Writing Excuses 13.20: Fear and Writing, with Emma Newman
Key points: BIC (butt in chair) is not that easy! Between the desire to write and the ability to begin writing, we need to unpack the reasons why we procrastinate, and look at ways to handle them. Specifically, what are the fears that keep us from writing. Sometimes you may also find depression or other blocks, and need different tools for those. Watch out for unprocessed wounds from one’s past, the fear of failure, and the fear of success. Be aware of what’s happening. Try using one fear to combat another, e.g. fear of regret overcoming fear of success. Give yourself permission to be selfish, to carve out time for your work. Negotiate with your fears, trick them. Think about the advice you would give a friend who was suffering from your fears. Promise your inner toddler a reward when you finish!
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 20.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Fear and Writing, with Emma Newman.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Aliette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re terrified.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Aliette] I’m Aliette.
[Dan] With us, we have our special guest, who’s terrifying Howard so much, Emma Newman. Emma, I’m excited that you’re here. Tell us about yourself.
[Emma] Hello. I’m an author, an audiobook narrator, and a podcaster. And also a role player.
[Dan] Well, awesome.
[Emma] I think I paid for the latter one, though.
[Dan] We… Dear audience, who is not actually here with us while recording. We are currently on the Writing Excuses retreat. Let’s get some love from the audience here.
[Dan] Okay. One of the things that we have heard nonstop… This is the last day of our weeklong thing. Emma’s was the very first class at the retreat, and people have not stopped raving about it. So we want to talk about fear and writing. What do we want to talk about here?
[Emma] Well, the whole reason I created the talk that I did at the beginning of the week was just sheer rage at all of the people who I saw tweeting or blogging who were professional authors who were saying, “Well, all you need to do to be a professional author is to just sit down and write. Like, butt in chair, darling.” I would just get so furious because it’s not that easy for everybody. I don’t actually believe it is easy for anyone, and that’s just a very glib thing for them to say, to kind of emphasize the fact that there is an element of self-discipline. I understand that, but I feel that it kind of shut a lot of things out of the dialogue that we need to have about what nee… What work you need to do between the desire to write and the ability to actually begin writing. So the talk kind of unpacked all of the reasons why we procrastinate, and then what we can do when we’ve identified those underlying reasons, on a practical level and an emotional level, to enable us to be able to write as much as we want to.
[Mary] I was really glad to hear you give that talk. I think that you were absolutely right to have it at the beginning of the week. One of the things that I want to highlight for you listeners is one of the things that can happen to you when you start to unpack the reasons that you are not writing is that you can discover that there’s some other stuff going on. I went on this journey myself, and I’ve alluded to it on the podcast, that I for years was like, “Oh, I’m… I’m a procrastinator, and sometimes I get burnt out, or I’m in a funk.” Then realized, after hearing other people talk about it, that actually what I was dealing with was depression, and that I needed different tools to deal with that, because it was getting in the way of me writing. The analogy that I often use is that it’s much like having dysentery. That you’re afraid to leave the house. It makes everything a mess. You’re miserable. And no one wants to talk about it.
[Howard] And you’re going to lose the game of Oregon Trail.
[Mary] And you’re going to lose the game of Oregon Trail. So that’s one of the reasons that I was so excited to have you on, is because people talking about the various aspects of fear and depression is what got me to go to the doctor, at the age of 45. So hopefully, listeners, this… Don’t be… Hopefully this will help you, and don’t be surprised if you’re listening to this and thinking, “Oh, no, this doesn’t concern me.” And then suddenly go, “Oh. Oh, this is me.”
[Emma] One of the things that I wanted to achieve with the talk was opening a dialogue about mental illness as well. I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, so I was kind of speaking from experience with writing despite pretty much constant anxiety. And to continue the metaphor, to extend the metaphor with dysentery, there is also the fear that it will happen again.
