Fear is something that has affected my life a lot. It’s affected me in my writing, of course, in every novel or screenplay or short story I write, in every single draft along the way. It has kept me from making the best of choices at certain points in my life, and it sometimes prevents me from speaking up for myself when I know I should. Fear is everywhere, and it strikes us all at different times, in different ways.
But what’s probably scarier than anything for the life of an artist is staring at that blank page on the screen, staring at that cursor blinking in the top right corner as you think about what you’re going to write today.
There are definite pros and cons to the blank page.
I find what’s most exciting about the blank page is that you have a completely new opportunity to write something glorious. Something magical that didn’t exist before today. You also have the opportunity to produce utter crap, maybe something that will be discarded months down the road. But for today? You get to play. You get the write the scene you have in your head the best you can. If it works beautifully, then fantastic. Good for you. If it doesn’t, you get to come back another day and try again. You can keep some of what you wrote, or most of it, or none of it. Entirely up to you.
The biggest negative of the blank page is, yes, the fear. I’ve written eighteen novels. I’ve signed with a literary agent. I’ve worked day and night on many projects I love for many years, and let me tell you, the fear never goes away. When I began my latest novel in early 2017, my MFA thesis I’ve since spent 18 months working on, I didn’t sit down on day one with a big grin on my face, ready to write my magnum opus. Even after having written seventeen other novels, I sat down that first page terrified. That the book would suck. That after years of thinking about this story I wouldn’t be able to effectively tell it. That nobody in the end would give a shit about the story in the first place. I was practically trembling looking at that blank page. I really, really, really didn’t want to screw this one up.
And you know what happened? I DID screw it up. I made so many mistakes in that long first draft of my MFA thesis novel. I made decisions that weren’t right creatively, and last fall I had to spend nearly three months working on the second draft, one in which I cut out more than 80 pages of writing and had to write about 50 pages anew. It made me feel like an amateur. Like someone who had no idea what the hell he was doing.
But you know what the one thing is I did right? I pushed past that initial fear. And I wrote the damn story. I wrote it the best way I could. Looking back, I probably could have saved a few hundred hours if I spent a few more weeks maybe outlining the story, talking it over with a few more experienced people. But so what. I got over it. Today I’m hard at work on the eighth draft of my MFA thesis novel, and while it took a long, long time to get it where I initially wanted it early last year, the manuscript is finally at a place I feel hugely proud of. There’s still more work to be done. But I’m not cutting big chunks out of the middle, I’m not having to remove a supporting character completely from the story. I’m tightening this end and adding a little onto that end and making the novel sparkle as much as I possibly can.
I firmly believe if you have zero fear starting a new writing project, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you just sit down and know your story and pound it out in a way you think is perfect, with no fear at all, I would be surprised if it turned out to be any good. Fear is necessary as a writer, the same way it’s necessary for an actor taking on a role he or she isn’t sure about, or a painter who wants to try a different style or method.
I’ve written so many books now that if I take on a new story I feel comfortable with, it’s not really worth doing. I want to be scared. I want to try something different. Tell a story about a character I’ve never written about before. Fear is necessary at first, but then you need to step past that fear and start writing and see where the day’s work takes you. It’s all you can do.
And once you get going, once the story is coming to fruition on the page, YOU HAVE TO LET GO OF THAT FEAR. You’ll have time to revise later. You’ll have people months down the road tell you this chapter doesn’t work or this character needs more layers, or whatever. For the purpose of the first draft, commit to the story you want to tell, push past the fear, and write it the best you can. Don’t worry so much. Don’t just stare at that blank page for thirty minutes in terror at what you might screw up. Screw up! Fail! Make mistakes! The only thing that matters is that you get your story down, that you finish what you started.
Let fear play a role in your writing life, but don’t let it consume you.
And you’ll be well on your way to a project you can be proud of.