When I’m up on stage, or in front of a classroom, talking about writing, I talk about getting ideas out and non-linear approaches. Everyone is nodding and happy and feeling they are very much a part of what I’m saying, some are feeling recharged for the first time in a long time, and then we come to what I call, The Two Great Fears of Writers. And they freeze. Someone has just pointed out the elephants in the room, and they swallow hard. They glance around to see if anyone’s feeling like they do, but they don’t want to be seen glancing because it’s a possible sign of weakness. But by the end, they are relieved and fully recharged.
The first of the two great fears, is the fear of finishing. This is an insidious one. It’s the idea of letting go, of declaring that you aren’t going to mess with it anymore and move on.
Does it mean all because you’ve been working on something for a long time, that you are suffering from such a fear? No. The problem is when working on your Great Work has become your comfort zone to the point where you fear leaving that comfort zone. That fear that you haven’t made it perfect yet, even though you know that perfection is an impossible goal and what is more likely is that the longer you go, the further you will push it away from excellence. I’ve known people to take apart their entire novel, after years, and ‘start again’ but it’s the same novel. It is such a comfort to have that Great Work to care for, that they will stay with it at all costs.
Letting go is about accepting change and moving on. The Great Work represents who you are up to that point, and now you need a new project to define who you are from here. I’ve gone back to some of my old works, hoping that I could just spruce them up a bit and put them out. What I found was that they just came apart and became a mess. I’m a fundamentally different writer now, and I am so glad that I left them and moved on. I ended up having ideas that were more grand, that were fundamentally better, and turned them into great things. If I’d never left those old works behind, I’d have become who I am.
If you think you know someone suffering from this, probably the best thing you can ask them is if their work is completed enough. It’s a softer, easier to swallow version of “Is it finished?” There’s no grade school freak-out reaction to “completed enough” because like a puzzle, we can appreciate when something is complete. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Separate and distinct from the fear of finishing, is the fear of being judged. What are people going to think? What are they going to say? Are they going to confirm that I really have no place thinking that I’m a writer?
This isn’t just the fear of will you get a negative review, though that’s a pretty big one. Actually, this starts well before publishing. Some people hide behind sending endless query letters, sometimes even going so far as to know, deep down, that they have done their query letter improperly. Those people get the warm safety of always sending out query letters, while putting themselves through emotional torture because they feel rejected.
Putting your work out there for friends and family to see, is hard but still safe. Putting it out there so that strangers can comment on it is extremely hard. Your friends and family might be kind but strangers? The thing is, strangers can also say unadulterated kind things that lift you to the moon or beyond.
The Truth is
If you never finish something, if you never get past the fear of judgment, you never get a moment like I did the other day at a multi-author event where a boy came with his mom to see me. Me! I’m his favorite author. There’s nothing like that feeling.
We must risk in order to learn, improve and grow. We must dare to be great.
Here’s one truth about judgment, the more reviews you collect, the more your doubts are bashed over the head with confidence-enhancing complements of substance, the thicker your armour gets. At first, a one star review will wipe out all the good of 20 five stars, but when you have 40 five stars, or 90 four and five star reviews, getting a one star doesn’t pierce all the way to the heart. You can actually shake off the occasional one with only a momentary bruise.
Knowing that these fears are shared by nearly every author, and likely nearly every time they’re working on something, can be of comfort. While some might have a thick layer of bravado, deep down, we can’t be putting our soul on the page without making it vulnerable.