Top Nine Writer’s Rules #7: Fear

It will catch any serious writer in the end: that familiar dread of the blank or page or screen as it stares back at you, daring you to give it  some words which, the blank page just knows, will be disappointing, or surprisingly weak, or in some way inferior to everything you have written before.

The question is whether the author’s fear is friend or foe, creative or crippling. 

Opinion among those who really should know is, as ever, divided.

 1. A.L KENNEDY

‘Let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear  and all you’ll get is silence.’

 

2. STEPHEN KING

‘I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.’

 

    3.  DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

‘I have a lot of dread and terror and inadequacy-shit, now, when I’m trying to write. I didn’t used to. Maybe the terror is part of the necessary reverence, and maybe it’s an inescapable part of the growing-up-as-a-writer-or-whatever process; but it can’t — cannot — be the goal and terminus of that process.’

 

4. GEORGE ORWELL

‘To write in plain language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.’

 

5. MURIEL SPARK

‘Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity…  as if it were never going to be published.’

 

6. NICHOLSON BAKER

‘Without some sort of anxiousness writing loses its charm. There is the straightforward suspense that is built into a certain kind of novel  –  a first-order plot-anxiety that I often dislike and find physically uncomfortable  –  and then there is the much much more important second-order thrill that the writer himself shivers gleefully as he writes: “Ooh boy, I’m really going to catch it this time! They’re going to cremate me! I’m going to be pulverized!”                                                                                                       

7.  NORMAN MAILER

‘I never sit down to begin a book without thinking I’ve lost it, it’s not there any more. And then the feeling comes back.’

8. J.A. BAKER

‘Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts.’

 

9.  PAUL AUSTER

Every time, you start from nothing. I really do feel as if I have to re-invent everything from the ground up, I can’t tell you how lost and afraid I feel. What the process of writing a book is, is learning how to write that book  –  and you’ve never done it before.’

 

10.

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Terence BlackerPaddy BriggsTerence BlackerJanie HamptonSimon Haines Recent comment authors
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Simon Haines
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Simon Haines

Hi Terence, Just read this piece – it’s sounds just like me. My professional writing of English language textbooks is more or less over. I’ve probably sold about 20 million books all over the world – about 100 different titles. But I’ve got bored and disillusioned by the process and what’s worse publishers now pay only flat fees not royalties. Fortunately some of my books still bring in royalties. BUT I now write for music magazines – you may have seen my bits in Mardles, but I also write for Living Tradition magazine. I’ve been doing this for about 4… Read more »

Terence Blacker
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Thanks, Simon – that’s interesting in both a cheering (personal) and depressing (professional) way. Your comments about publishers could apply to general and educational publishing.

As for the songs and singing, that’s a slightly different matter for another piece. Keep on writing!

Janie Hampton
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Janie Hampton

Sounds like me too… 35 years of writing for a living started with a struggle, and seems to go on and on being one….I’ve always found writing letters or emails really easy, while anything ‘professional’ is a slog. I’m still trying to find that allusive rhythm, with a nice tidy timetable. After nearly 20 books published, I had my first play performed this year – it took me a few hours to write, ten years ago, after being immersed in the subject (Joyce Grenfell) for 10 years. So did it take 20 years, or 10 hours? I haven’t made any… Read more »

Terence Blacker
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Twenty books published and a play produced and performed? That sounds like a rhythm to me. And the answer to your question is, of course, 20 years.

Paddy Briggs
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When I retired from my 40 year career with a decent pension I decided I wanted to write. I had a well-received biography published from which I made about £1000 – for a year’s work (on and off). I have also written about Sport, Pensions and other things for newspapers and magazines and been paid for the work (not a lot, but real money). For me payment is not to cover my bills – that’s what the pension is for. It’s recognition that my writing has value. So when I blog – for which I’m rarely paid – I don’t… Read more »