A few years into my career as a fulltime freelance writer, I got a phone call from an editor. I had written several books for her in the past, and she liked my work.
“Jim,” she said, “are you sitting down? I have a celebrity autobiography I want you to co-write, and you just won’t believe who you’ll be working with.”
She said the name of a celebrity. She clearly expected me to be thrilled.
I had no idea who this person was.
Nevertheless, I managed to sound properly impressed. After all, it had been a long time since my last paycheck, and I needed the job.
As she explained the project to me, I felt a tingle of dread. I had never written a book like this before. I didn’t know if I could pull it off. But I had to pull it off. I had a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. I took the job.
By the time I flew out to meet with the celebrity, I knew his story inside and out, and I was able to ask hundreds of intelligent interview questions. The guy was very impressed with my knowledge. He never suspected that, just a few weeks earlier, I had never heard of him. It was an enjoyable book to write, and having that book on my résumé helped me line up many more celebrity gigs.
The moral of the story: Take risks. Accept new challenges, even if you aren’t sure you can pull them off. Step into the unknown and write fearlessly. You’ll be glad you did.
As writers, we have many fears, insecurities, and self-doubts. But writers can’t afford to be ruled by fear. We have to be fearless. As Anne Rice said, “If you’re writing, you need courage, you need faith in yourself that’s as strong as any talent you may possess.”
First, we need to overcome self-doubt, the fear that we don’t really have what it takes to be a writer. John Gardner said, “Nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself.” Self-doubt is a universal writer’s affliction. All great writers have doubted themselves. They became great by persistently continuing to write in spite of their doubts.
John Steinbeck battled intense self-doubt while writing The Grapes of Wrath. “My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads,” he wrote in his journal. “‘I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself.'” Despite Steinbeck’s doubts, the novel he agonized over went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and helped him secure the Nobel Prize for literature. So focus on your dreams and goals, not your doubts. Keep writing.
Second, we need to overcome the fear of exposing our souls to the world. Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer for her deeply personal poems about her struggles with relationships and depression. Yet her fears nearly kept her from becoming a poet. As a student, she was so afraid of exposing her poems to criticism that she couldn’t bring herself to register for a poetry workshop taught by a renowned poet. So she had a friend register for her. The poet at the workshop liked her work and opened doors for her in the publishing world. Within a few years, Anne Sexton became one of the most honored poets in the world. But first she had to conquer her fears.
Novelist Erica Jong once admitted, “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged. . . . I was afraid to take risks.” Don’t listen to your fears. Take risks. Write bravely.
Third, we need to overcome the fear of getting started. Before Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez could sell 30 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude and win the Nobel Prize for literature, he had to work up the courage to write the first line. “All my life,” he said, “I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”
I once taught a writer’s workshop and a young woman came to me afterward and said, “I just can’t get started. I know what I want to write about. But when I try to write the perfect opening line, nothing comes to me. Without a great first sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story.”
Let me share with you the advice I gave her. I told her that her fear of starting came from unhealthy perfectionism. Sure, the first sentence is important—but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write. Why not save your first sentence for last? Write the first draft all the way through—and by the time you’re done, a brilliant opening line may occur to you. Just get the words down any way you can. As Nora Roberts has said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”
If you are a perfectionist, it’s time to give yourself permission to write badly. Loosen up! Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to get it perfect. Have fun with your writing. Play with words. Write quickly—a fast, messy, joyful, exuberant first draft. Sure, it will be filled with typos and some bad sentences—but it will also have energy and compelling honesty. (For more information on how to write brilliantly by writing faster, see my new ebook Writing in Overdrive.) Give yourself permission to write badly, and soon you’ll be writing quickly and brilliantly.
Fourth, we need to overcome the fear of rejection and failure. We fear putting our work in front of editors and readers. We are terrified that they will condemn our work—and us with it.
In 1983, Margaret Atwood rented a fisherman’s cottage on the English seacoast. She went there to write her sixth novel, a complex dystopian tale. She soon discovered that the sheer scope of the project intimidated her. She spent the first six months at that seaside cottage bird-watching, reading bad novels, and suffering from the cold damp weather. Throughout that time, she didn’t write a single sentence.
Finally, frustrated with herself for procrastinating so long, she took action. She began to write. She started by writing fragments of the story. She sketched in characters, wrote a few patches of dialogue. At first, nothing hung together—but at least she was doing something. After a few more months, she finally achieved her goal. She had written the first draft of what would eventually be her most acclaimed and successful novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The only way to beat the fear of rejection and failure is to bulldoze your way through it by sheer force of will. You must write. And what do you do when you receive a rejection slip? You write some more!
“It does help,” Neil Gaiman observed, “to have the sort of crazed ego that doesn’t allow for failure. The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering ‘Okay, you #&@$%s. Try rejecting this!’ and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write.”
We writers must learn to face our fears and embrace our fears. We must dare to do the thing we fear. We must acknowledge the fear—but take risks anyway. Every time you do something challenging and scary, and you succeed, you ratchet your confidence up another notch. “Do the thing you fear,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “and the death of fear is certain.”
So ignore your self-doubt. Discard your perfectionism. Write brilliantly, submit your work, and dare any editor to reject it. Live courageously, and write fearlessly.
Jim Denney is a writer with more than 100 published books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series. He has just released an inspiring new Kindle ebook for writers, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. He has written books with supermodel Kim Alexis, Star Trek actress Grace Lee Whitney, and two Super Bowl champions, quarterback Bob Griese and “The Minister of Defense,” Reggie White. He has co-written many books with Pat Williams (co-founder of the Orlando Magic), including Leadership Excellence and The Difference You Make. Jim is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow Jim on Twitter at @WriterJimDenney, and follow his blog at http://unearthlyfiction.wordpress.com/.