Aug

29

2009

The Courage to Write

Filed under: crows, reading, writing

I’m reading a book called The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. I picked it up because, let’s face it, I have The Fear. There are crows permanently camped outside my window, telling ghost stories and making s’mores and having a grand old time. So I thought this book might have a little magic formula for making me more fearless.

It doesn’t. It talks about why writers are afraid to write—for example, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of exposure as a fraud, fear of exposing too much of their faults and inner feelings, fear of what writing can do to one’s family and life. It mentions why fear can be a good thing for your writing—how it’s a sign that you’re being truthful and challenging yourself, how you can use the intense emotion of fear and channel it into your writing. And it talks about how writers write despite their fear—by following rituals, by making a dirty draft, by having deadlines, by developing friendships with other writers.

the courage to writeNone of it is particularly new stuff. In fact, I found myself nodding in recognition when I read a lot of it. But it’s one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read, and I’ll recommend it to others, precisely because it is familiar. Because it gives me this message:

Fear is normal. Keyes says, and in italics, too: “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”

To me, that’s liberating. In a sort of annoying way, of course, because fear is not something you want to voluntarily put yourself through, it’s actually pretty damn awful, and I am not a pleasant person to be with when my only thoughts, running over and over through my brain, are This book is crap, I can’t write, the story is the same as my last book, my editor will hate it, I suck, nobody’s going to buy it, what if I’ve got too much in there what if I haven’t got enough, it’s crap, how do I fix it… Ad infinitum.

Keyes’s message is that courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s carrying on despite fear. Maybe even because of fear.

He teaches creative writing and he says, quite interestingly, that the main purpose of creative writing courses isn’t to teach skills, so much as to give the students courage. That’s something I’ll be thinking about when I lead the Cornerstones women’s fiction writing course next month.

He talks about how writers can be nightmares to live with—grouchy, surly, selfish, full of anxiety. When I was reading that chapter, I turned to my husband and said, “You should read this book—he says all writers are miserable like me, I’m normal!”

“It’s supposed to comfort me that there are more like you?” he grumbled.

I’ll try to find time to post some of the interesting examples from the book of how writers cope with fear. Meanwhile…are you a nightmare to live with, too? And have your crows actually started singing “Kumbya” outside that damn window yet?


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  1. I think I need to buy this book. It’s so true – I feel scared all the time when I write, but I’m compelled to and it’s something I can’t explain. I ‘hope’ that means that I am a writer by nature. And YES YES YES – I can finally say that I am normal!!!!! Thank you. he he.

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  2. “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.” Love that! I wonder if you should apply it to life… “if you’re not scared, you’re not living?” anyone want to try sky diving???

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  3. Great post, Julie. Must show this to mine. He will be nodding about the woman who’s grumpy to live with when the book isn’t going right…

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  4. Already forwarded the link to my Geek. I’m so grumpy at times, I’m not sure why the man hasn’t left me yet.

    (It’s a good thing my BFF is a therapist…)

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  5. It’s a good book, Alice. Quite comforting, not least because some of the writers he talks about are WAY weirder than I could ever be. :-)

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  6. Anonymous, I will accept the necessity of being frightened in order to write. But I will NOT jump from a plane. No. No. No.

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  7. Kate and Kim, hopefully it will make your husbands understand you better! Mine is not so keen.

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  8. What a perfectly relevant post to me at the moment!! I am sooooooo stuck in the third half of my book and feel terrified that I’m gonna ruin what I think was my best beginning yet! I NEED this book – :)

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  9. Rachael…I understand your dismay, though I have the opposite problem…the last part of my book is much better than the first.

    Put aside your fear and finish the book! Then you can revise it to make it all as good as the beginning. You know you can do it!

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