The fear of getting back into writing

There’s been a bit of a movement to get back into writing lately. Between the responses from Anil Dash’s Tweet on how he’s been blogging for 20 years and Hunter Walk’s idea to kick off an all-virtual writing club in 2019, it seems that, as we shed elements of our digital addictions, some of us are eager to return to ourselves in a more authentic way.

That’s part of why I initially started blogging again back in 2016 — to revisit that side of myself — first once a month, then twice a month, and now at a cadence which (at least for now) has remained to be almost a daily activity.

And while it’s easy to say you should write and even easy to know the process you might take to do so, there’s something agonizingly painful and paralyzing about even just getting started at all.

This seems to never go away. When I started blogging again, I began sharing stories with my friends from journalism school about how much happier it made me feel, encouraging them to dip their toe back in the water, too.

We’d toss around ideas and throw out possible narrative arcs, structures, and blogging strategies. But sooner or later, we’d wind up back in the same place: Fear. It’s scarier now, we all admitted. It’s hard to say what exactly changed in the 10 years since we’ve all graduated from journalism school, but we all feel this same creative tension. Maybe it’s that we’ve grown older and seen more. We’ve seen women get harassed on the Internet, we’ve watched friends win and lose jobs, we’ve seen great writers who never had a chance to live in the moment they deserve, and we’ve seen good writers claim far more than their fair share of air time.

Or maybe it’s that we were too well-trained for the craft. After spending four years at school stressing about every odd grammar trick and memorizing random rules and conventions as seen in the AP Style Guide, there’s something about writing that loses its heart. It morphs from a meandering pathway of self-discovery into a four-lane highway where one errant lane drift could cost you your life. In other words, the more you know, the harder it is to go back. For many of us, as adults, any sort of personal writing just isn’t worth the risk. We worry about what our bosses might say, what the Internet trolls might discover, or what our friends in J-School may snigger about if they were to see how many habits we’ve let wane over the years.

As one friend put it, “Write?! I don’t know that I can even string together a single sentence today without an emoji in it!”

For me, there was certainly something else part of it that has to do with knowing what great looks like. Once you see something great, it’s so much harder to accept something that’s “just good.” And the older you get, the more greatness you see, and the more timid you become about daring to add your voice to the mix. And so you wait.

You wait and you watch as people start new blogs and then abandon those blogs. You wait and you watch as people start traveling the world and conducting interviews you should be conducting and filming documentaries that you wished you had the guts to do yourself. Every once in awhile, maybe you start up a new essay, a new secret thing that you want to save and keep and show only when you’re ready. Maybe you spend a lot of time on it for weeks or months — your friends even take the time to read over drafts one and two for you. And then that’s where it stays; somewhere in your Google Drive “Drafts” folder.

Let’s not kid ourselves: There are a dozen more like that.

As author Anne Lamott points out, this fear factor in itself is often the worst part of all for writers:

“Many of them have been told over the years that they are quite good, and they want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout — the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias. And especially, the paranoia.”
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

But that’s my favorite part about the medium of blogging. Completion is rewarded more so than perfection. It’s free, it’s simple, and it’s always there when you need it. No deadlines, no word counts, no grammar rules. So if you’re one of the people who’s considering starting up writing again in 2019, I hope you do. We need more authentic voices out there today, now more than ever.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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