Writing. If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

etsy print by Andrekart

etsy print by Andrekart

I keep a magic wand on my desk. It’s a simple, unassuming implement made of basswood. I picked it up at a Renaissance Faire a couple of years ago because I liked the feel of the smooth wood and the look of the ash-gray striations that run along its slender length. Also, I didn’t have a magic wand.

I use my wand all the time. I have yet to see it display any overt magical properties, but it is a comforting talisman when I find myself confronted with a writing task that feels beyond my ability. This happens almost every single time I sit down at the keyboard.

I had an honest conversation with some writer friends about this recurring and paralyzing lack of confidence. It was immediately clear that this condition is common among writers. Each of us could relate. Each of us had her own methods for getting past the fear. Whether we chipped away at our anxiety word-by-word, or tried to slingshot past it, each of us knew this chronic ailment intimately.

To be clear, our commiseration was not about suffering from a lack of creativity or battling that shape-shifting foe known most commonly as writer’s block. This was a little different. This was more about feeling like a fraud. More specifically, this was about feeling like a fraud who was about to screw up big time and expose herself as a fraud. This feeling of despair and dread is sometimes called The Impostor Syndrome, and it’s not pretty.

Very often (almost always) when I sit down to write something (an essay, a column, a page of website copy, a case study, a blog post … pretty much anything), I am immobilized by the certainty that I have no idea what I’m doing. Despite the fact that I have been making my living as a writer for nearly seven years, I am sure that the entire experience has been a fluke.

There is a (not so) helpful soundtrack that plays in my head as I sit, staring at the blank page on my screen. It whispers in my ear that the jig is up. It tells me what I think I already know – that there’s no way I can pull off this heist again. The whispering voice marvels at how lucky I’ve been so far, at how gullible my clients have been to accept my work as The Real Thing.

I sit and I stare. The voice rattles on, subduing me with its hypnotic babble. I am sure that the voice is right. After all, here I am – sitting and staring and not writing. Clearly, I have no idea what I’m doing. Clearly I have just been faking it all this time, but my luck was bound to run out and today is the day and oh-my-gods-what-will-I-do-now?!? I type a few words and delete them. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Everything sounds staid, crass, cliched. The whisper is getting louder and louder and …

Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record that has suddenly stopped spinning.

Breathe.

Know that this is completely normal.

You are not a fraud. You are a writer. And this is part of the writing process. At least, it’s part of the writing process for most of the writers I know.

Sure, there are those glorious and golden moments of pure  inspiration when the words fly from your fingers as though coursing through you from some alternate universe where writing is as easy as eating pie. But most of the time, writing is hard. Most of the time, each assignment feels like a new territory and you feel like a lone explorer who is venturing forth without a map or proper supplies or any idea of how to get from point A to point B. You feel like you faked your way here based on false bravado, but now as you stand on the edge of the jungle you’re finally realizing what you’ve promised to deliver and you’re scared.

It’s all going to be okay. Remember – you’ve stood here before and you’ve made it through to the other side. You will do it again.

Each of us has her favorite tricks for hacking past the fear and doubt and paralyzing lack of confidence. Some of us start in the middle. Some of us go for a walk. Some of us set up our page with placeholder headlines and subheads. Some of us read the praise of past clients and editors. I’ve used all these tricks and then some, but the thing that ultimately gets me through a rough start is invoking the thing that scares me most – being an impostor.

Instead of cowering before this supposed flaw, I embrace it.  After all, what is a writer if not a person who makes things up? A writer conjures places, characters, and ideas with words. Why shouldn’t we use this same skill to our own advantage? When I am most stuck, I take “fake it ’til you make it” to a new level. I fabricate a story for myself and I step into it with all the conviction of a method actor. I transform myself into the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I inhabit my role so completely, that pretty soon I have forgotten about the ruse and am thinking only of the words that are flying from my fingers like sparks from the tip of a wand.

That’s when I pause for just a moment and smile to myself. The trick, you see, is not about fooling anyone else into believing I’m a writer. The trick is about fooling myself just long enough to figure out that this writer identity I’ve created for myself is the reality, not the role. I am the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I’d just forgotten my own magic.

69 thoughts on “Writing. If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

  1. amen!!!

    On Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 9:20 AM, Live to Write – Write to Live wrote:

    > Suddenly Jamie (@suddenlyjamie) posted: ” I keep a magic wand on my > desk. It’s a simple, unassuming implement made of basswood. I picked it up > at a Renaissance Faire a couple of years ago because I liked the feel of > the smooth wood and the look of the ash-gray striations that run along its > slen”

  2. I get stuck with my writing a lot. I know how you feel. I am just now (today to be exact) over my slump. I feel energized and ready to write. May I ask, what do you do as a paid writer? I have been trying to find a writing job for the longest time and I have not had any success yet. Keep up the good fight and keep writing.

  3. Fear is our body’s response when we approach or step over the boundary of comfort in our life, but it also is our way of recognizing the stretching of ourselves to become better and stronger, more confident in our abilities. I continue to believe, fear reflects the value of the decision I am about to make. If it was easy what would we risk in doing it.