[Emma] And that, at least, if you have a really terrible stomach bug, there’s always the worry that it’ll happen again at the worst time. It is exactly the same with mental illness. When you’re feeling better again, and if you can feel yourself returning to that state that where you were incapacitated the first time, one of the things that is oddly reassuring about going through a cyclic journey with your own mental illness is that when it happens again and again, you can say, “Actually, I did recover the last time, and this too shall pass.” But the first time that that happens, you don’t have that experience or that kind of knowledge. So there’s the fear of being afraid, as well, that has to be unpacked in all of this process. That’s important as well.
[Mary] I think that one of the things that you listeners should pay attention to is that a lot of the coping tools that we’re going to be talking about, and a lot of this is something that you will have experienced or have already experienced… We label it as imposter syndrome. But it is completely… That imposter syndrome is basically anxiety about writing and depression about your skill level as a writer, all in a really ugly little bundle.
[Mary] Life is a terrible user interface.
[Aliette] I mean… Sorry.
[Dan] Nope. Please.
[Aliette] Part of what strikes me about that some of the corners of Twitter that you mentioned was always like people are mentioning like there’s this narrative that you can conquer your fears and that you can… Like, this is like a battle, you’re at war with like your fears, your depression, and then there’s this kind of definite victory. I’m like, “This isn’t how this works.” Like, you’re afraid, and you still write. This is how this works. Like, it’s… Well, you know, you mentioned about cycles, it’s like… It’s always there lurking, somewhere. Then you have to… Either it’s like very strong or very weak, but then you have to find tools to deal with that.
[Emma] Yes. Because it isn’t a linear progression, and there are so many narratives that [garbled]
[Aliette] It’s not a videogame.
[Emma] Exactly. It’s not a videogame. There are so many narratives where you encounter that monster and then you can go and find the thing that will enable you to go in destroy the monster and then everyone lives happily ever after. But it’s like doing that over and over and over and over and over again. Until you die.
[Emma] I’m really sorry about that.
[Mary] Of dysentery.
[Aliette] Really like Oregon Trail.
[Dan] Fantastic. I have some very specific questions I want to ask, but this is a great time to break first for book of the week.
[Emma] Everyone’s looking at me. So, the book of the week, that I feel slightly embarrassed about suggesting because it’s my own, is After Atlas. That is a sci-fi crime. It’s set 80 years in the future. It follows a detective, Carlos Moreno, who has been assigned to investigate the murder of a cult leader. The reason he’s been assigned is because he escaped that cult when he was a child, but also because he isn’t an average detective. He’s an indentured slave to a corporation. So as he unravels the mystery behind the death of the cult leader, he is also processing a lot of issues.
[Mary] It is a fantastic book. I recently got a… Got my hands on a copy of it and basically was like, “Oh, great. Emma’s got a new book. I’m just going to read the first chapter… I have to pee now because I’ve been sitting in this chair for days.”
[Mary] It’s really good. Highly recommended. I also have to say that you do not have to have read the previous book, I think, to read this one. You can step into it cold. There’s obviously some nuance that you get from having read the previous one, but absolutely… It stands on its own. It’s fantastic.
[Emma] Thank you.
[Dan] Awesome. So it’s After Atlas by Emma Newman. What was the first book called?
[Emma] The first book is Planetfall.
[Emma] So they’re both set in the same universe, but they are genuinely standalone.
[Dan] Awesome. Cool. Well, thank you very much.
[Dan] All right. So I would love you to tell us some of these specific things, like you did in the talk. What are the reasons that we don’t write?
[Emma] So, what I think of when I talk about the fear that underpins procrastination is that procrastination is kind of symptomatic of something that lies beneath. So it can take all sorts of forms, but it’s the roots that are important. I see that there are kind of three primary roots, and then lots of little sub-ones. But the three primary ones are unprocessed wounds from one’s past, the fear of failure, and the fear of success. Perfectionism is kind of like clinging onto the coattails of all of these. But those are the main kind of roots where it all comes from. If you start to kind of unpack all of those, then you can increase your own conscious awareness of what is actually happening, what is causing the procrastination behavior. Then I have kind of practical tools for, like once you figured out some of it, or even before you figured it out consciously, things you can actively due to be able to work despite the fear.
