I was very surprised to hear crime novelist Elizabeth George say one time in a speech that she avoided writing novels for years, and only began when she asked herself what she wanted said of her after she died: That she was afraid to write? Or that she wrote a book. That was exactly how I found the courage to write.
I was afraid of failure, and doubtful of my ability. I procrastinated for years. It was all fear and nothing but fear, although I pretended that when my life got simpler I would write a book. (If you have young children, this may well be a decent excuse.) The only thing that got me started was a matching terror: that in my old age I would be full of regret over not having written a novel. I played ugly death bed scenes out in my mind. When I’d had enough, I sat down and began writing.
Procrastinators Take Heart
I don’t know why some people jump right in and try writing a novel, or take courses in writing and then, pluckily, take a shot at a novel. People with that kind of confidence are quite annoying to the rest of us. If you are one of these cheery people, I applaud you. You may never, however, write a dark and twisted novel, so take that!
We procrastinators need a jolt of courage. One mental trick is to establish modest expectations. If you crave validation so much that you’re counting on getting short-listed for awards and selling wondrously, then you have reason to be afraid. This will not likely happen with your first few novels. Distance yourself from this hope. Tell your brain that the first goal is to begin a novel, and the second is to finish. After that your goal is to find an agent and/or sell your book to a publisher for actual money. Your next goal is to begin the next novel. Yes, we’ve jumped straight from the goal of selling book one to writing book two. The reason is that the more distance you can get from the critical/sales outcome of your published novels, the healthier it is for your mental attitude, and the less likely you are to continue in the state of fear that’s keeping you from writing in the first place.
Self-Talk and The Journey
Remember that, as talented a writer as you may be, you are still an inexperienced storyteller. You will want to improve with future books. Writing is not a place where you finally have esteem, success, and mastery. Writing is a journey. If your brain is carping on success and mastery (and your lack of it), exert some control. You don’t have to believe everything your brain tells you. In fact you should be highly skeptical of some of its messages!
Think of true sentences to substitute for the well-meaning lies your brain creates. Such as:
- I have the courage to write.
- I am writing a story that no one else on the face of the earth has ever thought of.
- I am open to the best material my subconscious and the universe may send my way.
- If I weren’t writing I’d be spending way too much time shopping.
It’s Not What You Thought, But It’s Good Enough
Go to writing workshops and conferences. Begin to demystify writing and the unrealistic images of being an author. You’ll be around hundreds of people who write every day, publish short stories and novels, and still get cranky when their lattes are too hot. Writing will not save you. Writing is not the best job in the world. It’s a fine choice, but it’s not like marrying Brad Pitt. You are not headed for fantastic sex (sorry) and tons of self-esteem. You are headed for a journey.
If all else fails, write a truly scary death bed scene in which you have never written and one of your grandchildren asks, “How come?”