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Thursday, 28 February 2013

What Do You Most Fear as a Writer?

Fear is a strong but often necessary emotion. It can be both motivational and paralyzing. Writers, especially beginners, often allow fear to prevent them either finishing or publishing a piece of work. I have many social connections with writers on the internet and I’ve noticed a tendency amongst some, often the most sensitive, to find excuses not to finish a piece of work. They’re forever editing their work as they go along. They fool themselves into the idea that they’re seeking perfection. In reality, they’re putting off the moment when they have to admit to themselves, and to the world, that this is as good as they can make it. No piece of work is ever perfect, either in the eyes of the reader or, more especially, in the opinion of the producer. Unless, of course, the writer happens to be one of those individuals who is so convinced of his own ability that he’s unable to see past his many faults. Paradoxically, it’s often those with the most confidence in their own ability who produce the worst work.

We’re all fitted with our own internal critic, the editor that sits on our shoulder and pinches us each time we misspell, use an inappropriate word, produce an ugly sentence, dole out a thoughtless cliché. The trick is to knock the editor off, send this nit-picker to the back of the creative mind and make him wait there until he’s required. If I allowed my internal editor free reign, I would never have completed a single piece of work, let alone published anything or won competition prizes.

I know the arguments against relegating the editor to a back seat during creation. I’ve heard them all. ‘I can’t ignore even a typo; it stops me moving forward.’ ‘I have to have that first sentence perfect before I can move on to the next.’ ‘How can I say a piece is moving forward when I know there are errors there to be corrected?’ And so it goes on. Let me be frank, brutal, even. If you’re unable to get past these self-imposed barriers, you are in the wrong job. You are never going to be a creator. You should be working as a copy editor, a proof-reader, a lumberjack, jockey or any other occupation you care to name. But, honestly, if you can’t allow for your own mistakes during a first draft, you’ll never complete one. This isn’t a personal opinion but a logical conclusion. Think about it: NO piece of written work will ever be considered perfect by every reader or writer; ergo, whatever you do to make it perfect will make it imperfect for someone else.

So, what can you do?

First of all, face that fear and call it by the name it actually responds to. This isn’t a fear of never getting it right, this is a fear of success, a fear that you may actually produce something that a publisher will accept and place before that group of people we all want to admire us; readers. It’s a fear that one, maybe more, of those readers will spot something to make you feel foolish, inadequate, less than perfect. That’s the real fear you’re facing.

But, hang on: the publisher accepted it and put it out there for his readers. So he must think it worthy of a showing. The reader who finds fault is only one of the tens of thousands of people who’ve read and enjoyed the piece. It’s inevitable that one in thousands will have the necessary jealousy, pedantry, personal loathing of a particular sentence construction or any other individual trait you care to mention, to pick a hole in your work. The courage of the artist comes from facing that reality and deciding you don’t care about that one lunatic, obsessive, nit-picking pedant, or envious swine. And, if you think of such critics in those terms, it does make it easier to ignore them.

Having faced that possibility, the next step is take action. This involves actually sitting down and completing the first draft of a piece. But the only way you’ll be able to do this is to accept that that first draft, which no one else will ever see, will be full of errors. Think of it as the block of wood the sculptor uses to fashion a beautiful statue. The first chisel cuts, which may even be crude lopping with a chain saw, will not produce anything that even resembles the finished article. But, unless that sculptor takes his axe, his knife, his chisel or his chain saw to the block of wood, he’ll never have anything to show beyond his own vision of the finished article. You’re no different. Writing, of any sort, is a creative process. You begin with only three things: a blank sheet/screen, a means of making marks on that surface, and an idea. Creating is about having the courage to make those initial marks, knowing that some will be errors, minor and major, but aiming for an end which will have some approximation to the initial idea.

I know it’s hard. I know from early personal experience. I know it seems almost impossible for some of you. But the method that has the greatest potential to get your written work completed to a standard where you may feel confident enough to allow someone else to read it, is to write it first. Obvious. But I mean by this that you write the entire idea, complete the story, the article, the feature, even the novel, first. Then go back and allow that other half of your brain, the editor, the pedant, the policeman, to pick holes in it. Consider this not an assault on your genius but a practical help in forming the piece exactly as you envisaged it. If you think this can’t be done, consider: I’m in the process of writing an adult epic fantasy trilogy. The first two volumes are written and I’m editing volume 2 before I start to write the final volume. (Yes, I could have considered the entire trilogy as a single piece, but I see each book as a stand-alone piece). My point in mentioning this is that each of the first 2 volumes exceeds 220,000 words and each was written without ever going back, even a page, before I came to the end of that book. Yes, it meant a huge amount of editing, proof-reading, amendment and correction. But, and this is the point, I would never have finished even the first chapter if I hadn’t just ploughed on with the story.

So, face your fear, accept it for what it is, and beat it. Otherwise, you’re condemned to remaining a wannabee, a frustrated artist with nothing to show for your efforts and abilities. I urge you to try this at least once. Choose a short piece to begin with. Write the whole piece before you even look at what you’ve written. Leave it for a week, or more if you can bear it; do something else. When you revisit it, you’ll find all sorts of faults, but you’ll also be amazed at what you’ve written. That’s the time to free your editor and let him polish the work, let him find and correct the errors. You may end up with your own Venus de Milo or David. You might even complete something more sublime. Who knows? The answer, my friend, is ‘no one, until; you have the courage to try.’

I started by asking what you fear most as a writer and, for the sake of fairness, I must admit my own fear. I fear, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that I’ll run out of things to say. And how do I face that fear, how do I work against the likelihood? Well, in my case it’s an easy fear to face and address: I take an interest in as many things as I can. That way, I’m unlikely to dry up. As one of those writers compelled to create, I’m lucky. Motivation is never a problem. Time and energy are my most precious and most easily exhausted factors. But more of that in a different post.

For now, I’ve confessed my own fear and hopefully addressed one of those most common to writers. But what’s your fear and how do you deal with it? You never know, by putting it out there in public you may do two very useful things: you may help some other poor tortured soul, and you may find a way of helping yourself get over what you most fear.

(In the spirit of illustration, it took me almost exactly an hour to create this piece. And a further quarter of an hour to edit and correct it. I know, because I keep a time sheet of my activities in order to ensure I don’t waste that most precious of assets: time.)

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