My guest blogger today is Ralph Keyes, superbly-talented and prolific author, renaissance man, and good friend. His fine book, The Courage to Write, has been an inspiration to me and countless other writers. Ralph’s books are available on Amazon.com.
Before publishing The Courage to Write I sensed that a fear of putting words on paper was common among aspiring writers. I had no idea how common that fear is. Nor did I realize that it wasn’t just neophytes who are anxious about writing, but anyone at all. Only after Courage was published and I began to hear from other writers did it become clear how prevalent writing anxiety is. “Each fear described is of acute familiarity to me,” wrote one. “I’m not alone in my fears and silly writing habits!” added another.
On the verge of publishing his first book, a Canadian author wrote me, “For a long while I was (and am) dealing with the kind of issues you wrote of. The writers I knew rarely discussed anxiety, or failure, or even fear. I thought we were supposed to strut around with this hard shell attitude, this blazing self-confidence, and I always wondered why I alone suffered these crippling anxieties and doubts.”
After getting enough responses like this I finally concluded that the definition of a frightened writer is “whoever dares to put words on paper (or in pixels).”
Why should writing be so scary? I think it’s due primarily to a fear of being exposed. “Will readers see right through me?” is a question that plagues writers as they write. “Naked” is a word they commonly use to describe how they feel when their work is about to be published. One bestselling novelist compared that feeling to dancing nude on a table. (She’d done both and found publishing novels far more frightening.)
But there’s an upside to the nerves all writers experience. Just as actors, athletes, and public speakers find that being on edge gives them an edge, anxiety can lend a powerful edginess to writing. It also helps writers reach out to readers.
Everyone has an inner self that they’d rather others not know about. We go to great lengths to hide that self, the one that is ambivalent about our mother, who betrayed a friend in high school, and who sometimes picks its nose no one’s looking. Keeping this self hidden isn’t an option for writers, at least ones who are any good. Because the secret self is usually the most interesting self. His lair is where the richest nuggets of golden material can be found.
One reason memoirs are so popular these days – especially ones like The Liar’s Club and Angela’s Ashes – is that their authors risked sharing their inner lives with readers. Since readers too have hidden lives, they identify with that type of writing, and are grateful for the authors who dared to be so candid. To the degree that an author can risk being candid, to that degree his or her writing will leap off the page, grab readers by the lapel, and say “This is something you’ve got to hear!” Doing that is scary. Terrifying even. Yet it’s the best way to produce anything better than pablum. That’s why I believe the most important line in The Courage to Write is “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing (anything of consequence that is).”
Ralph Keyes's new e-book, Second Thoughts: The Power of Positive Regret, is available as a Kindle single on Amazon.