Excerpt

If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.

Cynthia Ozick

1: Writing as an Act of Courage

E. B. White was the most graceful of writers. A generation of imitators tried, but seldom succeeded, to match his casual self-assurance. We liked to imagine White up on his New England farm dashing off lighthearted essays and charming books for children when he wasn’t slopping hogs or chopping wood. In fact, White worried over every word. He re-wrote pieces 20 times or more, and sometimes pleaded with the postmaster of Brooklin, Maine, to return a just-mailed manuscript so he could punch up its ending, or re-write the lead.

In addition to being a consummate re-writer, White was a gifted procrastinator. By writing long letters and puttering about his farm, he often managed to avoid the trauma of writing altogether. When the Paris Review wanted to interview him for their “Writers at Work” series, White said he’d be better qualified for one on “Writers NOT at Work.” White later told his friend James Thurber that he considered himself “the second most inactive writer living, and the third most discouraged.”

This would have surprised readers of his essays. To them, E. B. White was a courageous interpreter of the world’s vagaries. That wasn’t how he saw himself. After the president of Dartmouth College paid tribute to his “literary bravery,” White thought, “he little knew.” Dartmouth’s president made that remark while conferring an honorary degree on the nation’s favorite essayist. This was a rare occasion in which White had been lured from his farm onto a public platform. As he sat there, White later wrote his wife, “the old emptiness and dizziness and vapors seized hold of me … Nobody who has never suffered my peculiar kind of disability can understand the sheer hell of such moments … ”

Elwyn Brooks White had a lifelong fear of making public appearances. In his elementary school, students were called on to recite in alphabetical order of their last names. White spent long, agonizing hours dreading his fate as classmates whose names began with the alphabet’s first 22 letters strode to the front of the room. Recitation wasn’t his only childhood fear. Other things that scared White included darkness, girls, lavatories, the future, and “fear that I was unknowing about things I should know about.” Although he outgrew some of these anxieties, others took their place. White’s fear of school bathrooms was replaced by concern that the brakes would fail on a trolley taking him up or down a hill. When he no longer needed to fret about reciting in class, White worried about collapsing on the street. By adding and subtracting fears this way, he kept himself in a steady state of anxiety. “Much of the story of the life of E. B. White,” wrote biographer Scott Elledge, “is the story of how he has come to terms with his fears … ”

The most effective strategy of all was to turn them into stories. White’s books for children conveyed a tone of apprehension with the sure voice of an expert. Stuart Little found Manhattan no less frightening than his creator did. Wilbur the pig, in Charlotte’s Web , was as scared of dying as his literary parent (though with more justification). The best of White’s work had an edgy flavor that demanded readers pay attention. Joseph Epstein has pointed out the many anxious, almost macabre elements in White’s deceptively “light” essays: a hen house consumed with “contagious hysteria and fear;” “faces desperate in the rain;” “the fierce bewildering night.” One of E. B. White’s best essays — “The Second Tree From the Corner” — described a White-like man named Trexler who consults a psychiatrist about his crippling anxieties. Unable to answer the psychiatrist’s questions, Trexler nonetheless leaves his office feeling unburdened, “unembarrassed at being afraid; and in the jungle of his fear he glimpsed (as he had so often glimpsed them before) the flashy tail feathers of the bird courage.”

White personified courage by being so willing to sail boldly into the squall of his own fears, commenting on the trip as he went. That’s why we took to him. This man seemed at least as anxious as we were, but more willing to own up to it. “I am not inclined to apologize for my anxieties,” he once said, “because I have lived with them long enough to respect them … ” When it came to his calling, White wrote eloquently about how much courage it took to write. “A writer’s courage can easily fail him,” he commented while accepting an award from the National Book Committee. “I feel this daily.”

In his simplest testament of all, White said, “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”

A Dangerous Career

The saga of E. B. White tells us something about writing fears and the courage to write. On the one hand, anxiety is inevitable among those who put words on paper for others to read. On the other hand, fear can be transcended, can even be made part of the writing process itself. Doing this takes courage. Few authors would dispute that. In talking with writers on this subject and reading about them, I’ve discovered that their attitude differs little from E. B. White’s. John Cheever called the attempt to write seriously “quite a dangerous career.” Katharine Anne Porter thought that for writers, courage was “the first essential.”

