Wednesday, October 28, 2009

one chord at a time, one word at a time: dispelling fear of failure

Recently a student came to me, practically in tears. He had no draft, nothing to show for the last four weeks, and confessed that every time he tries to write something, he becomes so terrified of failing that he simply can't do it. Unfortunately, his past teachers instilled a false perception of "perfect writing" (ha! and there's really an Easter Bunny too, right?), and he's been paralyzed by it ever since.

"Welcome to my world," I replied.

Ok, I wasn't that blunt, but I was certainly empathetic and confessed my own writers block and fears of failure. I told him that I've been there, many times. That most writers I know experience this. And then I proceeded to tell him some of my tricks:

  • When I'm feeling particularly fearful, the first thing I type is This does not have to be perfect. In fact, it can be the crappiest piece of writing ever, and no one ever has to know.
  • The second thing I type is This is what I want to say. And then I proceed to say it in words. Or, I type I want to write about... and don't worry about how clunky it is. After a couple of sentences or paragraphs, the words come easier, the thoughts become clearer, and before I know it, I'm writing something, sometimes even halfway decent. One word at a time.
  • I watch or read something inspiring.
  • I talk it out with someone I trust. Not just the fear, but the subject about which I am blocked.
  • I seek support and encouragement from my peers.

There's the old saying "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." (Yeah. Tell me that when I'm heartbroken and see if you don't walk away with a bloody nose.) Is writing the same way? Is it better to have produced a piece of problematic writing than to have written nothing out of fear?

It took me almost 20 years to pick up the guitar from the last time I had played it because I had struggled so hard the last time -- I figured that I was never going to be good at it, and I would never be as good as my siblings. And then I realized that I'd never really know if I didn't try. Moreover, my brother (a virtuoso with whom I'd match John Mayer and Eric Clapton any day of the week and twice on Sunday) encouraged me that I'd never have to play for anyone but me. It's true--I'm nowhere near as good as my sibs, and there's still a lot I can't do, but dammit, I surprised myself with what I could do, especially on my own. One chord at a time.

It took Faking It five years from its conception to get written because I thought I wasn't a fiction writer. And since then I've panicked that there's no life after Andi, that I only got one good idea and used up my ration. But then a line, a story, a character comes to mind while I'm in the shower or driving to work or at the coffeeshop staring out the window, and I realize that all is not lost.

The sucky thing is that I have no choice but to issue a failing grade if this student produces nothing by the end of the semester. But my heart will be with him if it comes to that. I sure hope it doesn't. I'll keep doing everything I can.


Carol said...

This is great! I love your tips and I love how you do away with the "perfect writing" myth. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It's all very encouraging.

Karen Walker said...

I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog. How lovely. Thanks for these tips. I'm venturing into the world of fiction for the first time after writing nonfiction for 30+years. One word at a time is a good motto.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Fear of failure is part of any creative endeavour. The trick is to acknowledge it and then figure out your own way of moving past it. I find cursing very helpful!


Elisa said...

Thank you, Carol, Karen, and Elspeth for your comments!

Carol, I'm glad you got something from the advice.

Karen, I hope you'll become a regular follower of my blog! I too started as a nonfiction writer. Best of luck with your new fiction endeavor!

Beth, I should've recommended the cursing!! ;)

Sheila B said...

Excellent. And Elspeth you are just so funny.