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Writing Through Fear

I received a lot of praise as a young writer – so much so that, rather than disappoint anyone by not living up to what I felt were exceedingly high expectations, I …simply stopped.

I took the occasional class here and there, but I didn’t write anything of significance except checks, documentation and source code for the next twenty years. “Someday,” I said to myself. “Someday.”

Then, a couple of years ago at a Mötley Crüe show of all places, I got this idea for a paranormal world. It lodged in my brain like a parasite, and it wouldn’t go away. Did I have the guts to pick up a pen again? (Insert “Dirty Harry” voice here.) Did I, punk?

I took a deep breath, then answered: “Yeah.” ‘Someday’ was…now. It was time. I wasn’t that scared young college kid anymore; I had twenty years’ more life experience at my disposal, and absolutely nothing to lose. So I very quietly started writing again, world-building, studying, exploring – some days literally writing draft scenes with Deb Dixon’s “GMC” in one hand and a pen and paper in the other. Two years, four drafts, several RWA chapters, countless chewed pens, and a fabulous critique partner later, I’d finished my first manuscript, a dark paranormal romance called UNDERBELLY.

What a sense of accomplishment I felt! Not only had I started and finished a novel, I’d written through the fear. Next step? Sending the manuscript out into the world to get some additional feedback. I took another deep breath and entered four contests. Nothing to lose, right? Completely under the radar. I could do this. Nothing to panic about.

Until I learned my manuscript had finaled in two of Romancelandia’s most prestigious contests: the Daphne du Maurier and RWA’s Golden Heart.

OMG. After the initial thrill, terror clobbered me like a rogue wave. What the hell had I done? For a moment, I felt like that scared 22-year-old kid all over again, like a baby bird kicked out of the nest too soon. Sure, I was stoked about the validation, but my private, quiet, internal, INFP, off-the-scale introverted, Pisces self was ready to throw up in the nearest handy receptacle.

“Okay. Okay. This is a great problem to have. It IS. Suck it up and deal.” The self-administered bitchslap sobered me up. I got back to work, sending out queries and polishing the manuscript I was going to **gulp** pitch at 2009 RWA National.

Fast-forward several months. Washington D.C. RWA National. I didn’t win the Golden Heart (congrats, Darynda!), but I … won my category of the Daphne. Several months later, one of the Daphne judges became my agent. And several months after that, we sold UNDERBELLY and two future books to Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks.

Pardon my French, but OMGWTFBBQ.

The last half year has been an epic emotional rollercoaster, but thankfully, things have leveled out a bit. I started writing UNDERBELLY’s follow-up, experiencing only occasional bouts of nerves. (Thank gawd for my critique partner, Brenda Whiteside, and my Ruby Slippered Sisters, who manage to talk me down more often than they might realize.) But I knew I had to get more insight into this fear – and FAST.

In a perfect example of synchronicity, in December 2009 I saw a loop posting for a class with the divine Laurie Schnebly Campbell called “New Year, New You,” where participants were invited to explore the ways that fear can get in the way of achieving our writing goals. I scurried to sign up. And wow, was I ever in good company; a lot of my classmates were also singing the “Am I good enough?” blues. But working through the insightful class exercises, I was slapped in the face with the fact that I feared EXPOSURE a heck of a lot more more than I feared not being good enough.

A private, quiet, internal, INFP, off-the-scale introverted Pisces…fearing exposure? Ya think? Calling Captain Obvious!

Seriously, signing that publishing contract brought so many fears rushing to the surface, primary among them the fact that the darkest corners of my private imagination would soon be very, very public. Judged. Exposed.

In an offline email communication, a wise and generous classmate urged me to consider the possibility that the very dark imagination I feared exposing to others was one of my core strengths as a writer. “Not everyone can do this. Embrace it. Own it,” she advised. “Be ferocious.”

Ferocious? But… I’m Scandinavian. 😉

(Sigh.) “Be ferocious.” I’m doing my best to take her advice: to embrace the dark caverns of my imagination. To not wig out when I consider that my very supportive co-workers, who know me primarily as a technical resource, will read my creative work with eyebrows creeping into their hairlines.