    • “…fear reflects the value of the decision I am about to make.”
      I love that! And I agree with you – fear is usually a sign of growth. If we just did the same thing all the time, we’d have nothing to fear, but we’d probably get pretty damn bored.

  4. I find the real kicker about Impostor Syndrome is how impervious it is to evidence: having readers post positive reviews of my work doesn’t shake it; having other writers praise the technical skill in a scene doesn’t shake it; even having an author I was a fan of approach me about a collaboration didn’t shake it.

    I get past it with a slightly different pretence: instead of pretending to be an impostor, I pretend my job is volume not quality. As long as I turn up every day and write I have done my job.

    Even a fleeting sense that the work only needs to fill time and page space removes failure as a meaningful concept, so fear I have been getting away with being a failure disappears.

    • You are SO right. The Impostor Syndrome IS impervious to evidence. It’s entirely driven by emotions and the lizard brain. No logic happening there!

      I love your solution – focusing on quantity instead of quality. That’s one way to at least get that first draft hammered out. And from there, it always seems much easier! TKS for the tip!

  5. It is weird how feeling like a fraud can happen so randomly, even more randomly than writer’s block (at least that’s how it goes for me). I don’t have the fear of rejection when I submit something, as I know I can always bounce back now, and that it’s part of the process of publication. The imposter syndrome can really attack out of nowhere, so thank you for your post! 🙂

    • It can be pretty random. You’re right.
      You’re just tooling along, doing your thing, and then – BAM! – you suddenly wonder how the hell you’ve managed to keep up the facade all this time. Crazy.

      Glad I’m not the only one, but hope you’re able to push the Impostor Syndrome to the curb more quickly now!

    • Humility is, I agree, a huge asset. As they say, those who think they know everything usually have the most to learn while those who realize they are always learning are usually the wisest.

  6. Reblogged this on The World of Andy Lawson and commented:
    “Sure, there are those glorious and golden moments of pure inspiration when the words fly from your fingers as though coursing through you from some alternate universe where writing is as easy as eating pie. But most of the time, writing is hard. Most of the time, each assignment feels like a new territory and you feel like a lone explorer who is venturing forth without a map or proper supplies or any idea of how to get from point A to point B. You feel like you faked your way here based on false bravado, but now as you stand on the edge of the jungle you’re finally realizing what you’ve promised to deliver and you’re scared.”

  7. I, too, suffer from this. Glad to know this malady has a name! 😉 Thank you for the much needed kick in the pants…again. It’s kind of like running. Sometimes I don’t think of myself as a runner because I am no longer racing or doing it on a training schedule. And then I remind myself, “You are a runner because you RUN.”

    Thanks…now off to find a wand…

    • Exactly – writing is not a destination, it’s a process and a journey … it’s a way of living. If you write, you are a writer. YES!

  8. I loved your post! You hit it on the head when you said you embrace it! My fears and insecurities have made me strive to be a better writer, more conscious of my words… Embracing all my doubts is humbling… Thanks for sharing

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
      Yes – embrace everything. It’s all part of the process. Be scared, and do it anyway.

  9. THANK YOU for this post! Its timing was perfect. While, as you said, it’s normal for writers to have fear and question ourselves, I’ve spent the last several days questioning my art and doubting myself must more severely than usual. Not sure why! As soon as I read your post’s title, I jumped into the blog and read away, delighted, thankful, and relieved! Your words were a God-send.

    Now, back to the terrifying craft I go!!

    Bless you!

    • Oh! Each of us has those particularly challenging days. Sorry you’ve been in a bit of a slump. So glad to hear that the post helped cheer you up and cheer you on.

      Good luck with your projects and your art!

  10. I also have this syndrome *sigh* it always whispers about how so few people have reviewed my books or commented on my blog posts…I must just be horrid and they’ve all seen through me. I need a magic wand, I usually just do deep breathing and maybe some bass bumping music w/dancing to get my endorphins up.

    • “bass bumping music” <— That always makes me feel better!

      It can be SO discouraging to feel like you're "writing into the void." We put so much of ourselves into our work and when it seems to get swallowed up in the black hole of the Internet, it can feel like we've been swallowed up, too.

      I'm not sure if it's a Zen thing or a Buddhist thing (or a Zen Buddhist thing), but I am always trying to let go of my expectations. I know that can sound a little high-handed, but if you can learn to just do the thing for the joy of doing the thing, the rest of it (eventually) starts to fall into place.

      Hope you find a magic wand! Don't give up!

      • I’m always telling myself not to expect too much, but I can’t seem to get rid of the expectations.

        I’m still looking, so hopefully I’ll find my wand soon!

  11. Oh goodness it’s not just writers. Years ago I heard a very famous architect in a radio interview (curse it but I cannot remember his name) describe his infallible state of terror every time he starts a new project, and the fact that he accepts it as inevitable and employs various tricks to deal with it – and I actually managed to record him saying this, (I was listening on an mp3 player) and kept the sound file to listen to at times whenever I’ve had a particularly bad attack of the symdrome myself as a comforting reminder that everyone doing creative work suffers like this – if, as you say, they’re doing it right. Thanks for a great post. I think I’ll keep it along with the sound file!

