Ep 181: Write to Discover the Courage You Need to Confront Your Fears
Ralph Keyes observes in his book The Courage to Write, “The trail of literary history is littered with those who fell along the way because the anxiety of trying to write paralyzed their hand”1.
If you’ve begun to reflect on troubling, traumatic memories, you’ve likely encountered fears. Some of those fears are personal and some, professional.
Digging for personal truths almost always leads to increased anxiety in the life of a writer. Keyes notes this causal relationship:
The closer they get to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what they might reveal but about what they might discover should they venture too deeply inside. To write well, however, that’s exactly where we must venture. Melville admired most the writers he called “divers,” those who dared to plunge deep inside and report what they found. Frederick Busch thought this need for inner exploration was what made novel-writing so daring. “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”2
Keyes profiles several “diver”-authors, each willing to go to dark places because they knew they needed to steal the trophy and get out. The first person he first highlights is E. B. White.
The Fears of E. B. White
As a child, White was scared of darkness, girls, lavatories, speaking in front of people, the future, and the “fear that I was unknowing about things I should know about.”3
His anxiety didn’t dissipate in adulthood, either; it simply shifted. He grew up to fear that “the brakes would fail on a trolly” or that he would collapse on the street, and he continued to fear public speaking.
White also worried—to the point of obsession, it seems—about his writing. Keyes said, “He rewrote pieces twenty times or more and sometimes pleaded with the postmaster of North Brooklin, Maine, to return a just-mailed manuscript so he could punch up its ending or rewrite the lead.”4
White said, “I am not inclined to apologize for my anxieties, because I have lived with them long enough to respect them”5. White not only respected his anxieties, but he also seemed to funnel these fears into his projects—working them out, as it were. His readers can clearly see fear exhibited in such characters as Stuart Little and Wilbur the pig.
He risked negative responses to his work each time he sent off a project to be published. This added to his anxiety—no wonder he pleaded with the postmaster!
E. B. White wrote to discover his fears.
However, he also wrote to discover the courage he needed to confront those fears.
The Courage to Confront Fear
Merriam-Webster’s definition of courage is this: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.6
Courage, then, isn’t the absence of fear. We discover the courage we need when we venture in, when we persevere, when we write despite the fear—whether or not we write about the fear itself.
Keyes believes “[a]ll writers must confront their fears eventually. The sooner they do this, the better their work will be.” He also clarifies that the courage we need to do the work doesn’t mean we “conquer” our fears.7 In fact, he seems to agree with Steven Pressfield’s claim that to silence Resistance, which includes anxiety and fear of all shapes and sizes, we must do the work.8
“Working writers aren’t those who have eliminated their anxiety,” writes Keyes. “They are the ones who keep scribbling while their heart races and their stomach churns, and who mail manuscripts with trembling fingers…. They learn how to keep writing even as fear tries to yank their hand from the page”9
Keyes goes on to suggest that anxiety is a necessary element of a writer’s life, arguing anxiety energizes our work, infusing it with truth and energy absent from safe, surface-level writing. “Trying to deny, avoid, numb, or eradicate the fear of writing is neither possible nor desirable,” he says. “[F]ear fuels excitement.