I have yet to find a comfortable mental boundary between “public author” and “private writer.” My desire – my NEED – for silence and solitude is deeply ingrained, and I suspect navigating this balance will always be a challenge.

But like it or not, it’s time to suck it up, step off the rim of the nest, flap those little wings, and fly. Ferociously.

-Tammy

P.S. Rest in peace, J.D. Salinger – the ultimate introverted writer.

What are YOUR writing fears, and how do you deal with them? Please share.

42 responses to “Writing Through Fear”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    What a beautiful piece, Tamara!! (And I was thinking of Salinger a lot while reading it….)

    I’m a natural introvert myself. The crime-of-crimes in my house is coming up behind me while I’m writing and looking at my computer screen–I once broke a monitor when I threw my hands over the screen so fast I knocked the whole thing onto the floor.

    And the goal is to be PUBLISHED? Ay, caramba. (“the darkest corners of my private imagination would soon be very, very public”… gives me chills.)

    I love the advice that your classmate gave you. Not everyone HAS a writer’s imagination..that’s why they read. Share the gift!! Be ferocious, indeed!

    (And have I mentioned I’m really, really looking forward to UNDERBELLY? No pressure!)

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  2. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Scandanavian, huh? Ever hear of Viking Berserkers? You have the genes, my dear, introverted or not. I guess it’s time they reared their ferocious little heads.

    Fear is the great stumbling block for many of us. Failure is never an option for me, so my “out” was simple—I never tried. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “If you aim at nothing, you will surely hit it.” Worked for me.

    But I couldn’t stop writing. Couldn’t stop the words, the stories, couldn’t ignore the voices in my head. With some coaxing, I made a few tentative forays with amazing results. Now I had another fear; fear of success. Success mean changes, pressures, no writing as the mood strikes, no waiting for the story to reveal itself. Deadlines.

    I’d like to say I’ve overcome that fear, but that would be a lie. I fight it, but it lives, breathes, pollutes thought processes and ambitions. Sometimes it overwhelms—especially now with so many other things also overwhelming me—but fears must be faced to be defeated. They don’t go away on their own. Like all bullies, one must stand up to them, face them down, send them (whimpering and whining, one hopes) scurrying away bloodied with their tails tucked between their legs.

    For me, the battle has yet to be won. But fear not. The war is not over.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Yup, if you don’t try, you can’t fail. Brains are diabolical, aren’t they?

      During the twenty years I didn’t write, I like to think that I was… in training. Because I was a manic, discerning reader. Funny how much technique you can absorb by observing it in other people’s work.

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  3. Tamara Hogan says:

    Hi Elisa! Thanks so much for wanting to read UNDERBELLY. This is really so, so odd – I can’t wait for you guys – writers – to read my book, but it’s the muggles in my life that give me the most heartburn. OTOH, that gives me a lot of selling room, doesn’t it?

    I think a lot of this fear crystalized for me when Laurie asked us to focus specifically on why we wanted to write FOR PUBLICATION. Framing the question this way was so productive for me. It made me realize that, for a n00b, I’m actually pretty confident about my writing.

    But…my boss, reading sex scenes? (shudder)

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  4. At this point, I think my biggest fear is if I get published, I won’t be able to deliver again and again.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I hear ya, Laurie. I find the old adage about eating an elephant one bite at a time to be helpful. The monumental task of producing a book – over and over again – becomes more manageable to me if I mentally break it down to small components or “bites.”

      One scene at a time. One chapter at a time. One book at a time. One sale at a time.

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    • I’m not sure that fear ever goes away.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Yes, Laurie–that seems TERRIFYING. At least with other jobs, on your bad days, you can show up and muddle through, and feel like your groove will come back to you. But to depend for a living on filling the blank page? Yikes! (On the other hand, I can never seem to turn my imagination off, anyway, so I figure it’ll work out okay.)

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    • Liz Talley says:

      Yeah, I think that’s my biggest fear now.

      What if I really suck and it was all just a one time thing?

      Yeah, I get that.

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  5. Darynda Jones says:

    Absolutely WONDERFUL post, Tammy!!! You are hilarious and I gotta say, right on the money. I’m so glad you did pick up the pen again. I’m so excited about UNDERBELLY.

