I started writing fiction seriously when I was fourteen. By “seriously” I mean with intent to create a finished story through characters and plot.
Let me clue you in here. The stories I wrote as a teenager were terrible.
Fortunately at the time I did not understand that so their terrible-ness never became an obstacle to my ability to write them. For me the stories were great because I could write what I wanted, stories that spoke to me, ones that emerged from the images and desires churning in my mind.If looked at from this other angle, those stories were excellent because they provided the apprentice work I needed to start learning the writing skills I could use later.
In those days, writing for myself and with a sort of blissful ignorance about the world beyond, I unthinkingly carried my courage with me. In some ways I envy that state of mind now.
These days writing and I struggle; we wrestle, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad. Doubts carve chasms at my feet; fear lofts as high as mountains; at times I can’t see the other side even though I know I have made the journey many times.
What kind of courage does it take to write fiction?
Some might answer: None, not if you are just writing a story for yourself, not if no one will ever see it except you.
But having the courage to write fiction is not just about the prospect of sending fiction out in the world to make its own way. It isn’t just about making ourselves vulnerable by asking others to read (and judge) what we have written. It isn’t just about daring to submit a manuscript for publication, however risky and scary that can seem both because you-the-writer might fail but also because you might succeed.
I like to think of any given person not as a single discrete and thus finite entity but as a multiplicity of ever-shifting selves. Because we can continually grow and change, we are never static, and thus we are in constant communication with our past selves, our current self and its versions adapted to the various niches and corners of our lives, and our anticipated future iterations who are themselves capable of branching into infinity.There is a lot of cross-talk in our heads. Wherever ideas come from (and I really don’t know), they arise out of and in conversation with the deepest levels of this chatter. These wellsprings contain some of the purest and clearest expressions of our inner selves, the waters we want to tap for our most expansive creativity.But that chatter can create a lot of fences, too, ones we keep slamming into when we thought we were promised open ground running all the way to the horizon.
I don’t actually know how to give me, or you, or anyone the courage to write fiction. I don’t fully understand courage; probably after years of wrestling I have a better grasp of fear and anxiety.
So here is what I did many months ago when I had fallen in a crevasse of painful and despair-encrusted doubt whose icy walls seemed to give me no purchase for climbing out:
I made rungs of my fears.
I wrote them all down. It took me a couple of tries because I was reluctant to admit to the ones that impeded me most, the ones that dug hardest and most cruelly at the core of my sense of worth and respect and confidence. Then I stuck them on a sticky-note underneath my keyboard.
I don’t mean to suggest that doing this exercise will automatically remove all doubts. For one thing, that didn’t happen for me and I expect it never will happen. For another, people work in such varied ways that no one tool suffices for all.
Finding the courage to write fiction sometimes means finding the courage to fully admit the staggering range of your doubts and fears, and to see them for what they are: an expression of a part of yourself so entangled with your ambition and creativity and drive that the two can never fully become extricated.