I am not talking about constructive criticism here. I’m talking about mean, unconstructive, and often unfair criticism. This is the kind of dreck that opens a creative wound.
Reason #4: You fear feeling what your characters feel.
When I have to write a scene that involves one of my key characters getting hurt—whether physically or emotionally—it makes me want to walk away from the keyboard. It can take days or weeks for me to summon the courage to write the scene. When I told my therapist about this, she was surprised. She hadn’t thought about fear coming from feeling what your characters feel. I thought I was the only one that felt this until I read more interviews and essays and discovered that other writers have the same fear.
Reason #5: You might fear the actual act of writing.
My friend Brian McDonald has dyslexia. Throughout his life, teachers have criticized his schoolwork and his writing. Despite this, Brian went on to become a brilliant writer and director, and the best writing teacher I’ve had the pleasure of learning from. Brian helped me realize that people with dyslexia often fear the actual act of writing. When you have difficulties with reading and with writing letters, words, and sentences, it makes sense that you would fear writing. But, since dyslexic brains see and process information differently, people with dyslexia often become some of the most successful creators, engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors. What is a disadvantage in traditional education settings can become an absolute strength in the work world.
That cold, rainy Sunday when I walked into the library to teach my first Fear & Writing workshop, I met a roomful of people who were just like me: people who feared writing but still wanted to write. So many people showed up that we had to lock the door and turn people away. Later, I found out my workshop was the most well attended one in the history of the Seattle Writes Program.
That day, I realized I wasn’t alone. If you recognize yourself in any of these five reasons, you are not alone. Every time you face fear and write, remember that you are in good company.
Now, I want to share a tip to help you deal with fear before it comes up. It’s called LINKING.
I want you to link an enjoyable activity with your writing. Choose something that is already comforting to you—this is not the time to start something new—and make sure it lasts about five to ten minutes. It can be anything, but please avoid making the activity eating something or else you might get your novel finished, but you’ll also have gained twenty pounds.
For example, one of my students plays her favorite songs before writing in the evening. For me, I meditate using the Insight Timer app before I write in the morning. When you link your writing to a personally enjoyable activity, you’re signaling to your body that something good is taking place and you get yourself in the mode for creating.
Then, when fear comes in—because it often will—don’t panic. Recognize it like an old friend coming to visit. Fear can visit but it doesn’t mean you do what it says to do. Acknowledge fear, then put pen to paper or place your fingers on the keyboard . . . and start writing.
You are not alone. We all feel fear. Keep going. Write on!
Peg Cheng writes emotionally honest, culturally relevant, and suspenseful stories that tell the truth about everyday people facing difficult problems. Before this, she worked in 35 jobs including fabric cutter, bus parts counter, biohazard sanitizer, and public toilet researcher. Along with storytelling, Peg revels in adventures with her husband Marcus, laughing with people, hugging stuffed animals, and helping fearful writers. Visit Peg and her creations at pegcheng.com.