Fear Management for Storytellers

It’s Walsh Week here at A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, with the final Top 10 Blogs for Writers guest post, by Therese Walsh, author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy.

Therese and her co-blogger Kathleen Bolton have established a reputation for themselves as The People to Know out here in writer-bloggerland. With a zillion (I counted them) interviews and thirteen monthly contributors—professionals from all over the writing and publishing community—their blog Writer Unboxed is absolutely my dream site to bracket this series of guest posts, first and last. (My first Top 10 guest post, Three Layers of Layering in Fiction, went up on their site way back in the end of January.)

It’s been great fun getting to know all these bloggers for writers over the past two months, trading posts with them and learning about their sites, their voices, their knowledge of the field. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all of them for their fellowship and contributions.

And with no further ado I present to you the grand finale:


I remember being on a long car trip with my family. I was sixteen, my sisters were eight and four. (Yes, that’s a gap!) They were bored, restless, making my parents crazy, and I don’t remember how it started—if it was my mother’s idea or my own—but I began to tell a story.

Once upon a time. . .

I had no plan, and I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, but I remember my sisters being completely mine. Focused on every word, every twist in the tale. Fifteen, twenty minutes passed this way as I threw together words, sentences, concepts, and grew characters on the spot. I freaked out a little bit at one point, like a pilot-in-training who just realized the teacher had suddenly passed out, leaving the pilot alone—alone!—in the cockpit with no idea what to do next.

Then what happened? my sisters wanted to know when I grew silent, but I’d already grounded that plane.

Larry Brooks recently stated that publishing is like toothpaste that can’t be put back in the tube. So is storytelling. I’d had a taste of it, and it was addictive.

I’d also had my first taste of fear. What am I doing? I’m not a storyteller, I’m faking it. This is just a game anyway, it doesn’t matter. Beneath all of that, a truth: I’m afraid I can’t finish this story, tie it together in a way that makes any sense, so I’m going to stop right now before something embarrassing happens here. The End.

Life happened. I took a job with Prevention Magazine as a researcher, then began writing short nonfiction articles for them. My daughter was born. I read to her a lot. And then that old addiction crept up on me. I began writing picture-book manuscripts. When my story ideas grew longer, rangier, I decided to try my hand at adult fiction. And I loved it. I was back in the pilot’s seat, soaring and happy. Maybe I’d crash, maybe I was a fraud, but who would know? There was no audience in my office: It was just the computer and me. Six years later, a happy ending: my debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was purchased by Random House.

And here’s the kicker: two-book deal.

This was a good thing. A great thing. A dreamed-for thing. Something no debut author in her right mind would whine about after being plucked from the masses by Random House. But you know what went through my head, right?

What am I doing? I’m not a storyteller, I’m faking it. I’m afraid I can’t. Along with some new fears: The second book nearly kills every author. What if my agent and editor hate what I write? What if readers who loved the first book hate the second? What if it’s too different? Too similar? My contract says it’s due in two years; what if I need another six? What if I fail?

But a contract is a contract. I worked. I tried to intellectualize a process that for me is typically ¾ pantsing, and felt worse for it. I conducted research, wrote outlines, used literally hundreds of index cards to capture ideas as they came to me, then wanted to toss them all when it was time to organize those thoughts. I alternately felt convinced my work-in-progress was viable and there was no possible way it could be. And though I continued to write, and some days sat in front of my computer for the majority of my waking hours, the words were slow to come. It felt like the definition of a writer’s hell; I was battling a fierce case of resistance.

I overcame it, and I’m going to try to explain how, though I won’t pretend to understand all of it.

  1. I confronted the possibility of failure.
  2. What was the worst thing that could happen if I failed? I would have to pay back my advance. I would be unhappy with the message I would send to my children. I would lose credibility with my peers. I would have to reevaluate my future. I sat with those possible realities for a long time. I wrote them on paper and stared at them. Long enough, maybe, that something inside me said No. Not acceptable. That’s when #2 happened…

  3. I gave myself over to the work.
  4. My schedule essentially became this: Wake up. Sit down. Write. Don’t edit. Just labor. Until it’s time to get the kids. Then sit back down. Write some more. Ask hubby to pick up Chinese food. Eat. Sit again. Write. Maximize my time with my family. Sleep. Rise with the sun. Repeat. This immersion technique meant most of my analytical and creative processes were focused on this story. I worked hard to find answers to story problems, ID’ed routes around barriers that might’ve made me doubt the viability of my story as a whole. I began to love my story more fiercely—believe in it all the more, too—as characters came fully to life. It was a positive cycle: work, find problem, solve, be rewarded with new character insights, repeat.

