Monday, 15 July 2013

Writing: The Fear

I am running a small writing workshop this week. It is a keen pleasure, and it is amazingly hard work at the same time. I sit here now, in the afternoon sun, all energy wiped from me, hardly able to string a sentence together. This is ironic, because all I have been talking about all morning is the art of stringing sentences.

I suspect it is because I am an introvert, so anything which involves a group takes it out of me. I am also ransacking my brain for every single thing I know, every tiny particle of knowledge and experience which may help, every last notion which may provide inspiration. These people can already write. I don’t really need to tell them the technical stuff. They know about semi-colons and rhythms and playing with language. I have to give them something bigger than that.

Mostly, I think, people come to workshops because they have run into the sand. Their inspiration has dried up, their drive stutters and fails. They know they want to write, they know they love to write, and yet they do not write. Why? That is the profound question, and I must scrabble about for answers.

This is why I always start not with structure or narrative or anything concrete or specific, but with the big abstract idea I call The Fear. The Fear is what stops you writing. It may stop you living. The Fear is all the old voices in your head which tell you that you are not good enough, clever enough, interesting enough. You are useless and pointless and feckless, and you should go into the garden and eat worms.

The Fear is mean and ruthless and transforms itself like a shape-shifter. It takes a myriad of forms. It may be the stern schoolmistress who told you that you could not break the rules of grammar, or the recent friend who kindly informs you of the pitfalls of the writing life. It could be your family, who tease you just a little too much. It is the internalised voice from the culture itself, which says that A Writer must be a certain sort of person, from a certain sort of background, with a certain sort of education and a certain sort of brain. This voice, which is bossy and pernicious, may even suggest that A Writer wears a certain sort of clothing. Oh, yes, there is a dress code. This is the voice of the Members Only; the one with the clip-board and the velvet rope, only lifted if you arrive in the company of Tom Stoppard. It is the one that says you have to be on The List.

The Fear callously informs you that even if you can push past all these horrid obstacles, you will still have to face derision. The Fear says that people will laugh and point, that you are running on idiot hubris, that you do not have what it takes. You? With your puny plan and your paltry adjectives and your pathetically limited life experience? Have you stalked big game on the Serengeti, or run from rifle fire in the dust of the Helmand Valley, or penetrated the Hindu Kush? You have neither enough high life or low life. Your life is too small, too ordinary, of no possible interest to man or beast. The Fear says you will fail, and that people will mock, and that those people will be right.

The dangerous aspect of The Fear is that it has a point. You will fail. All writers fail. The pristine prose that exists in your head never quite makes it to the page. The perfect novel that dances in your mind is sullied and trashed by the time you write the opening chapter. Someone very clever once said: after the first page, it’s just damage limitation.

The secret of this is to keep buggering on anyway. I sometimes think what makes a writer is that cussed determination to keep buggering on. The non-writers are the ones who fold. They might be able to write a perfectly lovely sentence, they might have an ear for prose and a feel for language, but they do not persist. Persistence, perhaps, and cussedness and doggedness and a refusal to be beaten, are the marks of those who go on to write.

And The Fear is right in another aspect. People will laugh and point. Until you are published, they may find your ambitions risible. ‘Ah, your writing,’ they may say, in a special voice. Even after you are published, there will still be pointing and scoffing. No matter how hard you work or how talented you are, some people just won’t like what you have produced, in the same way that some people don’t like artichokes or loathe lentils.

The secret to this is (as you may have guessed by now) to keep buggering on anyway. You can’t stop the laughing and pointing; you cannot convince critics out of their mockery. You can arm yourself, however. There is no magical thick skin which can be grown to resist the slings and arrows, but you can learn how to absorb them, and carry on. You can factor them in. You can learn to roll with the punches, but don’t think for a moment there will be no punches.

So that was today’s theme.

Ah, The Fear, I think, as I sit to write this. My old, old friend. I’ve bashed through a bit of it, after all these years. I have given myself permission to be a writer, which was initially troublesome. I came from a house of horses; the bookshelves were filled with old copies of Timeform, the tables littered with The Sporting Life, not the London Review of Books. There were no poets holding forth in the kitchen, but people discussing what would win the 3.30 at Newton Abbot.

I got over that, after a few years of practice. I still fear the not being good enough. I can carry a tune, make a paragraph dance off the page, if the light is coming from the right direction. Yet I still have to struggle incredibly hard with narrative. Even after all this damn practice, my narrative drive is pathetically weak. I’m good at dialogue but appalling at story structure. I have to work very hard at absorbing failure, which is a mangy hound trotting and snapping at my heels. The discipline and management of time needed to write 90,000 words, and then rewrite them and rewrite them again, is still a daily challenge. I have about six different ideas jostling in my head at any one time, and I can’t get them all organised. Some will never see the light of day. Criticism can send me into a spiral of self-loathing, and hurts like a physical thing. I learnt to talk myself down off the ceiling, but I have never caught the trick of not hitting the ceiling in the first place.

But I am pretty good at buggering on. It’s a learnt skill, and a good one. You can’t wish The Fear away, I have discovered. You cannot make it dissipate through a sheer act of will. You have to stare at the whites of its mean old eyes, and bash on through. With writing, and with life, perhaps.


No time for pictures today. Just one shot of the little HorseBack foal, who is now a week old and growing bonnier and sweeter and stronger and more antic by the day:

15 July 1 15-07-2013 12-15-26


  1. Bonnier - I love that term which we don't use in the US. My little four year old grandson told me one night, during a back tickle to get him to sleep, to sing him My Bonnie lies over the ocean... I thought that was such a funny choice. Writing is a different endeavor. I have painted and sculpted and done almost every form of art and yet, when I wrote, I could have no sounds or distractions; it was intense, much more introspective. If you read my 'about me' you'll find out about my writing history. Nevertheless, you are right about keeping at it. I read a story once about Virginia Wolfe, prone on her divan with her arm draped across her head and eyes. She stated, "I shall never write again." I know exactly what she meant. Sometimes the words come and sometimes they don't.

  2. Whoa, actual whoosh of excitement when I read the heading of this post! And I was so keen to read it - it took me a few goes before I could absorb the advice. I didn't realise how much I'd been missing your write-ups of the writing classes you used to give annually (right down to that wonderfully classy photo of the fountain pen!). Of course I enjoy all the news of Stanley and the horses, but it was your writing that first brought me here and makes me come back again and again. I've read all your books to shreds in an effort to learn how you do what you do, so a post that offers this stuff for FREE is..well, it's making me jump up and down a bit, to be honest. Thank you xx

  3. Fascinated to read this, as unlike ever before I am contemplating 'the writing'. This is because I can see a chasm stretching out ahead as I leave the corporate world and I think: if nothing else, there will be time to write. I hear people say when the read the blog - 'you can write' and I think they are joking. I know that fear - of not being good enough, clever enough, erudite enough to pull it off. I remember being put in the top set for English at school and coming home and telling my mum that it was the set that 'all the clever people were in' as I simply could not imagine that I was one too! That fear - it is a constant companion! Generally in awe - as ever, Lou x

  4. A lovely treatise on life, too. Just keep on.

  5. Debbie Bradstreet16 July 2013 at 00:54

    Thank you for your wise words - they're just what I needed today!

  6. This post is like a salve for my bruised sense of self. Quite the perfect thing. x


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