Before I began writing for a living, it hadn’t occurred to me that courage was part of the job description. I knew this calling took skill, imagination and persistence, and hoped I had these qualities. By working at a newspaper I’d learned some basics of my craft. With savings and a few contacts among editors, I set out to be a free-lance writer. I outfitted myself with a thesaurus, a style manual, and a brand new Smith-Corona typewriter. Now it was just a matter of getting down to business. Or so I thought.

Only after my tenth sleepless night did it dawn on me that there might be more to this business than recording good words on paper. By the time I started my first book, there was no escaping the fact that anxiety had elbowed its way into my office to sit beside me, scrutinizing every word I wrote. Much of this anxiety showed up in disguise. It expressed itself as stomach trouble, irritability, and restlessness. During toss-and-turn nights I’d jot notes on a pad beside my bed (like marijuana-inspired brilliance, such notes were seldom of any use in the light of day). Seven-day weeks became routine as I tried to build walls of research and rhetoric strong enough to protect me from marauding critics. When a friend offered me a relaxing massage to ease my obvious tension, I turned the offer down from fear that getting too relaxed might keep me from finishing my book. I had trouble even thinking about anything other than getting the book done. Doing so might destroy my concentration, I feared. Taking a weekend off, or even spending an evening with friends might break the writing spell forever. Then I might never return to my desk. I’d no longer be an aspiring writer. Instead I would be revealed as an impostor: someone who said he could write a book but couldn’t.

I did finish that book (We the Lonely People: Searching for Community ), but doubted I’d do another. Why endure such trauma again? Yet within the year I was writing a second book, and three years later, a third. I’ve now been through this process eight times. Along the way, I’ve learned three things. One is that I’ll survive; finish the book and live to write another. Second, I’ll regain my sanity (such as it is). Finally, I’ve learned that a rising tide of anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a sign that I’m getting serious. Nervousness keeps me alert. Fear forces me to focus, and work longer hours. Restless nights mean I’m gaining momentum. The end is in sight. Getting there isn’t always pleasant. Neither is running in a marathon. Or staging a play. Or climbing a mountain. All such activities take courage. And all reward those who complete them not only with an unparalleled feeling of achievement, but a thrilling sense of adventure.

Writers sometimes compare themselves to explorers. John Ashbery said that for him, the excitement of writing poetry lay in going to new places. Heidegger called writing “a voyage of inner discovery.” Any writing worth doing is a trek into the unknown. Writers never know where their pen or keyboard will take them. “You go in with a certain fear and trembling,” said James Baldwin of writing books. “You know one thing. You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over. But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.”

The longer I write, the more my admiration has grown for those who set out on this journey. They are apprehensive and should be. Writing is a daring act. Any time we put so much as a word on paper we’re in jeopardy. (Suppose someone thinks we could have chosen a better one?) Whoever writes for public scrutiny is subject to a form of what psychologists call “performance anxiety.” Polls routinely confirm that public speaking is our number-one fear. (Dying ranks sixth, according to one such poll.) Writing is merely public speaking on paper, but to a much larger audience. For some, writing to publish is even more daunting than speaking in public. Spoken words blow away in the wind. Published ones last as long as the paper on which they’re printed.

A psychologist I know named Bryan makes a good living giving lectures. In the world of public speakers writing a book is considered a first-rate marketing tool. An author who speaks has far more panache than a speaker alone. Bryan knows this. He wants desperately to write a book, and not just as a marketing tool. There are things Bryan has to say that he’d like people to read: about the environment, family issues, and social ethics. So far he hasn’t been able to put them on paper. This man can electrify thousands of listeners when he gives a keynote address. He does so dozens of times a year. But whenever Bryan approaches a typewriter his fingers rebel. They refuse to convey messages from his brain to the paper. It’s as if some bio-chemical reaction triggered by looking at a blank page destroys every synapse in the writing center of his brain.

Bryan has lots of company. The trail of literary history is littered by those who fell along the way because the anxiety of trying to write crippled their hand. Many non-writing writers are gifted. The best writers I know teach school and sell life insurance. Some still plan to write, “some day.” Others have given up altogether. Their block doesn’t lie in the area of ability, or skill, but of nerve.