  5. I shut the door. . .
  6. There were too many people in my head—and I don’t mean my characters. I mean reviewers, readers and the publishing professionals who helped turn my debut into a book. I had to consciously recall what had helped me complete my first story: there was no audience in my office—it was just the computer and me. I went inward like that once again.

  7. . . .but I remembered that I was not alone.
  8. Second novels happen all of the time. Anxiety over the second novel is common. So common that I was able to derive comfort from knowing that plenty of other writers had successfully overcome this type of resistance. My favorite inspiration? Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech on nurturing creativity for TED. (Olé.)

I recently turned in the complete draft of my second story. I made my deadline. And while there’s still work ahead—edits, and all that comes after—those initial fears have vaporized.

Writing is hard work. Before you’re published, when it’s just you and your story, writing is a little like flying a plane with a pilot by your side. You’re pumped on adrenaline, full of adventure, but you also feel safe. Signing that first publishing contract is like receiving your pilot’s license. You are cleared to fly, baby. But you will still ground yourself and your stories if you give too much power to your fears. Regardless of contracts, of readers and reviewers and all of that, what worked for me was remembering the most sacred and singular of all writing relationships: the one that exists between storyteller and story.

How do you quiet your inner voices to focus on your work? Have you battled back your personal fears and won? I’d love to hear about it.

Write on!

Therese Walsh is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed—which, if you don’t already know about it, you should—and can also be found on Twitter. Therese’s debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was published in 2009 by Random House.

23 thoughts on “Fear Management for Storytellers

  1. Fabulous article and, as I wend my way toward the finale of book 2, very timely. I still wrestle with the fear-apparition on occasion, but I’m getting better at the “don’t think, just do” approach. Thank you so much for sharing, Therese!

  2. Laura Drake says:

    Oh Therese, thanks so much for this post! I know if you feel this way still, it’s okay for me to! I think everyone feels this way – someone once said writers are egomaniacs with self-esteem issues, and I’m not arguing with that.

    Great common-sense solutions to a sticky problem. I’m printing them for when I have this problem!

  3. I think insecurity happens in most if not all writers. I still get it even after years of being on the radio! For me, I have to believe in the work otherwise I flip out and react in all sorts of ways! I also swing back and forth between confidence and fear especially when writing! Thanks so much for the post! It lets us know we’re definitely not alone!

  4. Vaughn Roycroft says:

    Such a great analogy about the flying with a pilot before you’re published. But now, with every step forward, even the thought of that toothpaste coming out of the tube can through me into a paralyzing tailspin of fright. Working on a second, and even though I’ve yet to publish, I need to fend off the paralysis.

    Great suggestions on giving yourself room, and shutting the door, to fight resistance. And, I must say, you and the WU gang have been a godsend in helping me to remember I’m not alone.

    You have my appreciation and admiration, Therese! Good luck with the rest of the process with your second, which I know will be as brilliant as the first!

  5. Such a wonderful post, Therese. Fear is a hungry beast and I, too, have found the best way to tackle the gnarly thing is to stay as close to the writing as I can possibly manage and ignore the constant knocking of expectations, uncertainties, and persistent voices. Crikes, but writing is difficult enough on it’s own without having to drag around extra baggage.

  6. Erika Robuck says:

    I love that you’ve tackled your fears and plugged through. I also love the thought of you telling stories to your sisters in the car. If you ever get lost, or stuck, or second guess yourself, put yourself in the car and start talking. 🙂

  7. Heather Webb says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m inspried by your six year journey just to finish your first novel and land a deal, let alone your persistence to complete book two! I think most writers can relate to the whole “I’m a fraud” feeling. Good luck with the process for your next novel. I can only hope I’m lucky enough to walk in your shoes with Random House. 🙂

  8. Thank you for having me as a guest, Victoria, and for your kind words.

    Linda, “don’t think, just do” is exactly right. If you ignore the fear, it loses its muscle, shrivels up.

    Laura and P.I., you are definitely not alone.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Vaughn!

