For Deb Molly, The Scariest Thing About Writing Is… Writing

2012 Debutante Molly BackesWriter Mark Baechtel once told me, “If you’re not scared when you’re writing, you’re not working hard enough. You must be enormously afraid. But keep going.” I scribbled his words in my journal so I wouldn’t forget them. Later, I copied them onto another sheet of paper and hung them above my computer, as a reminder and a challenge. Sometimes I found them soothing: It’s okay to be afraid. Keep going. Other times, they were demanding: Are you pushing far enough? Going deep enough? Taking on enough?

Years later, I discovered this quote, from John Irving: “If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”

Again, I wrote it out on a notecard and hung it over my desk, where it could challenge me every day. Are you trying to tell enough? Do you feel like you’re teetering on the precipice?

These questions haunt me as I write. I am constantly pushing myself to tell more, to dig deeper, to keep going in the face of that incredible fear. And I am almost always afraid.

As I was thinking about this post, I knew immediately what I was afraid of — the writing, of course — but it took much longer to figure out the why. Why is writing so scary? 

We spend our lives developing strategies to deal with our most powerful emotions, our most primal urges. We build walls to contain our own demons, and we establish boundaries for ourselves to protect us from our own deepest longings and fears. We find ways of not getting swept away by our own anger and grief. We learn to bite our tongues, we learn that if we don’t have something nice to say, we probably shouldn’t say anything at all. We learn to be polite. We learn to look on the bright side of things, to put on a brave face, to smile in the face of adversity, to keep a stiff upper lip. We learn that some things aren’t discussed in polite company, that every family has its skeletons in the closet and they’re best left alone in the darkness. We learn to equate silence with safety, for ourselves and for those we love. We learn not to ask questions. We learn restraint.

Part of what makes writing so scary is it asks us to let the demons out of their cages for a few hours, and we fear we may never get them back in. Writing asks us to go into the darkest, scariest parts of our own emotional selves and come back with a few paragraphs of unvarnished truth. Writing demands that we stop biting our tongues, that we look straight into all of life’s ugliness and sorrow and horror and report back on what we see there, in honest and unflinching detail, without sugar coating or silver lining. Writing makes us ask the questions we’ve been trained never to ask, and to share the answers when we find them. Writing wants us to spill the secrets we carry, our own and those we’ve kept for others. Writing pushes us to stand in the ocean of our own grief and anger and fear and despair and insignificance and powerlessness and love and regret, and makes no promises that we won’t get swept away in the process.

I’m always telling my writing students that your subconscious mind is way smarter than your conscious mind. We find writing exercises and strategies to help us sneak around the conscious mind and let the subconscious mind guide the story, build connections, and create imagery. But the subconscious is also where we keep all the things that terrify us, all the things we wish we didn’t know, wish we never saw, wish we could un-know and un-remember. And in order to write, we have to wade in among the things we’ve been hiding (and hiding from) all our lives — and not just wade in, but hang out there, stay long enough to construct a scene or a chapter before wading back out.

It never gets easy. It’s not supposed to. But if you go back every day, you forge a path that you can follow again the next day, so at least you’re not fighting yourself so hard to get there. If you’re not scared when you’re writing, you’re not working hard enough. You must be enormously afraid. But keep going.

15 Replies to “For Deb Molly, The Scariest Thing About Writing Is… Writing”

  1. I’ve always said my subconscious is a much better writer than I am — that’s why I’m a pantser instead of a plotter. I let my subconscious write, and then the conscious me takes over and edits, because my subconscious can be incredibly sloppy about typos.

    1. I think editing/revising is SO MUCH EASIER than first drafting. In part, because my smart conscious brain gets to do most of the work, and it becomes a puzzle to figure out. First drafting is hard and scary!

  2. Wise words, Molly. It is totally scary to let the demons out and I think that’s the difference between safe, vanilla writing and write-from-your-guts writing. You know the difference between the two when you read for sure.You know what writers powered through the scary and barfed* their honestly onto the page.

    And I’m with Linda – I’m a total pantser and love where my subconscious takes my stories when my conscious brain has no clue.

    *sorry for using the word barfed; I blame my subconscious.

    1. I’m reading The Paris Wife right now, and it’s reminding me about Hemingway, who loved to box his friends for fun. Like, even when he wasn’t writing, his hobby was punching people in the face. I think there’s a lesson there. 🙂

  3. I love that quote from John Irving. I just may print it out myself. Because I am CONSTANTLY thinking those very things. Specifically 1) I am making an ass out of myself right now. Why am I doing this? This is humiliating and 2) Who I am to assume I am smart enough to write this? What kind of authority am I? How presumptuous!

    But if Mr. Irving is feeling those things too, well at least I’m in good company.

    1. Mark Baechtel (do I sound obsessed? He was my first fiction teacher & is still a dear friend) also says that the book will teach you how to write it. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m going to keep acting like it is.

  4. Molly, I love both of these quotes–and I love the sentiment behind this post. How many times have we had a line or lines and paused, hands suspended above the keyboard thinking, what if ___ reads this? What will they think??

    That kind of freedom is easiest (obviously) in a first draft but the ability to LEAVE that scary stuff in there is something I still struggle with.

    1. For me, when I do push myself to say the scariest, truest thing, and feel shocked at my own audacity… I come back to it and find that I’m not so impressed with myself. That’s not so shocking. Why did you have to steel yourself to type those words?

      Kind of like how saying your secrets out loud makes them seem less daunting, I suppose.

  5. Thanks. I printed the Irving quote and it’s getting tacked to the wall.

    I also enjoy how my mind will always be writing and working, while I’m off doing other things.

    ps. This year’s debs are pretty cool.

    1. Yes, I think we can’t understate the importance of imagining time, when your brain is building and stirring and unraveling the story as you do other tasks.

      ps. thanks! so are this year’s commenters. 🙂

  6. Thank you, Molly. THANK YOU. I’ve been breathing into a paper bag that I have sitting next to me since NaNoWriMo started yesterday. I have no idea if I’m writing anything good or relevant, but I’m pushing through. Writing is the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I *might* even consider going through 27 hours of child birth again if I could know for sure what I was writing good and to avoid all the scary.

    I said *might*

    We bleed words, part of ourselves, onto every page. We handing that over to others and asking them to accept it, to enjoy it and like it. If that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is,

    Thank you, Molly. This post came at the perfect time.

  7. from Berryman, by W.S. Merwin:

    I asked how can you ever be sure
    that what you write is really
    any good at all and he said you can’t

    you can’t you can never be sure
    you die without knowing
    whether anything you wrote was any good
    if you have to be sure don’t write

  8. OH! So pertinent! I’m participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time. Somewhere along the line I developed a fear of the first draft. So I’m facing it, clearing out the cobwebs of my own making, and just writing. Off to creaky start, admittedly. This morning I read a post over on Murderati by David Corbett that’s related to your post (at least for me). He replied to me comment: “…tap into the part of you crying out to be heard, find out where she may be in your story, and let her speak. With that grounding, you should be able to overcome a great deal of the resistance that self-doubt inflicts.”

    Tapping into our crying selves is scary, scary, scary.

  9. Molly,
    Thank you! Erika read a post of mine this morning and directed me to yours…more helpful than I can express. The Irving quote and your thoughts have cracked open the closet door. Now I just need to reach in and turn on the light…

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