Today’s guest, Nkatha Gitonga , addresses a topic familiar to almost everyone who has attempted to put words on a page–fear of writing.
The writer’s block is the writer’s incapability to embrace fear, the “fear of being alone with fear…” Mary Ruefle writes. Fear paralyzes. It keeps us shy of the exhilaration and fulfillment characteristic of a writers’ journey. But is it possible to not be afraid, to not doubt our ability to do our stories and ideas justice? Is it possible to not fear the wrath of disapproving critics and disappointed readers? Is it possible to not fear that if our ideas are not mediocre, they are disconnectedly lofty? Why must our identity as writers be so often fraught with fear and self-doubt?
Edmond Jabés in The Book of Questions asserts that “if you bend over a page… and do not suddenly tremble with fear, throw away your pen. Your writing would have little value.” Jabés’ assertion is a bold one, but one we can cling to whenever we confront fear. Rather than think less of ourselves when we fear, we can gradually learn that we are writers because we are afraid. We are writers because we are conscious of our potential for weakness, and at the same time aware of the immensity of our task, and the high expectations of our readers. What better way to confront great tasks than to be aware of their high demands? Yet, accepting fear as part of the process hardly means paralysis. It means being afraid, knowing and accepting that we are afraid, and starting to get it done anyway. Thus we confront fear by embracing it.
Embracing fear starts with setting personal objectives. When we are unprepared to write, we procrastinate. We find a host of other tasks to do that may not be related to our writing. Setting daily priority lists that detail the significant tasks we have to do and outline our expectations might help. If we devote a chunk of time in our day to writing, time by when we will have concluded our research, replied to all our urgent emails and vacuumed the living room, we will have few excuses but to actually sit and type away. At the end of the day we will be happy we did.
What if we sit at the desk, and all we can do is helplessly stare at the screen, or irritably type and delete, repeatedly type and delete. It’s now time to forget the critics, and the disappointed readers. It is now time to write for us, to accept imperfect word choices, mediocre ideas, and boring introductions. It is time to remember that it is enough that our ideas feel interesting to us. It is time to write anything. The more we let our ideas out on paper, the more we get hold of our creative selves, and the more we get our writing done. When we finally have time to think of critics and readers we can revise our work, but the task will never be as daunting.
We may fail in our attempt to sit at a desk typing away in varying degrees of both self-belief and self-doubt, but we are never to give up. This will probably not be our first time writing so accumulating a range of techniques from past experiences should help. In other words, understanding how we write. Do we need a detailed outline to get started? Does a cluttered desk disturb our concentration? Does absolute silence increase desperation? Observing practices that work, reproducing these at our moments of desperation, remembering that we have overcome before, and ultimately going for it is a step towards winning.
What if we get our creative juices flowing, but are frightened by the idea of letting anyone see our work? We then need to determine our source of fear. If we are not happy with the work we produced, we need to define what our goals were when we set out to write, how we attempted to fulfill them, and how we fell short. Did we want our readers to curl their toes at our kissing scene but felt repelled reading it? Why? Did we use inappropriate adjectives? Did we need to define our characters’ relationship better? We might want to brainstorming reasons why our goal was not achieved, and to attempt to solve the shortfalls using our writer instincts as well as borrowing from authors who have done it before.
Additionally, we can also leverage the skills of friends and colleagues that can be honest without putting us down. We don’t have to agree with all the principles underlying their perspectives, but we can use some of them to broaden our own perspective. As we entrust our close circles to read and criticize our work, we eventually will garner more courage to entrust our work to others that are less close, and to endure their criticism.
If we are to write again, however, we need to disregard destructive criticism and to evaluate constructive criticism against our identity and goals as writers. It is easy to distinguish the two. Destructive criticism will be more along the lines of “Nothing new here,” or “It’s your average book.” Constructive feedback will tell us whether our backstory is underdeveloped, whether our ending is too abrupt, or the plot confusing. Ultimately, we are the writers, the story is ours, and though in reality critics may make or break our stories, our integrity as writers should remain intact. Shakespeare’s early work was criticized by more educated scholars. We might not all possess the Shakespearean genius, but we have our own authentic genius, which we should always strive to nurture and to which we owe all integrity, even in the face of discouragement and criticism.
Have you been afraid to write in the past? Have you feared to share your work with others? How did you deal with the fear? What do you think of Jabés’ assertion that fear is necessary for valuable writing?
Author P.J. Sharon  joins us on Monday, June 23.
Nkatha Gitonga is a rising senior at Harvard studying Sociology and nurturing her writer genius. She currently works as a Marketing Assistant for a Legal Department Management firm  in Boston.
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