Writer 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.