    Fear is a hungry beast and I, too, have found the best way to tackle the gnarly thing is to stay as close to the writing as I can possibly manage and ignore the constant knocking of expectations, uncertainties, and persistent voices. Well said, Barbara.

    Erika, you are sweet and brilliant. I’ll try that trick the next time fear tries to swallow me up, thank you.

    Heather, sending you lucky vibes; I’d like to see your name on the spine of a book. (And I see by your recent post on Revisions that you’re on the road. Keep on keeping on!)

    1. Victoria says:

      You’re very welcome, Therese! You’ve been just charming to get to know. And your post is heartening to all my clients, I know—where you are now is where they all hope to wind up, and it always helps for someone to forge the path ahead. . .someone like a big sister. 🙂

  9. Kristan says:

    Wonderful post from a wonderful lady! Just this week I think I’ve conquered #2 and #3, and I’ve never, ever, EVER been happier with my writing. I have to remind myself of them every day, but it’s worth it.

  10. Fear is a constant enemy always telling me the sentence won’t work or the imagery is not detailed enough or that metaphor sucks. “Don’t think, just do” is a tool that my mind must learn to use against the enemy. To head it off before it can come against me. April will be the month when me and Fear have a show down. I’ve challenged myself with a Write Everyday For 30 Days Challenge to get myself to a point where I can write without thinking or worrying how good it is. Somia Simone said you have to “give yourself permission to write complete crap”. Hopefully that won’t happen but at least I’ll learn to not think and just write. Thanks for the article and the great motivation.

  11. Mallory Snow says:

    Therese, I love the story about your sisters! I really think writing is in us from an early age and you’re right–once the toothpaste is out, you can’t go back!

  12. Therese,

    Such a great post, with a poignant reminder that, no matter where we are in the process (of writing or publishing), getting back to the basics is key.

    “…the most sacred and singular of all writing relationships: the one that exists between storyteller and story.”

    I just love that.

  13. Thank you so much, Therese! This is perfect for me; I often think about this, but I have to force myself to realize that, at least until that first novel’s published, it should just be me and the idea. No one else.

    Funny thing – I just wrote up my next blog post about prewriting, and I mentioned several of similar ideas as you did here. I guess there are some universal writerly truths. 🙂

  14. Kristan, I’m glad to hear that you’re in The Zone now (at least it sounds as if you are!). That’s so important.

    Robert, I applaud your 30-day challenge! I’ll subscribe to your RSS Feed to watch your journey. (And don’t worry about writing crap; that’s what editing is for.)

    Thank you, Mallory and Christi!

    Veronika, I’ll look out for your post. I agree about those universal truths.

  15. franb says:

    Thanks, Therese. Great post. Only one thing I’m still puzzled about…”How do you know when it’s fear OR actual need for more preparation?” I am definitely not a pantser. I like having my plot written as scenes on note cards before I write a draft. But I seem to keep upping the pre-requisites for being ready to write and I can’t tell if I’m procrastinating or if I really have to work a good portion of the plot out first. Is there an answer for that??? Thx.

  16. Hi Fran,

    I think this is a case of writer-know-thyself. If you suspect you’re procrastinating, chances are you are. In past drafts, did you *need* to have everything–beyond each scene on a note card–laid out for yourself? (I seem to need a certain amount of wiggle room while I’m plotting or I get bored and feel boxed in while I’m writing.)

    Fear is often the result of never having succeeded under a particular set of circumstances before. Maybe call your reluctance to write “fear,” then force yourself to press ahead with your current note cards but no additional detail. What’s the outcome? If you succeed, how do you feel? Still have the urge to jot more notes, or are you compelled to press on?

    I do think we writers need to be self-exploratory and self-critical in these issues. Understand how you work best, understand what slows your down, know how to call bullshit on yourself (I mean this for everyone), and learn how to push through. The only way I know of to figure all of these things out is through experimentation.

    I hope that helps! Best of luck to you.


  17. Therese, I think having these fears just makes the destination that much better. Fears can either immobilize us or drive us into action. You tackled yours and came out intact on the other side.

    You should be proud and, obviously, based on your memories of car rides and little sisters, storytelling is your calling. So glad you faced your fears!

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Hallie!

  18. I call that The Ursula Complex. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and finding it easier to overcome. Such a devil.

    1. Cindy, I’m glad you’re overcoming your Ursula Complex (love that!). Go you.

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