A member of an online writing group I’m involved in posed a question to the group yesterday. She’s 18 years old, and has spent the last 18 months studying at university, working in various industries, and volunteering in poor communities around the world. Now she’s got plenty of time up her sleeve and is ready to embark on her next adventure: WRITING. But it’s turning out to be harder than she expected.
“I open up a word document and nothing comes out. I kind of just stare, fingers ready, but with no real idea. I’m terrified of clichés, and every time I think of some remotely interesting story line, am blocked by fear or self-doubt. Has anyone felt this? Does it get easier?”
I read this question and was immediately transported back to various points in my own life.
…when I was 16, with five months off school, and the burning desire to write a novel.
…when I was 18, fresh out of high school, with the burning desire to write a novel.
…when I was 21, unemployed, with the burning desire to write a novel.
In each of those periods of my life, I found myself sitting in front of a blank screen feeling exactly the fear this young woman is feeling. In all three instances, I managed to overcome the fear enough to write something (although the quality of that ‘something’ was debatable). But I always felt I was alone, that I was the only wanna-be writer who experienced the knee-knocking, soul-freezing fear that comes with staring at a white screen and having no idea how to fill it with meaningful words.
So I answered the question. I have her the advice I wish I’d heard when I was young and enthusiastic and inexperienced. And then it occurred to me that it’s not advice that is best kept private, it’s advice that should be shared. Because everyone feels overwhelmed and out of their depth sometimes, regardless of age or experience.
So here goes. I hope you find it helpful.
- Too much time is as much a motivation-killer as too-little time. Allocate a set amount of time each day to writing and then fill in the rest with LIFE. Life helps you write. It gives you things to write about. It lets you experience emotions and situations and setbacks that will make it into your writing in some way. Go outside your comfort zone and live.
- What you’re feeling is normal. Normal for writers and artists and entertainers and just about every creative type out there. That doesn’t make it easier, but knowing you’re in good company helps.
- Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean you have to like it. And it doesn’t mean you should just sit back and let the feelings overwhelm you. Those feelings of fear (terror!) never go away. Never. What does happen is we learn how to overcome the fear and do it anyway. (To use one of those dreaded clichés.)
- A best-selling, multi-published author once said to me, “In my head, before I start, [a novel] is a perfect thing. It stays perfect until the moment I start typing.” Accept that’s the truth of things, and then write anyway.
- Like I said, you’re in good company when it comes to feeling this way. So let yourself BE in good company. Online writing groups are great, because you’re surrounded by writers. But, you know what else is great? Writing groups in the real world. See if you can find one in your local area. Talk to the librarians at your local library (you’d be amazed what and who they know), ask your friends on FB (you’d be amazed how many people are secretly writers but are too afraid to share it with anyone), or loiter outside creative writing classes. When you find like-minded souls, TALK TO THEM. Regularly. About writing. About your struggles and successes and fears and inspirations. You’ll find you have more in common than you expected.
- Most of all, live the Nike slogan. When you sit down and look at that blank page, tell yourself it’s your job to fill it. Fill it with anything. Write about how terrified you are, write about what you want to write about, write about which actor you’d like to play your main character, write about anything that comes to mind. And when the page is no longer white and scary, start telling your story. Starting is always the hardest part.
- Finally, celebrate every success. Eat chocolate! Drink wine! Buy books! Share your writing successes with like-minded individuals! Celebrate however is meaningful to you. Just celebrate, no matter how big or small your accomplishment.
Do you have any additional advice to offer?