Posted On July 9, 2014 by Print This Post

Style, Fear And The Bias Against Creativity with Ruth Harris

“Fashion is about dressing according to what’s fashionable. Style is more about being yourself.” Oscar de la Renta

RU contributor and author Ruth Harris (in her own inimitable style) talks about overcoming fears and embracing individuality in your writing.    

Welcome back, Ruth! 

Style has been described as “looking like yourself on purpose.” I don’t know who said it but the words and the idea behind them always made sense to me. Certainly Barbra Streisand, Audrey Hepburn and Tilda Swinton are examples. So are Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. They don’t look like anyone else and are instantly identifiable—millions admire them and want to copy them.

But what does style and looking like yourself on purpose have to do with writing?

Star hair cutter, Roger Thompson (he was Vidal Sassoon’s first Artistic Director), told me that the dilemma is people are afraid to look like themselves. They come to the styling chair with a photo or a clipping and request a hair style like Jennifer Aniston’s, Beyonce’s or the model on the cover of that month’s issue of Vogue.

Never mind that their own hair is super curly, stick straight or thick and wavy and will never work with the style they dream of unless a hairdresser equipped with curling iron, blow dryer, gel and hair spray is with them 24/7.

They fear owning their own hair, body, face when, in fact, the key to standing out and shining is to do exactly that.

So what does fear have to do with writing?

Stephen King has an answer to the question: “I’m convinced,” he says, “that fear is at the root of most bad writing. . . . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”

When you write, are you afraid of what critics/your Mom/a reviewer/your crit group will say? Do you shrink from ideas that seem too far out/too freaky/too scary/too ordinary/too done-to-death? Are you holding yourself back because you’re afraid?

Of what? Of the nay-saying phantoms in your head? Of what “people” will say? Do you cringe from imagined hostile reviews?

Is your writing suffering because you’re afraid of what people you don’t even know much less care about are going to think?

Now you’re beginning to see what I’m getting at, aren’t you?

But, you say, if I let go, if I indulge my nuttiest, weirdest, furthest-out idea, people will laugh at me, sneer at me, think I’m crazy, call me untalented.

The fact is, you’re right. The fact is, they might even think of worse things to say.

The reason is that there’s a bias against creativity.

Only a few examples needed to make the point: Jackson Pollock was ridiculed and called “Jack the Dripper.” Picasso’s Cubist paintings were considered “shocking.”

Two experiments at the University of Pennsylvania involving more than 200 subjects discovered that people resist creative ideas because they challenge the status quo:

People dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practical—tried and true.
Creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable.
Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it—even when the idea is their own.

So now what?

The obvious answer is that a writer must face his or her fears. Booze is popular. So is chocolate. An article I read a while ago about an in-demand sports psychologist gave me an idea for a different approach. Why not accentuate the positive? Why not conquer fear with confidence?

The psychologist’s theory is that if a golfer is a good putter, s/he should practice putting until s/he becomes a superb putter? This shrink’s approach was not to focus on correcting an athlete’s weaknesses, but on polishing his/her strengths.

Here’s the good news:

Writers can take the same approach: write what you’re good at. To bring the end of this post back to the beginning, as you polish what you’re already doing well—dialogue, description, narrative, the almighty cliff hanger—you’ll will inevitably hone and define a style.

Your style will be as individual as a fingerprint, as recognizable as Streisand, Tilda or Audrey and you will develop it by doing what you do best and by practicing what you’re already good at.


Have you faced down your nemeses and established your own style? 

On Friday, July 11th, Anna Campbell discusses the importance of the first kiss. 


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Bio: Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author whose books (with Random House, Simon & Schuster, and St.Martin’s Press) have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Ruth started out in publishing right after she graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to a textbook editor, an unpromising start if there ever was one, but she was soon promoted to copyediting—much more interesting.

She’s been a copywriter, assistant editor, editor, editor-in-chief and, eventually, publisher at Kensington.

