Writing is scary. Does the fear fade with experience? I don’t know. I’m only a few years back into writing as a full-time profession. It was scary the first time around. It’s even scarier now. Ask me in a decade—I’ll be the Renfield-looking guy arguing with a lamp post. For now, I’m just terrified. I’m starting to suspect that the fear factor involved in writing is intrinsic. That if I’m not scared, I’m not writing.
Everyone wants to be a writer in theory—it’s the shift to practice that’s tricky. I have a theory about this: in your brain, your ideas always sound great. It feels like they’re so convincing not because you don’t challenge them but because you challenge them badly. You are your own best straw man. In your head, your ideas feel like they hold up under scrutiny but that’s because the inside of your head is the last place you should be scrutinizing them.
When it comes to ideas, your brain has fantastic acoustics.
Throughout my career, I’ve every now and then had the opportunity to talk to people who have nursed a particular book idea for years, even decades. These are people who have spent a good portion of their lives convinced that they have a brilliant book just waiting to be written down.
I can’t easily convey how confident this particular type tends to be, unshakably convinced of the originality and incisiveness of these grand ideas. And the size! These are huge, YUUUGE ideas. They’ve been talking about The Book, the one they are going to write, for so long, to everyone they’ve ever met—well, they’ve simply never realized that they’ve been repeating the same few things over and over again, like Joe Gould with his secret.
It’s when they finally try to make the book happen and they start talking to me about it that things fall apart. Once they actually pin the butterfly with words, they realize there’s no butterfly. They’ve been clutching used Kleenex for all those years. Who knows where the metaphorical butterfly went, it flew away years ago, IT’S JUST A METAPHOR. The point is, what felt so much like a book or even a series of books in reality barely merits a blog post once freed from the confines of their heads.
Kids: Don’t let this happen to you. Just write it down, whatever it is, however big or small it feels, ugly as the process can be. Because this goes both ways. Some of our grandest-feeling ideas are quickly and easily expressed and don’t amount to much, sure. Sometimes, though, what feels like a small insight unfolds and unfolds and unfolds as it’s written out until you’ve unearthed something remarkable.
This is why I’m suspicious of writing that isn’t scary. Writing should never feel like transcription of the ideas in your head. It should feel like opening a door without knowing for certain what’s going to come out.
The brilliant Vanessa Van Edwards, author of Captivate, says that if you’re anxious about a social situation, you can reframe that anxiety as excitement and anticipation. Right before you head into that networking event or step onto that TED stage, she says, tell yourself, “I am excited!”
I still avoid all social situations if I can help it. But when I’m nervous about writing something down, I say, “I am excited to write!” It helps. “My body is making a lot of adrenaline right now and that’s because writing is terrific fun and not at all awful! I have no idea what I’m about to write and it’ll probably be crap and I’m way past deadline and THAT’S OK! Hurray words!”
Here’s what should scared you: talking about your work-in-progress with people. The first rule of Write Club is: don’t tell people about your book. The second rule of Write Club is: don’t tell people about your book.
Within the moist confines of your mind, your ideas ferment. You know what fermentation does: it makes all kinds of stinky gas. That idea-gas builds up in your mind, creating discomfort. Once you start talking about what you’re going to write at some point in order to relieve that discomfort, you’ve got a problem: Premature articulation. Very embarrassing.
Let the ideas ferment in the swampy darkness of your mind. What you want is a gassy, farty brain full of stinky, stinky words. It takes time.
Have you ever had the experience of talking to a friend about the book you want to write and having this amazing conversation about it? You come away feeling very pleased—how brilliant you were in that conversation. Firing on all cylinders. “There must be something to this idea after all.” But then when you go try to capture the magic of that dialogue on the page, it’s like clutching at a dream after waking. All the sparkle has been squeezed out of it. The book is dead. You killed it. You’re a book-murderer.
Don’t fall into this trap. Let things stew. Let them stink and swell inside your head. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, when you have a great idea, it can feel almost impossible not to tell everyone all about it. Take that energy and reframe it. See it as the build-up of gas, or magma, or whatever other seething, stinky, bubbling metaphor you like. Watch the indicator rise into the red with excitement and anticipation, and remind yourself that there’s only one proper way to vent the pressure. Write it down, write it all out, fearlessly.