[Howard] One of the most difficult ones for folks often to wrap their head around is the fear of success. It’s related to the paralysis of choice that happens when you’re at a buffet and everything is delicious, but you do just have to pick one. If you succeed, suddenly you will have to make a decision about whether to pursue this as a career or perhaps whether to quit the day job. It opens a door and… You know, our caveman ancestors, when they opened the door and stepped outside… Well, there wasn’t a door, but when they stepped outside…
[Howard] The first thing they had to do was make sure they weren’t going to get eaten by something new. Success is scary. It’s like… It opens a whole new world of things to be afraid of.
[Emma] It does. For me, the fear of success is very much having to leave the house.
[Emma] I hate leaving the house. I’m on a cruise ship, I’m on a stage in front of people, so there’s a bit of me now that is absolutely furious that I have done things that have brought me into this situation.
[Emma] Even though I welcome this and I love it and I’m very happy to be here. I’ve had a fabulous week. It’s that kind of weird, they live against each other and rub against each other, that you are actively working to invite these things in, that you also maybe don’t want. This is not my natural state. My natural state is to be alone at home, writing, when no one can see me. I hate being seen. So that is where the fear of success plays out worse for me.
[Dan] Awesome. So you said you had some specific tools? What is one, for example, with fear of success, that you could give our listeners, of how to deal with that?
[Emma] So, for me, I think about whether I would be able to live with myself if I allowed the fear to win and didn’t achieve the goals that I have. So it’s kind of the well, you could… You can stay at home. Thank you, fear, for wanting to keep me safe and being at home. But am I genuinely going to be happy in that state? Or in my going to be there on my deathbed regretting everything? So I kind of use one kind of fear and repurpose it, and fire it at the other fear. So the fear of living with regret often outweighs the fear of having to go and do all of this. I also remind myself that a lot of things that I actively fear are all totally manufactured by my awful brain. So I actively remind myself intellectually that this is not real. It’s like somebody said to me this week, “Oh, it’s like Labyrinth, when she turns and says you have no power over me.” That there is an element of that process going on. It’s really hard, and sometimes I will be really grumpy with my husband for days because I have to leave the house at the end of the week and go and be in front of people. Then I go, “Oh. It’s because I have to leave the house and go be in front of people…”
[Emma] “I’m really sorry.”
[Dan] That is brilliant, using fears against each other. They deserve it.
[Howard] If you have one problem, you need to find a solution. If you have two problems, make them fight.
[Emma?] Yep. [Garbled] it’s like [tried and tested for grabbing roles?] Well, not on me…
[Dan] All right. I want to try this, and maybe this’ll be a disaster, but… Aliette, why don’t you give us some of the reasons that you find to not write? And we’ll see what Emma can do to help.
[Aliette] There’s always something that needs to be done in the house, oddly enough. The lawn needs to be done, and I should prepare the meals for the kids, and then maybe I will sit down at my computer and I will like go… Maybe I can go on to Twitter because I need a break now…
[Mary] Ah, Twitter.
[Emma] It always… It never ceases to amaze me how pressing those domestic chores become at the moment you’re about to start writing.
[Emma] I can ignore a pile of laundry for days, until the moment comes when I really have to sit down and finish that thing. I think there is also a dialogue we have to have with ourselves about giving ourselves permission to be selfish, and to not give all of our time to the domestic sphere and to our families and to all of the other people in our lives. To say, “No, it is okay to carve out this time, and to have this time just for my work.” Yeah, mostly I’m driven to domestic chores when I am actively trying to run away from writing. It’s not so much being driven towards them. It’s actively sprinting away from the looming word count need behind me. But again, in those situations, I always say become aware of it. If you stop yourself… If you’re in the middle of washing up and saying, “Well, why am I doing this at this time, when it is the designated time I was going to write?” Becoming aware that you’re actually being a victim of the fear, and then saying, “No. I would actually like to negotiate now.” And saying, “Okay. I am afraid of this. Is this something I genuinely need to be afraid of?” Can you negotiate with it? Sometimes, can you trick yourself? Because sometimes, I find myself being terrified that the next book I’m going to write is going to be a terrible failure. So I trick myself into saying, “Well, no, I’m not actually writing my next book. I’m just messing about with the first scene. That is not what I have to worry about.” You kind of trick yourself. Trick your own fears.