Ruth blogs with author Anne R. Allen and WG2E. For inspiration and insight into Ruth’s world, check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

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16 Responses to “Style, Fear And The Bias Against Creativity with Ruth Harris”

  1. Agree 100% that people are afraid of creativity. I’m creative, the ideas and solutions keep popping out and people go blank, look the other way, or look scared. Sometimes they will come up with the same idea the week following and take credit for it. LoL. (But not when your salary depends on it). Ever had your boss steal your ideas? It happens. Better to be in control of your own destiny, be a self-employed writer, artist etc. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s wonderful.

    Posted by June | July 9, 2014, 7:45 am
    • June, I think every creative person has had this experience and not just once. Hearing a boss or co-worker spout your idea a week or so later is so common as to be predictable.

      I also notice that if the idea is successful, they take all the credit. If it isn’t, they blame you.

      It’s the way of the world, for sure.

      Posted by Ruth Harris | July 9, 2014, 8:55 am
  2. P.S. I like Ruth Harris. I like personal style.

    Posted by June | July 9, 2014, 7:46 am
  3. Morning Ruth…

    Fear is a big thing in feels there are so many rules to follow with turning points, and what sells and grammar, etc…that to get them all to gel together in one book seems a bit impossible. And yes, the fear of putting your book out there and having the Amazon piranha tear it to shreds is always lurking….=)

    For me, actually finishing the book seems to be a never ending battle…rough drafts I can do, and after that, I just seem to let it drift away….

    Thanks for a great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 9, 2014, 8:52 am
    • Hi Carrie!

      Writers have to be tough. We have to be hard on ourselves as we write/rewrite/edit to improve and polish our work but we also have to learn to be tough enough to deal with criticism—fair and unfair.

      Read enough reviews of a book—any book—and you’ll wonder if those reviewers all read the same book!

      Just finish the book, put it out there and let the piranha choke on it! 😉

      Posted by Ruth Harris | July 9, 2014, 9:00 am
  4. I feel I have discovered my own style, at least 2 of them — LOL — one in YA fantasy and one in sweet magical romances. Maybe I’ll find more of my style in other genres too.

    What I’m curious about, Ruth, is uncovering my style in marketing. I’m an indie author. Do you have any words of wisdom on that? And thanks for being you! Here’s to our unique and quirky (speaking for myself!) creativity!

    Posted by Beth Barany | July 9, 2014, 9:04 am
  5. Oh man, this really hit home. Lately my writing – or lack of writing – seems to be all about fear. I’ve experienced the fear of letting it all go – I’ve written some characters and scenes that I was afraid editors would cringe at. I was shocked to find those were some of the things that got good feedback, so now I’m a little more daring. At least, I’m trying to be!

    Thanks for yet another excellent post, Ruth!

    I’m going to go order Husband Training School before I forget. I love this line: “Efficiency expert Howard Hopkins has just retired. His wife married him for better and for worse—but not for 24-hours-a-day.” (My husband isn’t retired but he works at home most days.) 😉

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 9, 2014, 10:07 am
  6. Hi Becke!

    I’m so sorry to hear about your struggles with fear. We all share the same struggle to one degree or another.

    Perhaps if you keep in mind that the things that scared you most were the exact things people enjoyed will be an important step in learning to let go. Letting go isn’t the same thing as going on a serial murder rampage altho sometimes I think we tend to confuse the two. lol

    Uh-oh. Now your DH has to worry about being enrolled in HTS. HE’s the one who should be scared. Glad you enjoyed the line. I enjoyed it myself. 😉

    Posted by Ruth Harris | July 9, 2014, 10:56 am
  7. Hi Ruth,

    Boy, your post is spot on for me this week. I wrote a scene that’s plausible in my world, but most likely not realistic with the audience I’m targeting. I waffled back and forth on it and decided to leave it in because it’s true to the character and it’s a key emotional connection point.

    Gaining confidence in one’s writing takes practice and the practicing never ends.

    Loved the Sassoon reference. I chose the ingenue pic in the header because I think she looks like you! Thanks for another great post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 9, 2014, 6:16 pm
  8. Great post…and kick in the pants 🙂 Reminds me of the Anne Lamott quote, “Write like everyone you know is dead.”

    Posted by G.G. Andrew | July 9, 2014, 8:02 pm

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