    And thanks for the congrats! I just knew you would win, lol. I was just as shocked as anybody, let me tell ya.

    Hugs, you, and great post again! Punk. (LMAO, I love Clint!)
    ~D~

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  6. Elise Hayes says:

    Loved the post, Tamara. I can’t wait to read UNDERBELLY!

    I think my biggest fear is failure. I’ve been writing for a long time. . . and learning a lot, lot, lot along the way. Nevertheless, more than ten years later I’m still unpublished.

    I think the hardest part of remaining unpublished is that my friends, coworkers, and family know that I write and all ask (with the best of intentions) how things are going, whether I’ve sold yet. They have such faith in me (and I know that’s a blessing!), but that faith provides its own kind of pressure.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Fear of failure was a near-universal theme amongst the people who took Laurie’s class. One thing she asked us to consider was why we wanted to write for publication – what need was being met? – and then we identified ways OTHER THAN WRITING that we could get that same need met.

      Amazing how it took the pressure off a little – and put the pleasure back in.

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  7. Amy Kennedy Fosseen says:

    Tammy, what a great post. And it had to take courage to write about how fearful you were. I love Gwynlyn’s reminder of the Viking Berserkers, it’s a good reminder that anyone can be ferocious.

    My dad was a writer (graduated suma-cum-laude from journalism school) who never submitted anything — he’d say it was none of their business. I sometimes wonder if that doesn’t trip-me-up sometimes. I swallow and let people see things. Yet, I think I might believe it’s nobody’s business…hmm. This just came to me. D’oh!

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi, Amy! Thanks so much for stopping by – and for your insights on this topic at lunch a couple of weeks ago. 😉

      I think part of my issue with exposure is that authors seem to be expected to promote themselves (or at least a public persona) at least as much as they promote their book these days. heck, look at this blog. I have an “author brand” over a year before my book is published. I am conscious that everything I write impacts that brand. It’s …odd.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      On the subject of writers who never submit for publication: for many years, I taught creative writing in a prestigious undergrad program, and had many extremely talented young writers in my classes. Many of them, with time and patience, would almost surely have become published, but the vast majority never did. Not because they were rejected by publishers, but because they simply never tried. They became doctors, lawyers, teachers, bakers, whatever… and I’m sure their lives are perfectly happy.

      For one reason or another, many people who love to write either don’t want to publish, or don’t have the drive to see it through. Writing and publishing are totally separate acts.

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  8. Tina Joyce says:

    Wonderful post, Tammy! I can so relate to the fear. I’m an INFJ, and although I’m an off-the-charts introvert (the Golden Heart ceremony made my gut shiver in not-so-nice ways), that stubborn “J” part of the equation keeps me going (we tend to set a course and stay on it no matter what). There are days I wonder if I’m cut out for this business, but there’s just something inside that pushes me forward and won’t let me quit.
    Looking forward to Underbelly–what a great title!

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  9. Amy Kennedy Fosseen says:

    Tammy, a time machine might be handy. So much “pre” stuff is expected of authors/writers these days.

    Can you imagine JD Salinger blogging?

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  10. I’m so glad you are conquering that fear factor cause what you write is quite amazing. Oh dear, don’t mean to compliment and send you under the covers again! Plus, I’d be left without the CP I need. Oh how I need!! Good post for all the fearful.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      No worries, Brenda, compliments are good! And maybe that’s part of my problem; so few people have read the material that I’ve received little specific feedback upon which to build my confidence.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  11. Shea Berkley says:

    Tamara, you are not alone. I think most writers are terrified of being judged. Peoples expectations can affect us in two ways — action or withdrawal. It’s a personal choice.

    You, lucky girl that you are, have the sisterhood. We believe in you. We know there is greatness within you. We can’t promise you you’ll never fall down, but we’ll always be here to help you back up. Even if you’d rather lie there. We’re obnoxious like that. So go ahead and dare to lay it out there for the world to see. We’ve got your back, babe.