[Mary] Sometimes… I have two tricks that I use when I am sitting down to write and then suddenly find myself in the kitchen doing the dishes. Which happens a lot. One of them is a phrase that my therapist gave me when I was going in first. She said, “What advice would you give to a friend who was going through this?” I was like, “Oh. That’s a dirty trick.”
[Mary] Because I do, in fact, know the answer to these things. I just forget that I can apply that advice to myself. So, that’s one thing. The other thing is that I will say, “Well, why don’t you sit down and write about why you’re not writing?” I’m like, “Okay, so what are the barriers that stand between me and the next scene that I need to write?” Eventually, what winds up happening is that I start noodling on the scene, and then suddenly the part of my brain that is delighted by writing is like, “Oh, wait. Waitwaitwait. Can I have the driver’s seat now?” And away I go.
[Emma] If you can tailor it to whatever the fear is. But I do genuinely believe that a lot of it is either negotiating like adults or cajoling a toddler.
[Emma] It’s somewhere between the two, the kind of the inner toddler, like, “Well, I know you really don’t want to do this now, but if you do this, then…” And then you can reward yourself. But the key is to try to constantly experiment and to be agile in your negotiations with your own fears.
[Howard] My… The place where I noticed fear the most in my own work is when I am moving from pencils to inks. I’ve laid down a bunch of pencil, and now I need to begin inking, which is the point at which I am committing to one of these many, many lines and deciding that the rest of them are wrong. We could brand that as a fear of commitment, if we wanted to tell a joke that’s been told a million times. It’s really the fear of being wrong. It’s the fear of having made the wrong decision. The thing that broke me out of this was I found a good source of white gel pens. I tell myself, “You know what! I’m not actually committing. If this line is wrong, I’ll just color over it with some white and make another line.” Will Eisner did that, and he was using white paint and scraps of paper glued to his comic. I’ve seen those originals. The best people do this. I’m not actually committing. Then I will sit down and burn through white pens like they’re candles.
[Emma] Well, that’s the…
[Aliette] I actually have this file that’s called like bits and pieces of the story. I will like put bits and pieces that I cut off, and also like the bits and pieces that I’m just noodling on. You know what, I’m not really writing, right? The funny thing is, with all the bits and pieces that I’m cutting off that never make it back into the story and all the noodling that actually does…
[Aliette] It’s just a crutch. I don’t care. It gets me writing.
[Dan] I just finished a huge revision pass on one of my novels, and I did that. I kept… Because my editor says, “Cut this. It’s unnecessary.” But I love it. So instead of deleting it, I put it in a different folder. That kind of gives me permission to cut it out of the main work. I know I’m never going to go and use it. But now I have permission to cut it out of the work.
[Mary] I was just working on something that needed to be 45 seconds long. I got it down to 60 seconds. I’m like, “Oh, but I’m going to… I love these two lines that I have to cut to get it to 45.” So I just turned in a 60 second version and a 45 second version. I’ll let them make the choice about that. They chose the 45 second version. It’s fine, like you don’t miss the two lines. But I couldn’t cut them myself. I had to let someone else do it. Which is often what it means by just putting it over in the folder.
[Dan] So, I’m sure, five authors up here, we could talk for hours about all the reasons we don’t do stuff. But we need to be done with the episode. So, Emma, do you have some homework for us?
[Emma] Yes. So, aside from unpacking your own fears and trying very hard to overcome those, I would like to invite you to read a poem called The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. It was mentioned in a talk yesterday by Justin Ford, and it reminded me of how much I love it. I’d like to invite you to read it, and to write the back story that is implied in the poem.
[Dan] Nice. Okay. That is The Listeners by…
[Emma] Walter de la Mare.
[Dan] Awesome. So. That is excellent homework. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.