“You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer,” said Margaret Atwood, “an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.” Few of her colleagues would disagree. Yet too many writers think it’s their shameful little secret that they’re scared. That’s simply not so. Fear is felt by writers at every level. Anxiety accompanies the first word they put on paper, and the last. “I write in terror,” said Cynthia Ozick. “I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.”

Its psychic demands make writing an exercise in courage little different from climbing a sheer granite cliff, or skiing down a steep slope. This often surprises new writers. No literary neophyte doubts that hard work lies ahead. Most realize that certain skills must be mastered to compose a coherent text. They hope their intellectual gifts will allow them to produce work of substance. The real shock is discovering how demanding writing is not just of their skill, talent and work ethic but of their valor.

The Great Unspoken

My friend Cal recently completed a short story. Cal had taken a writing class, gotten tutoring from his teacher and joined a writer’s group. More importantly, he wrote. The results were promising. I’ve read worse stories in print. Would he try to get his published? Cal said he was thinking about it. He’d gone so far as to collect the names of magazines, but hadn’t sent his story to any of them.

Why not, I asked?

“I’m too scared.”

During a quarter-century as a writer and teacher of writing, I’ve heard hundreds of variations on this theme. An inability to write, finish a piece of writing, or put completed writing in the mail is routine among those who want to see their words in print. Had they known that all writers are anxious — but that writing fears are predictable, and manageable — perhaps more discouraged writers would be writing today. Although crippling anxieties are as much a part of the writing process as punctuation, they also are a Great Unspoken.

The huge database Nexis has only 12 references to “writing anxiety.” By contrast, Nexis has well over 1000 citations for the term “writer’s block.” There’s a reason for this. Calling an inability to write a “block” suggests there’s just some obstruction down the line that can be cleared with a literary Roto Rooter. According to one school of thought, writing blocks are primarily due to faulty technique. In other words, blocked writers simply haven’t learned their literary lessons. That’s a promising premise. The notion that writing problems can be solved by learning how to choose better words and move more smoothly from one paragraph to the next is reassuring. One more course and I’ll be writing away.

But writing problems aren’t that easily solved. Few result from ignorance alone. Most writers know the basics of their craft: show, don’t tell; use active verbs; be sparing with adjectives and adverbs; make effective use of detail. It’s important to learn and re-learn these lessons. Yet there’s a limit to how much mastering writing rules can do to improve prose or poetry. In the long run, learning techniques does far less to improve our writing than finding the will, the nerve, the guts to put on paper what we really want to say.

Unfortunately, there is not much help available to do this. Most writing courses and books only strike fear a glancing blow. They rarely address the crippling inhibitions that keep even gifted writers from getting material out of their head, onto paper and into the mail. According to University of Iowa Writing Workshop graduate Bonnie Friedman, her seminars there dealt with words on the page, but not how to find them. Among the key questions she and her fellow students never asked was: how to write despite fear? Where to find courage? “‘Courage’ is from the word for heart,” said Friedman in her book, Writing Past Dark . “School had little to do with heart, and everything to do with technical perfection.”

Even programs and books that do acknowledge how daunting writing can be usually advise anxious writers to just roll up their sleeves, sharpen their pencils, and get busy. The obvious advice for anyone intimidated by writing fears is: “Don’t be scared. What are you afraid of? Just do it!” Such exhortations are offered most freely by those who aren’t up on the high wire themselves (i.e., teachers, editors, critics). But there are genuine, serious and understandable reasons to be anxious about writing. Advising writers to ignore their anxiety and forge ahead is like telling a 10 year-old who’s about to get a shot: “There’s nothing to be scared of.” That kid knows better. So do aspiring writers.

When I lecture on writing fears, listeners usually sit up straight and pay close attention. This has nothing to do with my speaking ability and everything to do with their personal stake in this topic. Most know exactly what I’m talking about. They know because they’re so eager to write, and so anxious about the prospect. At the same time they can’t imagine that anyone else feels the same way, let alone published authors. As we’ve seen, writing fears are nearly universal. But because they’re seldom discussed openly, we feel alone with ours’. Much of the paralyzing fear of writing is due to the fact that its power isn’t dissipated by opening windows to air this subject out.

