Hi writers! Welcome back. I hope your new semester is off to a good start and that you are setting yourself up for success.
Today I’m going to be talking about something that comes up a lot with my coaching clients, and that is ways to manage fears around writing.
Notice that I said “manage” and not “get rid of.” I’ll come back to the reasons why very soon.
This episode is inspired by a coaching session I just had with one of the members of my Get It Published Group Coaching Program.
But before I dive into things, let me just take a moment to appreciate this amazing group of 13 first-time scholarly authors.
Most are women of color and first-generation college students—two groups I am ultra-dedicated to serving.
They range from postdoctoral fellows all the way up to deans of colleges.
They come from fields as diverse as history, science and technology studies, sociology, political science, criminology, and childhood studies.
We met weekly from early June to mid-August, and the level of commitment that these women brought was unreal.
Not only did they complete book proposals and make connections with editors, but they also churned out articles like you wouldn’t believe.
One member who had not been able to prioritize writing for the past few years submitted three different journal articles over the space of two weeks!
And people made huge amounts of progress even though they were dealing with things like getting Covid, moving across the country to start a new job, and traveling around the world to do fieldwork.
There is just something about social support and community with others who get what you’re going through that can provide fuel for your fire when it comes to writing.
I’m going to come back to this point.
So getting back to the topic of today’s episode, one of the main things that holds people back from writing their book is feeling terrified.
And although the word “terrified” may seem dramatic, the client I just worked with used it multiple times to describe her feelings about working on her manuscript.
This fear had kept her from taking the first step of printing out her dissertation and re-reading it for the past two years.
My view is that fear arises when your inner critic is trying to protect you and keep you safe.
As I’ve talked about before, your inner critic has positive intentions even when it’s making you feel anxiety and self-doubt by telling you horrible things about yourself and your writing.
The truth is that you can’t fully get rid of your inner critic.
Also, there are times when it’s been extremely useful to you and helpful in getting you to where you are now.
So knowing this, I want to talk about 4 strategies you can use to manage your fear rather than try to rid yourself of it entirely.
So what are they?
For a lot of folks, when they feel fear arising and don’t find a way to deal with it, it can turn into stubborn resistance to doing your work.
#1: My first suggestion is acceptance. This means accepting that fear is a normal reaction to doing anything new that has a lot of personal meaning or feels like it has high stakes for your life.
For a lot of folks, when they feel fear arising and don’t find a way to deal with it, it can turn into stubborn resistance to doing their work.
They start to associate negative feelings with writing.
So they can end up doing things like procrastinating, prioritizing teaching or other more short-term research projects, or not letting anyone see their work until it’s “perfect” to avoid feeling these fears.
Does this sound familiar to any of you? I’ve definitely experienced all of them!
But how different things might go if we just accepted from the outset that what you’re doing is inherently scary and that’s okay.
For me, having written two books on my own, and now I’m working on a third sole-authored manuscript, I can say that book writing can be truly terrifying.
But also, feeling fear is no reason to stop doing it.
There’s a quote I like from essayist Brianna Wiest that goes,
“Remember that the minute you take your first step into the life of your dreams, the first to greet you there will be fear. Nod. Keep walking.”
Accepting that fear is a natural part of the process rather than something that you need to push away or eliminate gives you the space to work with it instead of against it.
Okay, so you’ve accepted that you will sometimes feel fear when you’re working on your book and there’s nothing wrong with that. Now what?
#2: My second suggestion is for you to investigate the inner messages that underlie your fear. What exactly is it that you’re afraid of?
This is where it’s incredibly important to drop into our bodies rather than just try to understand things in a cerebral way—like we are used to doing as academics.
Your body is constantly giving you messages and advice that, if you actually listened and took seriously, can lead you down a path where you’ll be feeling better sooner.
So when you feel fear, pay attention to where it’s coming up in your body.
Is it tension in your chest? Do you get a headache or a migraine? Is your stomach upset and twisted in knots?
Focus on the sensation, and then pretend that this part of your body has its own thoughts to share with you.
Imagine holding a microphone up to the discomfort you’re feeling and listen for the messages.
It might tell you things like, “slow down,” “breathe,” “relax,” “protect yourself.”
It might also critique you. Here are some common critical thoughts people have when trying to write their first book that can manifest as fear:
- You have no idea what you’re doing and you’re going to mess this up!