    • Hello! How nice to see you, It’s been a while. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing that story. You’re so right. It’s not just writers. It’s anyone who is putting it on the line for art. Even people who we think have “made it” still suffer from the same self-sabotage that beginner’s feel. On the one hand, that can be depressing (we’ll never escape the hard part), but on the other hand it’s kind of comforting to know that we’re all in this together.

      TKS!

  12. Oh I know this feeling very very well.. right about now actually as I complete the final edits on Letter to My Sister. I think I need a magic wand too.. thank you.. there is comfort in knowing I am not the only one.. c

    On Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 8:19 AM, Live to Write – Write to Live wrote:

    > Suddenly Jamie (@suddenlyjamie) posted: ” I keep a magic wand on my > desk. It’s a simple, unassuming implement made of basswood. I picked it up > at a Renaissance Faire a couple of years ago because I liked the feel of > the smooth wood and the look of the ash-gray striations that run along its > slen”

    • Hello, Cecilia!
      You are definitely not the only one. Congratulations on your final edits. That’s really exciting. I wish I could lend you my wand, but – really – anything will do. I bet a #2 pencil has quite a bit of magic in it when wielded properly.
      😉

      Good luck!

  13. I’m getting over a very long slump of just giving up and refocusing that creative energy. It really hurt me, almost killed my relationship (now marriage) and sent me in a depression. Recently I started realigning the creative flow and am writing more often and feeling better for it. I’m not quite at the point of writing for long stretches of time again, but I’ll get there.

    • I’m sorry to hear about the challenges you’ve been facing, but it sounds like you are moving your focus and creative energy in a positive direction. Being an artist of any kind can be a wild ride, to be sure. There will always be times when we need to step away for a while and regroup. I hope your reentry into your writing practice is smooth and energizing.

    • Hello! How nice to “see” you. 🙂
      Thank you for your kind words.
      I’m a collector of smooth rocks. In fact, I’m one of the only people I know who packs boxes of rocks each time she moves. Love them!

      Thanks for coming by.

  14. I love this! I have been focused on business writing for years in my day job, and started my blog to rekindle creativity in my writing (and revive my dream of being a sci-fi/fantasy writer). Many days I do feel like an impostor, especially after reading other people’s wonderful posts. I have to remind myself that this is like riding a bicycle – I’ll feel wobbly sometimes, but I haven’t truly forgotten – the creative writer in me is still there somewhere! 🙂

    • And the more you write, the better you get. I read somewhere once that the best way to learn to write short stories was to write one each week for a year. The logic was that it’s impossible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.
      😉

      Good for you to rekindle your dreams and stretch your creative muscles. You will be zipping along on that “bike” in no time!

  15. Love it. Interesting, my spiritual group is studying Marianne Williamson’s good about our five “magic wands,” inherent power to overcome. Will have to remember to pull them out more often for writing!

    Thanks much.

    • Another magic wand! I love it. 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to leave such a nice note.

  16. Very good blog and very true. What artists need, it seems to me, is ferocity–determination, strength, will. We can’t be stopped by fear, the most natural emotion in the world.

    • “Ferocity” is one of my favorite words. I love the idea of being “fierce” – to me it conveys everything that’s good about being passionate, strong, and – as you said – determined.

      Tks for the addition!

  17. Great post — very uplifting! The part I liked most: “You are not a fraud. You are a writer. And this is part of the writing process.” Thank you for this reassurance — it’s so easy to doubt ourselves when we shouldn’t!

    • 🙂
      I love that my posts inspire so many comments, too, Claudia. It really makes my day!

      Good luck wand shopping. Enjoy!

  18. Thank you so much for the comfort of your piece. I’m pretty new at this because I’ve spent the last 26 years strapped to the chair of the Impostor Syndrome. Your words carry me along. I appreciate it!

    • You’re so welcome. Good luck getting out of that chair and into a better headspace. 🙂

  19. Thank you so much for writing this! I’m new to blogging and I constantly doubt/ question my abilities as a writer. Sometimes I feel like a fraud and that my work is not as “worthy” as other people’s. I think this may have just given me the motivation I needed. 🙂

    • So glad if these words help motivate you on your journey. We only get better with practice, so we can’t let fear or doubt keep us from plying our craft and trying again and again to get it right.

      Welcome to your blogging journey. Enjoy!

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  23. You are by no means a faker. I find your piece very well acquainted with the role you live and look forward to reading more of your very creative and imaginative work.

    • Thanks. I appreciate your kind words.
      I hope you’re enjoying your writing journey – such an interesting collection of topics and ideas on your blog. Talk about opening up to all the possibilities of the future!

      Glad to have you here. Cheers.

  24. Pingback: Mind Block: My 5-Step Guide to Overcoming The Mental Hurdle |

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