Courage vs. Fearlessness

That is this book’s goal. It deals openly with writing fears because these fears are so seldom acknowledged, leaving each of us to feel we’re the only one who has them. Considering directly how scary writing can be, and why, can do more to facilitate writing than a dozen classes on technique. All writers must confront their fears eventually. The sooner they do this, the better their work will be.

Finding the courage to write does not involve erasing or “conquering” one’s fears. Working writers aren’t those who have eliminated their anxiety. They are the ones who keep scribbling while their heart races and their stomach churns, and who mail their manuscripts with trembling fingers. The key difference between writers who are paralyzed by fear and those who are merely terrified is that — like E. B. White — the latter come to terms with their anxieties. They learn how to keep writing even as fear tries to yank their hand from the page. They find the courage to write.

We often use the terms “fearless” and “courageous” as if they were synonyms. In fact they’re closer to antonyms. Mark Twain defined courage as “resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.” General Omar Bradley called it “the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.” In The Courage to Create , Rollo May pointed out that existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre all concurred that courage didn’t mean the absence of despair; rather it meant “the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.”

Trying to deny, avoid, numb, or eradicate the fear of writing is neither possible nor desirable. Anxiety is not just an inevitable part of the writing process, but a necessary part. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing. No message in this book is more important. A state of anxiety is the writer’s natural habitat. Yet those who live there are seldom bold. Bullfighting Hemingways and Africa-settling Dinesens are the exception among writers. Most seek adventure only in their own imagination. Like most of us they’re brave here, timid there, trying to muddle through, to sneak enough good words onto paper before a surge of anxiety erases their literary hard drive. At the same time they’re driven to seek attention, and must peddle their wares to the public. This leads to a psychic conundrum that writers often note in themselves; “a combination of an almost obscene self-confidence and an ongoing terror,” John Barth called it.

To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. Nor is it paradoxical to be both scared and thrilled by the prospect. Kids on skateboards and writers at their desk share the same insight: fear fuels excitement. Writing is both frightening and exhilarating. It couldn’t be one without the other. The best writers exploit fear’s energy to billow the sails of their imagination. They convert anxiety into enthusiasm, and an unparalleled source of energy.

The Power of Positive Anxiety

In my writing classes, there’s one student I always look for eagerly. It’s usually a woman. She sits close to the door, to make for an easier getaway. This student seldom says much. She often accosts me after class to say she’s about to drop out. Why? “I’m too scared,” the woman tells me. “I can’t do it.” I always urge that student to stick around. I know she’ll produce some of our best work.

During one workshop, a computer programmer named Julie kept warning me that she was about to jump in her car and drive back to Pittsburgh. Luckily for us, she didn’t. When assigned to write a profile, Julie spent two hours circling the home of an artist she’d chosen to portray, working up the courage to knock on his door. The visit she described was filled with the spilled turpentine, half-squeezed paint tubes, partly-smoked reefers, and empty matchbooks that brought her subject’s surroundings to life. Julie wrote about this artist’s studio with the acute awareness of a victim in a torture chamber. To her that’s just what it felt like.

Students such as Julie have already won half the battle: they’ve lifted the lid of their defenses to let anxiety bubble up to the surface. If they can then use that anxiety to fertilize their work, writing may be in their future. A willingness to confront the fear of putting words on paper is an excellent basis for becoming a writer. “My students often told me they didn’t have anything to say,” reported the University of New Hampshire’s Donald Murray in his book Shoptalk . “They were silent. Empty. They felt anxiety. Panic. Terror. ‘Good,’ I’d answer. ‘You are a writer. You are at the place from which writing comes.'”

We can’t eradicate our writing fears. Nor would we want to. They’re what make writing so challenging, and satisfying. That is this book’s premise: that anxiety is a normal, manageable and even useful part of the writing process. The book is divided into two sections. Its first section considers different types of writing anxiety, analyzes their causes, and assesses how fear influences our work. The second section suggests ways not only to write in the face of fear, but to enlist its energy in the cause of becoming a better writer.