I'm not afraid of writing, but I am afraid of publishing

Some nameless fear stands between me and my desire to be heard.

Published February 28, 2007 12:15PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Maybe it's frustrated writers week in your column, but reading the writer who didn't want to write compelled me to write. However, unlike that writer, I have no problems writing. I'm terrified of publishing.

To explain a bit about my situation -- I've written my first novel. I'm quite proud of it. Although it's not perfect (does any writer think their work is ever completely "done"?) it does express something I find interesting, and if the feedback I've gotten from my writers group is any indication, others find it interesting too. Is it going to change the world of literature? No. I'd be very surprised, if I ever did publish it (a huge "if," I know), if more than a 100 people ever bought the book (and I'd largely suspect my family and friends of buying those first 100 copies).

The thought of publishing the novel terrifies me. However, I do long to be published. I would not be happy just writing for the sake of writing. I want to write to be heard. It's just that I'm afraid of being heard, as much as I want it.

I don't think it's the rejection that bothers me. I know publishing is a harsh business. But I've been rejected before and while painful (the sound of my ego crushing is never a pleasant thing), I know I can get over it. No, I'm truly terrified of success. I'm terrified of doing well. I'm not completely sure why. Maybe it's because I've had a series of jobs where I did well enough to get a paycheck but disliked the actual work I was doing and the thought of doing something I like is overwhelming. Maybe it's because I've idolized writers for so long that the thought of joining those ranks (maybe not in quality but just by sheer fact of publishing) is mind-boggling.

The thing is ... I don't get fearful very often. Rarely, in fact. I was never one of those people who got terrified about going to college (where I was an average student), or getting married, or moving a few hundred miles away from my family and friends for my spouse's career. So this becoming increasingly terrified of something I want is confusing me -- both that it's happening and in figuring out how to cope with it.

Have any suggestions?

All the best,

A terrified would-be published writer

Dear Terrified,

I don't know why you are reluctant to be published. I do have a couple of general beliefs about fear, and about writing. One is that when we say we are afraid of something, we may be using a general term to stand in for a specific but undiscovered -- or unadmitted -- object. To be afraid of "love," for instance, or "success" is to be afraid of particular things, including the emotions we might have, and the obligations we might incur, multifarious and varied and taxing. "Publishing" is not a discrete experience, but a collection of experiences. It is a life circumstance that creates many possibilities, both pleasant and unpleasant. So it is helpful to consider the object of our fear in detail, examining each component.

In our inner cinematic representation of "getting published," there is perhaps the early morning phone call from a mogul in New York. The mogul is standing at a window high above the city, looking out at the buildings at sunrise. Perhaps the mogul is wearing a cape. That would make it even better. The mogul tells us that our novel is being published, that it is a work of great distinction. The mogul thanks us for making the work.

That is not the moment you fear. It is perhaps some other moment -- when you open a review and find the words "ill-conceived" and "banal" applied to your novel. When you read someone's public assessment of your writing ability as "minimal at best." Perhaps the reviewer, a stranger to you, even insults you personally or makes fun of you, inviting readers to laugh at a passage you thought was clever or touching. And maybe you see, suddenly, that he is right, and you feel as though you have been brought out on a brightly lit stage and exposed, accused and convicted. That is a moment to fear. There is also the fear of being invited into a crowded room where people you admire but have never met speak easily and knowledgeably to each other, laughing about matters you scarcely understand, and ask you for your opinion about a book you have not read. You have some half-chewed pâté in your mouth. It was spread thinly on a dry cracker. You are unable to say anything sparkling, and before you can finish chewing they have turned away. That is also a moment to fear.

These moments may happen. They have happened to many others. They are unpleasant. But they can be survived. For some writers, the fear of publishing would involve more threatening events: The writer might fear, with good reason, being shoved into a van and beaten, being put in prison and tortured, having his family murdered, being forced to sign a confession for crimes he did not commit. As weighed against the necessity of expressing yourself and being heard, your fears, whatever they are, are of minimal importance. Since you say you do not want to write just for yourself, that you want to be heard, there is only one choice for you: You must expose your work to the public. The way to do that is to submit it to publishers.

In doing so, you might consider my other general belief about fear -- that it accompanies us through many necessary and desired tasks, like sweat, or flies. It is not something to base a decision on, any more than the rain is. It sometimes must simply be borne. There is nothing you can do about it. You just continue. If your fear makes it difficult to submit your work to publishers, then you must find reinforcement for action: Make a schedule, commit to working with a friend, do the "Artist's Way," etc. There are many practical aids to accomplishing tasks that fear would otherwise prevent you from accomplishing.

But writing and publishing are different things. They can be antithetical in their aims -- one to gain self-knowledge, the other to gain power in the world. Although you say you want your voice to be heard, and though some may say that writing solely for oneself is pointless, I have grave misgivings about using writing as a way to make a living. I have discussed this elsewhere: Putting your writing to the service of supporting you economically can work against the true aims of your writing. If your writing, for instance, aims to deconstruct or obliterate the world, then to force your writing to please other people can be harmful to a process that for some reason is necessary for you, spiritually or emotionally or artistically. Perhaps you need to obliterate the world in order to discover obscure connections between things that are invisible to others. Perhaps you need to write incomprehensibly for a period of time. To write incomprehensibly may be helpful to you as a writer -- to write gibberish, to free-associate. If we must always write only for the immediate comprehension of a broad cross section of people, then many possible expressions are eliminated from consideration. There may be times when you do not want to write for publication, but only for yourself, to discover something.

You don't have to publish. It's perfectly OK to write simply as a personal discipline; writing is fulfilling as a practice, like gardening. You may like to garden but not every gardener enters contests. I like to garden but I don't dream of making a living at it or showing my garden to people for their review and criticism. It's personal. It's my garden. I don't want to hear what you think about it. How can you disagree with a garden? It's a garden.

The garden shows me to myself. Writing shows you to yourself. It may be more valuable to you than to others. That's fine. People don't need to see you or me reflected back at them as much as they need to see themselves reflected back at them. If people would spend more time doing their own writing and reflection, and looking at how they themselves appear in words, they would probably be happier and acquire more self-knowledge, and we would be happier too, because they wouldn't be writing mean letters to us. Their own writing would be infinitely more valuable to them than our writing is. They'd be sitting, contemplating the way their own lives are reflected back at them in their daily writing, and they would see themselves in a new way, and possibly gain some compassion for themselves. They might also encounter some of the technical difficulties of making work that is accessible and meaningful to others, and thereby gain some measure of respect for the craft.

What is useful is to ask what "publishing" really means to you. Name your emotional hunger. Do you envision yourself on a stage receiving a prize, hearing speeches full of praise for your work, seeing the admiring faces? Do you envision the mogul in New York phoning you from an office high above Manhattan? Do you crave that? And what are your fears? Do you fear reading a negative review? Do you fear asking for an opinion and getting an uncomfortable silence? All these things are possible. But they can be borne. They are like the weather. So I urge you to name your fears. Name your hungers. Be exhaustive and specific.

And then do it anyway.

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