Harnessing the Power of Fear

Writers live with fear. The fear of sitting down at a keyboard for the first time or the tenth time or the hundredth times. The fear of having no ideas or too many half-formed ideas. The fear of beginnings that go nowhere, sagging middles, and anti-climatic endings. The fear of having the manuscripts we’ve labored over rejected by agents, editors, reviewers, and readers. The fear of succeeding barely or not at all. The fear of being dropped by a publisher, failing at marketing, failing at anything and everything involved with being a writer (traditional, independent or hybrid).

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And then there’s success -- seeing people reading our books on airplanes, getting rave reviews, winning awards, making movie deals, earning a really good living doing what we love. Success would be wonderful. But what if we got to the top and then burned out? What about stalkers and lawsuits? What about forgetting who we are and alienating family and friends? What about never having time for “a life” again?

Writers are blessed with lively imaginations and, thereby, cursed with the ability to envision all of the demoralizing, humiliating, dream-crushing events that could happen when we decide to write. We try to ignore the fear or work through it. We talk to family, friends, and other writers.

At our best, we feel the fear and do it anyway. We sit down, we write, we give what we’ve written to other people to read. We go out and do what we have to do. We know that it is better to let fear energize us than to be paralyzed by it. Fear of failure motivates us to take classes and attend workshops and do what’s needed to become better at our craft. Fear of rejection makes us dig down and do the hard work – the rewrites, the revisions, the polishing. Fear of obscurity gets us out of the house to do a reading or a signing or to attend a conference when we’d rather be tucked away at home by the fire. Fear of what would happen if we became successful leads us to plan ahead, to think about the kind of writer’s life we’d like to have – and, equally important, what we don’t want.

Among the writers that I know, one of the important transitions that each of us experienced was the moment when we claimed the identity of “writer.” This was particularly challenging for those of us who have “day jobs” that we want to keep or can’t afford to give up. But until we overcame the fear of claiming this identity, we were unable to take the steps that were required to become professionals. Saying “I am a writer” releases all of the pent-up energy that can then be turned to doing the tasks required to succeed.

But still we fear. Whether novice or veterans, obscure or successful, writers fear. Knowing that we are not alone helps. For some perspective and words of wisdom:

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1995).
Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear (Holt, 2003).

Frankie Y. Bailey is a mystery writer and a professor in the School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany (SUNY). Her academic research focuses on crime history, popular culture/mass media, and material culture. She has done research and written about topics ranging from local history and women who kill to African American characters in crime and detective fiction. She is currently at work on a book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice. She is the author of two mystery series, featuring crime historian Lizzie Stuart, and Albany police detective Hannah McCabe. Frankie is a past executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. A dog lover, she now shares her home with a Maine Coon cat/mix named Harry.

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  1. Great guest post offering insight in what it means to be a writer. Thanks so much for featuring her and her latest series mystery today.

  2. Thank you for inviting me to contribute a guest post. Great website.


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