Fear of Writing: Is it a Gene?

Copyright © 2002 Milli Thornton

Courtesy Lightsource

Courtesy Lightsource

SOMETIMES I’M TEMPTED to think that fear of writing is a gene I was born with. This is confusing when I look around and see that many other writers were not born with the same gene.

Ken Goldberg, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of Peter Squared, was a practicing clinical psychologist when the surprise inspiration for his first book came to him in a church pew in 1995.

“I never saw myself as a writer before that day. My talents were always in math,” Goldberg said, during a recent guest stint in the Fear of Writing chat room. “I still work full time, and that does hold back the pace with which I can write my next book. But I don’t experience writer’s block at all. I’m able to boot up my computer and use even 20 minutes productively. Before I came on for this chat, I had about an hour and a half and wrote 3,000 words.”

“Jaw dropping,” our chat moderator typed in response.

“The key,” Goldberg continued, “is to never worry whether what you are writing any particular day is any good.”

Seawind, one of our regulars, spoke up next. “I wish it were that easy. How do you still the inner editor who has a big derogatory mouth?”

Goldberg: “I don’t have that inner editor.”

Seawind: “I’ll give you mine.”

During this exchange, I saw the familiar gulf between writers who have the gene and those who were born without it.

One day about two years ago when my boyfriend was speaking on the phone to his accountant, he mentioned that I was putting the finishing touches on a book called Fear of Writing.

“That’s me!” the CPA almost shouted.

Brian put me on the phone and the CPA’s story tumbled out. He had left home heartbroken at the age of thirteen and lived on a knife’s-edge for the next several decades. As an adult, he lived not just a double but a triple life, and his adventures— hair-raising, tragic, often bizarre—belong in a movie. He’s long wanted to write the story of his life as a fictional novel, but could not bring himself to write more than the opening paragraph.

“If I can’t write like Wally Lamb, it’s too scary to even begin,” he declared in his heart.

The years ticked by and the CPA felt unfulfilled.

“I’ll write my story when I retire,” he promised himself.

When I heard this, I couldn’t rest.

“Don’t wait until you retire!” I said. “You may just put it off forever at that rate.”

I knew this truth intimately because of all those years when painful hormones surging from my fear of writing gene caused me to hide from my own creativity.

After hearing the basic storyline for the CPA’s novel, I designed writing exercises to elicit scraps of manuscript. We met in a coffeehouse every Tuesday at 7 a.m. and, as each written exercise was added to the previous one, the CPA saw that his novel was emerging.

The most intense case of the fear of writing gene I’ve ever heard of came to me just last week. I have a form on my website [Editor’s Note: this refers to the old website] called “Your Anecdote” where writers can submit anecdotes about their fear of writing.

Although I receive plenty of fear of writing confessions verbally, no one had ever submitted this auto-form since it was uploaded to my website almost two years previous. So when the Your Anecdote box popped up in my email program with a submission from J.M. (as I will call him), I was riveted.

Starting in the first grade, J.M. had severe panic attacks whenever he was expected to write anything more than his name or a one-word answer. Muscle spasms, pounding pulse, nausea, sweating, the desire to flee.

J.M. excelled at multiple choice tests but when it came to essay questions, term papers or book reports, he went into a blind panic. Although an avid reader and a lover of learning, J.M. flunked high school English twice because he refused to turn in written work. The anguish involved in writing was simply more than he could bear.

J.M. says he would have pursued a doctorate if colleges didn’t require that one impossible thing: written compositions. Instead, he went for a career in electronics, where he held a 4.0 GPA for the first several semesters of his associate’s degree—until the teacher requested a written project report. At that point, J.M. dropped out of school and considered suicide.

For years after that, J.M. found ways to circumvent the fear of writing gene. He fixed helicopters in the U.S. Army and served in the Gulf War. He worked as a security officer, forklift driver, copier repairman, and computer technician. By his own admission, he has purposely pursued careers where writing would not be involved.

“So here I am,” he finished. “I can’t even put together a résumé. This is the only thing I’ve written since.”

Some might say that J.M. is better off without writing, or that his panic indicates his unsuitability for a career as an author. But his writing on the auto-form was real and deeply moving. And his dream is to write a science fiction novel or perhaps a techno-thriller.

Everyone deserves a shot at his or her dream. Touched that J.M. felt safe enough at my website to pour out his story, I asked him what had made this possible.

“I’d just finished watching Finding Forrester. A line in the movie said, ‘A writer writes.’ So I started by answering your request for experiences on the fear of writing. It is one of the few subjects I have a deep understanding of.”

It seems rather sad to me that, given the vulnerable dreams of people like J.M. and the CPA, some writers can be cavalier at the expense of others. A journalist who reviewed my workshop in a large city newspaper couldn’t help but show off his superiority.

“The Fear of Writing Clinic is for those who want to eliminate the so-called writer’s block,” he wrote. “As the author states in a press release, ‘Fear of Writing is about expressing yourself.’ What was I thinking?”

It was probably a lot easier for the journalist to toss off these snide remarks than it was for a woman called Rebecca to come to the Fear of Writing Clinic that weekend. Rebecca was so timid about her writing, she shook noticeably when she read her workshop assignment to the group. Afterwards, she scampered away like a frightened mouse.

In my opinion Rebecca showed great courage, while the journalist merely used his position of power to belittle the struggles of others.

Writers have the power of the written word. Let’s use our positions of power to strengthen one another in our creative dreams. The closet writer you encourage today (including yourself) may be the published author you congratulate a few years hence.

And that’s a positive for everyone.

Reprinted with permission from SouthWest Sage, the newsletter for SouthWest Writers

Fear of Writing . . . putting the fun back into writing!

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  1. Pingback: Reclaiming Creative Courage | TalentDevelop

  2. Bloggoneit

    JM’s constant struggle to write brought tears to my eyes. Absolutely heartbreaking that he avoided his dream for so long. If he’d only had some help and understanding along the way, he may have been the original JK.

    Any idea about what happened to him? And did Rebecca come back?

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