Overcoming Writer’s Fear: A Writing Exercise

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“Writer’s block” is a widely embraced ideology, not just in writing circles, but in time-honored narratives around the writing process. We don’t hear about painter’s block or composer’s block or dancer’s block. While painters, composers, and dancers may, indeed, experience periods of time when the flow of their work is more challenging than usual or when it comes to a halt, writers are the only creative demographic that get a name for this struggle.

Writer’s block, I acknowledge, may be a legitimate experience for some writers (Psychologist Edmund Bergler said it has something to do with blocked emotions, but more about that in a future post). Lately, I’ve been thinking that writer’s fear is a more appropriate word for the thing that stops many writers from writing. Or from writing freely and honestly.

Fear of what they don’t yet know—the subconscious can be a scary place until we make friends with it, and rooting around in one’s own darkness can unveil all kinds of startling discoveries.

Fear of what they already know—we’re indoctrinated at a very young age to fall in line with cultural norms. When we don’t shame is a significant detractor in being true to ourselves.

Fear of what others will think—our need to be accepted and not abandoned is an inherent human need.

I had a conversation with a group of writers the other day about feeling that tug of holding back when writing, thinking about what other people—family members, in particular—will think.

Not wanting to make waves and jeopardize our connection with our Tribe—our connection with the people who gave us life and shaped us: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—is understandable. Our history can feel like a lifeline, and our culture tells us these blood ties should be maintained at all costs.

But I disagree.

Virginia Woolf wrote about the angel in the house in her paper, “Professions For Women.” According to Woolf, the angel was the voice of society that sits on the shoulder of every female writer with its great white wings and whispers in her ear about what was acceptable and not acceptable for a woman to express on paper. She wrote about killing her angel by clocking it in the head with her ink well.

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One of the first things I do when I work with clients and students is ask them to write a letter to their angel—or angels (some of us have many). The purpose of this letter is to create a story that allows for the killing of the angels so the writer is free to move forward with her writing project, unfettered of the ignorant, uninformed, narcissistic yammerings of the voices inside her head, which usually belong to the writer’s culture and/or family.

I can tell you from experience that doing this exercise will piss you off and getting pissed is essential to not caring, a skill all creative people, and maybe especially writers, must acquire.

“Why get pissed?” you might ask.

Every time someone reacts to your words, every time someone whines or shames or cries or yells at you for what you’ve written or what you’re in the process of writing, it is an attempt to silence you. They may not see it that way, but it is.

And if that doesn’t royally piss you off, it should. It should offend you. It should rile you. It should make you want to come out punching and jabbing, metaphorically, of course. And what better way to punch and jab at the world and its attempts to keep you in its tidy little box—so no one has to feel uncomfortable, so no one has to encounter a truth other than their own—than to use your exquisite voice?

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This isn’t easy, especially when we love the people who react to our work. If a stranger calls me out on my content, I really don’t care. If someone I love calls me out on my content, I still don’t care (which is different from not caring about the person), but there’s the complicated tug of knowing someone I care about isn’t able to take in my work, isn’t able to celebrate the thing that means the most to me. Ultimately, it means that they aren’t able to see me.

It’s a shame, to be sure. But hear me now, dear writer. We are not here to pet the boo boos of others. We are not here to hide ourselves so other people can maintain the comfy little personal world they’ve created for themselves. We are here to utilize the gift we were born with—to use words to make meaning of life, and in doing so, to make the world a little bit better.

A family member once accused me of “making fun” of our family. The piece they referred to was actually doing the opposite—honoring what I come from and realizing that, despite my attempts to “rise up” and out of the blue-collar existence, I had, in that moment, come full circle and found myself square in it: cleaning houses for a living with four college degrees. Oh, the irony.

A friend once wrote to me and said, “I’m worried about you,” when she read a blog post I wrote that discussed the certainty of death. How gauche of me.

And I’ve had family members experience anxiety when they believed my stories hit too close to home, when they believed they recognized themselves or other family members in the writing.

As Ann Lamott once wrote, “If people wanted you to write warmly of them, they should have behaved better.” AMEN.

Part of this problem comes from non-writers not understanding how a writer’s mind works, how the creative process—specific to writing—works. They don’t understand the spark that may, in fact, come from a lived experience can morph into a fictional story about a fictional character who is not the writer or the writer’s child or partner or ex-partner or parent or whomever the hell. They don’t understand that while we may—oftentimes, subconsciously—model characters after real-life people, we’re not writing about the actual people. We’re likely making sense of our lived experience that could, possibly, include someone else’s stupid bullshit behavior.

A friend, also a writer, once told me a story about a writer friend of hers who published her first novel. She was nervous about her mother seeing herself in the shrewish mother in the story. When her mother read the novel, she did see herself… but not in the mother. She saw herself in the kind and loving aunt. So, it seems that people will see themselves in our work the way they see—or what to see—themselves in life. They will feel exposed by our work no matter what we do. Bottom line: We’re all narcissists to some degree. Some people want to put themselves at the center of our world. They can’t imagine this not being so.

Not all resistance is to our writing is about perceived exposure, though. Sometimes, it’s because we’re touting beliefs that run counter to what we were taught. In my mind, this is very simply, a phase of growing up. Of individuating.

When I teach my Writing Through the Body™ workshops and we discuss the traits and expressions of the Root Chakra, we talk about how sometimes the Tribe doesn’t have the capacity to allow the individuals within it to transform into their own unique persona. Sometimes, this requires breaking from the Tribe in some way.

In the workshops, we’re applying these traits and expressions to characters, but they apply to us as well. (In fact, they applied to us first.)

The truth is: people will do what they do, and they’ll think what they think. Our job is to mine the narratives of our lived experience to make meaning of the human condition. Nobody said it would always be pretty. Nobody said it would always be fun. But one guarantee is that when we have the courage to step out of the tiny, suffocating box our culture and our family has constructed for us, when we have the courage to set our bizarre, ghastly, taboo, crazy, kinky, beautiful thoughts free, they have a chance to find connection with other people who have the same bizarre, ghastly, taboo, crazy, kinky, beautiful thoughts, we find our people. Because it’s very possible that the people who brought us up, who shaped our identities are not, in the end, our people.

If you’re faced with the fear of offending family, making someone mad, or hurting someone’s feelings, try this letter writing exercise.

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  • Write a letter (BY HAND) to each voice.
  • Give the voice a name and a shape. (If you can put a live person to the voice, use them, or if, after reading the rest of the exercise below, you aren’t comfortable doing that, make up a name and give it a shape. It can be anything.)
  • Describe to the voice what it says that stops you.
  • Tell the voice how this affects you.
  • Tell the voice what it takes from you.
  • Tell the voice why you won’t allow it to stop you anymore.
  • Tell the voice what you’re going to do to stop it.
  • Write, in great detail, a descriptive passage of you squelching the voice—killing the angel in the house. Be as graphic as you like. No one will see this but you.
  • Finish with a “now that you’re gone” passage. What will your writing life look like moving forward?

Give a try and let me know in the comments how much weight you shed. I’m pulling for you, creative soul.

I’m off now to write something that will bring discomfort to someone, somewhere.

As always, sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!