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  12. Tamara, I’m SOOOOOOOOOO not shy, but reading your post gave me butterflies. I can’t imagine how hard it is for naturally introverted people to sign on the dotted line under the contract that says “Yes! Expose my dirty mind to the world!” It actually makes me feel a little sick to my stomach to imaging doing it myself. Like, I know I WANT to be a working writer (i.e., paid), but I don’t particularly want people to read my books. It isn’t just that people might not like them, but that suddenly, everyone will know how I think. They’ll know how I perceive the world, right down to the nitty gritty (the sex scenes? argh!).

    Very scary stuff. Best not to think about it right now.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I’m not shy, either – speaking to a group of 400 people doesn’t faze me me in the least (if I can get away and recharge afterward). But I am…emotionally rather solitary and internal. My ex-husband once said that I was the the man in our relationship – and he was right. 😉

      I think at least part of this is fear of the unknown. There’s a learning curve on this, and I’m barely on the curve yet.

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  13. Diana Layne says:

    Hi, Tamara,

    Wow, I thought there’d be more comments on this great post. But perhaps there are those who read it and then were afraid to leave a comment because it would be admitting to fear?

    Ok, so I’ll admit I came over to comment a few times and thought um…maybe not. To leave a comment might admitting to fear and I don’t want to do that, do I?

    But it’s a reality in life, that fear thing. And I have, like you, shut myself down to not have to face whether I’d fail or not. But now I hold onto the thought that a brave person knows and makes friends with fear and uses it for inspiration rather than an excuse.

    Congratulations on facing yours and coming back to writing, the results have been spectacular! May we all have the courage to face the fear.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Man…I tell that to my kids all the time. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you’re scared, but forge ahead anyway.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      “Congratulations on facing yours and coming back to writing, the results have been spectacular! May we all have the courage to face the fear.”

      Thanks so much, Diana. I just wish it hadn’t taken two decades of a potential writing career to do it. The time I feel I’ve lost makes me feel a little sick sometimes. Regrets, I haz them. But ya can’t turn back the clock.

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        And yeah, I think the topic might have scared a few people off. That’s OK. Fear IS scary.

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  14. Tammy, great post! I struggle with the “I’m good, but will I ever be good ENOUGH” fear a lot. Also the, “this manuscript is starting out so good, what if I screw it up” fear. I’m the extremely shy, wallflower writer who also wonders how I would ever get through having to promote myself.

    And most recently, I have this fear that if I were to sell my WIP, I’ll never be able to write anything like it again.

    So, yes, I am just one big ball of neuroses! 🙂 Luckily I have the Sisterhood to keep me grounded!

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  15. Loved your post, Tamara! And the idea of Salinger blogging made me grin. There really is so much that comes with being published, the deadlines as well as marketing. As Jamie said so well “very scary stuff. Best not to think of it now.”

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  16. Vivi Andrews says:

    My fears seem to keep evolving… just when I think I have one licked, another one crops up to take its place. It’s a constant process and I don’t think even success (however it’s defined) will conquer all of them, so I’ll just keep pushing through.

    (Oh, and I’m an INTJ. Gotta love Meiers-Briggs.)

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      YES, damn it, the fears keep evolving! Just when you think you have a handle on it, the fear slithers and morphs into something else. 😉

      Several of my chapter’s published authors have said that sometimes they fear that the book they just wrote might be their last. Can they get another contract? Is the proposal or book good enough? I don’t know if this issue ever quite goes away.

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  17. Joan Swan says:

    Wow, Tamara. Amazing post. So uplifting, giving hope to those of us still in the trenches. (Yeah, that would be me 🙂 )

    I had talked to Laurie Schnebly Campbell about offering her course via my prior RWA Chapter, and she did give it, but I wasn’t able to take the course. I’ll be looking for it again now.

    Congratulations on your success, from one introvert to another. 🙂

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  18. You I know where you’re coming from. My fears have had editing, editing, and then think okay one more time. I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away.

    Congrats again on the contracts. I can wait to get my autographed copy.

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  19. Hi, Tammy! I, too, am an introvert and I sometimes laugh (and cringe) at myself when I think of the online presence I’ve carved out.

    My fear is that I’ll never be published after all these years of trying! But I’m going to feel that fear and write anyway. 😉

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  20. […] Tammy blogs on Writing Through Fear at The Ruby Slippered […]

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