I see it every time I start a new series of my narrative non-fiction writing classes. A group of folks who have wanted to write much of their lives, and haven’t figured how to make themselves to do it yet, crowd around my big table with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.
For the first class, I have students do a free write about their obstacle(s) to writing. We then discuss the obstacles and, almost to a person, their obstacle ends up being about fear. (Even the time-management monster so many live with is often about fear when they’re really honest about it, but we’ll get to that later.)
I don’t want to sound dumb.
I don’t spell well.
I don’t think I’m good enough.
I might be embarrassed or criticized.
All about fear. Every single one of them.
But fear of what? Usually of looking stupid, or of being exposed as a poser, which is the same thing. As someone who grew up in Mississippi where we have elevated deep-held inferiority complexes to an art form, I get what this feels like. To this very day, I have to overcome (usually) fleeting moments of feeling like I’m not worthy right before I pitch an idea or project I know that I’m full well capable of nailing. And I know I’ve lost opportunities due to this fear of not being good enough slapping me silly and causing me to not return a call or follow up something I should. It’s always about fear, if I’m honest.
It’s hard to say this out loud, but I’ve ignored opportunities more often than most people would believe, considering how confident I usually come across these days. To this day, I have to brace myself to return a call to a documentary filmmaker, or a book agent, or a national editor. I then do it—sometimes right after chewing a pink Pepto pill to calm my stomach, engaging in a bit deep breathing to settle my nerves, and doing some self-talk and mind-clearing that all my Buddhist reading has helped me learn.
“Be present,” I tell myself over and over again. “You’ve got this.” And once I get on the phone, I’m usually fine. No, I’m always fine.
Being a southerner and a woman certainly can exacerbate this issue for many of us who fit those categories—just because we’re expected to not be as good as that other guy—but I know that many people feel this way, too, even some Yankee men. It can and often does translate into what we often call “writer’s block”—because we’re too afraid to write a damn thing if we don’t think it’s going to come out perfectly. (A fear I’m proud to say that I’m long past.)
The fear of not being perfect right out of the gate is stankin’ thankin’ as the Alcoholics Anonymous folks call it. If I had a share of Apple stock for every time I’ve watched the perfectionism beast stymie a potentially world-changing writer, I’d be a fabulously wealthy woman by now.
And let’s be honest about perfectionism: It’s kind of stupid. Why? Because the fact that you write it doesn’t actually mean you have to show it to a soul, other than yourself.
I get that looking at what one might consider a “shitty first draft,” a phrase that the inspiring and saucy writer Anne Lamott has seered into my brain, might be much worse to many than allowing others to see it. I get it. I’ve felt it.
But here’s the thing we all must remember: Writing is rewriting. When you write a draft, it’s supposed to be bad, or mediocre at best. It’s OK if it has misspelled words and misplaced commas or missing information. It can be written in the passive voice (see what I did there?); it can have run-on sentences and repeated words and purple prose and tell rather than show—but you know what? It’s written.
That is, you have presented yourself a big, ole lump of clay to mold. Once you’ve written what I call an SFD (so I don’t need to repeat “shitty” too often in the Deep South where we don’t ever, never cuss), you are halfway to a powerful story, more or less. You then get to take a break, sip a craft beer, watch an episode or two of “House of Cards,” and then roll up your sleeves and hop back on the road to writing greatness.
So much of the magic of writing is added or unveiled or uncovered in the rewrite stage. I’ll talk about how to rewrite in another post, but for now I want you to focus on just sitting your ass in the chair and piling up a stinky leaning tower of you-know-what on your desk in front of you, so you’ll have something to rewrite into a rockin’ story that people can’t stop reading and that might even inspire them to take some sort of action.
Just remember: The stinky part always come first.