Writing through the Fear

Years ago, I had the opportunity to work with the Alex Haley Estate to write a novel on the life of Madam C.J. Walker, The Black Rose.   I had access to papers, letters, documents and transcripts Haley had compiled while he was researching his novel before his death.

I wrote The Black Rose with research from the Alex Haley Estate

In one transcript, Haley was getting a pep talk from a relative, akin to “You can do it!”  I wondered if Haley had felt daunted by his success after Roots.  How do you follow up an international blockbuster?

That pep talk stuck with me.  There I was, a young writer trying to write my first historical novel on a tight deadline in partnership with a beloved author’s estate, and I felt gripped by fear each day.  I stared at Madam Walker’s photo for inspiration.  I thought about my parents’ civil rights battles in the 1960s.  Whatever it took.

You can do it, I told myself.   Haley’s pep talk could have been for me.

Fear touches all of us, and it can be crippling.  Fear is also sneaky; it whispers to us in a voice that sounds very much like our own.

I’ve wrestled with those voices nonstop while I’ve been working on my current writing project, tentatively entitled Blood Prophecy, the fourth book in my African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep.  Each new book feels like a lot to live up to.

Here’s what happened recently:  With an eye toward the deadline, I expanded my outlining process by creating index cards for my remaining scenes.  I was writing an especially difficult portion of the book—a reintroduction to the colony of immortals in Lalibela, Ethiopia, that first appeared in The Living Blood,  entering my fantasy realm more deeply.

And my writing was speeding up.  Considerably.  My page quotas from the early pages felt slim compared to my new marathon writing sessions.  I was on fire!

This is CRAP! my voice shouted to me.  You’ll have to throw it all out.   Slow down.

It was a Friday afternoon, and the inspiration seeped right out of my head.  The characters—who had felt real enough to hear and touch a moment before—morphed to mere symbols on a page.  It looked like a mess.  I still had two more hours before my son came home, but that brought the end of my writing day.

You can guess what happened next:  I read the Friday pages over the weekend, and they were fine.  First draft, of course, ripe for texture and tweaking, but the revisions came easily.  And quickly.  And I’ll have plenty of chances to revise it later.

I had psyched myself out of a stellar writing day because I got scared.

Fear has stopped me before.

After I wrote The Between, my first novel, it sat in a drawer for a year because it had been rejected exactly twice, by a contest and a mega-agent.  I convinced myself it had been only an exercise, that it wasn’t good enough.   A year later, when I got the confidence to begin submitting, I found an agent immediately…and she sold it in two weeks.

As a writer, my fear has manifested in many ways, always slowing me down.

And I’m not alone.  My husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, surveyed 300 writers on what they most wanted to see in a writing course.  The top answer had to do with addressing fear.  (His free course, “The Seven Faces of F.E.A.R.,” is available at www.diamondhour.com.)

No matter how many times I undergo the cycle, once in a while my fear voices fool me.  In book after book, I have to remind myself to ignore the voice that says that whatever I’m writing won’t measure up to my previous work.  It’s so unfair to compare first drafts to finished books!

I can only imagine how Alex Haley felt.

But I’m happy with the progress of Blood Prophecy.   I’m having a reunion with old characters, and learning more about new ones.

And I’m writing it as fast as I can, without fear.


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15 Comments

Filed under On writing

15 responses to “Writing through the Fear

  1. Fear has kept me from completing 3 unfinished manuscripts. I’ve had 4 bestselling novels, 2 anthologies and a very successful memoir but I can’t seem to move forward because of the fear of being rejected or told its not good as the others.

  2. tamica darden

    Thank you.
    Fear has held me back for a long time now, I fight with it daily. It’s good to know that I am not the only one and that in the end it is a worthy fight.

  3. Oh, honey…have you nailed it with this one. I remember seeing Lynch’s Dune, never having read the book until then so I’d “get” the movie. “Fear is the mindkiller” and the attendant ritual phrases to defeat it spoke volumes to me. I think dealing with so much fear in my own life is what has made it the major theme in so much of what I write.

    If I’ve learned anything over the years, it is that nothing in my life, no matter how bad — and there has been much bad — has never been as bad as what I feared would happen, and that the horrific events my imagination could unfurl never materialized.

    It’s taken years for me to be able to sit down to write without fear, and often writing is the place I hide from my fears by immersing myself in my characters’ anxieties. What I fear most now is losing that!

    Not that the voice of doubt doesn’t creep in to self-critically savage something I am working on from time to time, but as with meditation, as you point out, the answer is to slowly and gently point yourself back in the right, or “write” direction… 😉

  4. I don’t even try to conquer my fear. I just accept it and write despite it. So it’s like voices are screaming at me, “You could fail! You could fail!” And I say, “Yes, I could,” and keep on trucking.

    I’m okay with being afraid, but I’m not okay with not doing something b/c I’m afraid.

  5. Louis Gray

    Dear Tananarive

    I had no idea you had those transcripts and was commissioned to do this great work…actually I couldn’t think of anyone better suited for the task.
    Will this book include any mention of apocryphal tales of Ms. Walker’s beginnings? or will it be strictly a factual telling of her life story?
    Deacon aka Louis

  6. This is a lovely, well written reminder that each time we sit down to write, we’re starting all over again–we have the opportunity to create–and so that terrifying yet intoxicating feeling never leaves us.

    Thank you for posting this!

  7. I am so grateful to you and Steven addressing and opening up about the issue of fear. It can be so debilitating! But reading your post and the comments I’m thinking it is about balance… learning how to manage it in a way to make it work for you instead of against you. Not an easy task by no means, but necessary if we are to LIVE this life of ours. I have had experiences where fear snatched me out of a joyous moments (and make me hesitate to fully embrace my creativity) and it has angered me enough to make me seek ways to manage it…which led me to your hubby! ‘Cause like Ernessa…fear might never completely go away, it may make me pause, but I never want to make me stop.

  8. Pingback: Weekly Round Up – 08-14-10 :Maurice Broaddus

  9. Fear is so often dismissed as weakness that we’re tricked into thinking there’s something wrong with us that it exists in us…when the only wrong is letting it limit us…that’s why my mantra is feel the fear but do it anyway…thanks so much for acknowledging that even among accomplished writers like yourself fear is a reality, one that has the power to cripple us if we let it, the trick is not to let it.

  10. Fear and perhaps self deprecation keeps us from moving forward. Sometimes the leap of faith feels like a suicide mission and then you land softly and are able to say “That wasn’t bad. Maybe I’ll try again.” To know we are worthy of doing well is so very important. This post is so very important. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  11. A friend of mine has given That Voice its own persona. That way, whenever he sees a film that has 2% in common with the latest screenplay he’s working on and starts freaking out, he can recognize, “Oh, that’s just Bob going off again.”

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