- You are claiming to be a world-leading expert in your field. Who do you think you are and why do you think do you think you’re better than other people?
- If you commit to writing your book, you won’t be able to finish. You’re someone who doesn’t follow through.
- Once your book is out, your ideas will be torn apart by critics. Why not just save yourself this pain by not putting yourself out there?
So once you get ahold of these inner messages, take a step back from them and look at them with curiosity.
You don’t have to believe these thoughts.
Instead, you can reassure your fears that you are safe and that you are figuring things out as you go.
This is the time to do the opposite of what you normally do—which is probably believing the thoughts and feeling demoralized—and give yourself compassion and encouragement to try again.
#3: So my third suggestion is for you to remember all of the times in your life you did something scary that you didn’t know how it would turn out, and it worked out fine or even amazingly.
For example, one of my coaching clients was feeling huge amounts of resistance to writing.
She was afraid her ideas weren’t innovative enough and that she wasn’t enough of an expert to be writing about her topic.
In short, she was judging herself and seeing everything in terms of limitations rather than possibility.
These feelings stopped her in her tracks and she was making very little progress in her work.
So I asked her to reflect on a time when she was terrified to do something but did it anyway and experienced a really positive outcome.
She talked about being a high school student back in her home country in Southeast Asia, and the moment she found out she would be moving to the United States and starting her life over.
She had no idea what to expect but embraced the excitement of this life change.
And as a result of this scary transition, she ended up eventually getting into her dream college, obtaining a PhD, meeting the love of her life, having a child and getting a prestigious postdoc position in the U.S.
I asked her how she got through that time of not knowing.
She reflected that it was her sense of curiosity, openness to new experiences, and treating this phase of moving into the unknown as a big adventure had pulled her through.
We talked about what might happen if she could approach writing with the same sense of curiosity and openness.
What if writing was an adventure with exciting twists and turns rather than an externally imposed burden?
My client then used this metaphor of being an adventurer to motivate herself to write.
And I’m happy to say that over the next six months she was able to get herself unstuck to the point where she published really impactful work and was offered several different tenure-track positions!
So an exercise you can do is to journal about times in your life when you jumped into the void and landed on your feet.
What worked for you in terms of your attitude, your thoughts, and your actions back then?
Now think about ways you can channel some of those things into your current work.
#4: So moving onto my last tip. My fourth point is very simple. Get social support!
Just as we all need people to hold us accountable to our goals, we also need them to empathize and commiserate with us through the process of book writing.
I’ve said this in an earlier episode, but I don’t think I would have completed my first book without being part of multiple writing groups of other folks who were also writing books.
A lot of people tend to keep their writing under wraps and not share their struggles and challenges with anyone else.
In academia there can be a strong sense that you have to look like you have it all together for people to take you seriously.
Not only does this keep you from bonding with others and getting really useful advice and feedback, but it invariably makes the whole process harder and take a lot longer as well.
So this means you need to reach out to other people and form networks of support.
They may only last for as long as you’re writing your book or they might turn into life-long friends.
In the case of my own coaching groups, I know that the reason members are able to make so much progress so quickly is because they are setting goals that feel good to them and that a whole group of people is supporting them in and holding them accountable for.
I’m proud to say that in the case of all three of my previous groups, members have continued to meet and co-work and share their work with work with one another long after our time together is over.
And, I’ll just add, if you want to get more information and details about my next group, which I’m running again starting in January 2023, check out the link on my website!
Summing It All Up
So I hope this episode has given you some tools to manage your fears around writing.
To quickly sum up my four tips:
- Accept that fear is a natural part of doing something new that is important to you.
- Find out exactly what it is that you’re afraid of and reassure your fears that you are safe and are figuring things out as you go.
- Journal about all of the times in your life you did something incredibly scary that turned out great for you. Think about what worked for you back then and try to apply them to your current situation.
- And finally, get social support in the form of writing groups where you co-work and receive feedback from one another (and you can listen to Podcast Episode #12 “All About Writing Groups” to give you some ideas on how to form and run them)
Remember that there is nothing wrong with being scared to do something. It’s how you know you are ready to take up space and play a bigger game.
I’ll be back again soon with some more practical tips to help you write and publish a book that matters.
See you next time!