How Fear (and Loathing) Kills Writing Creativity – and What to Do About It
Hunter S. Thompson was obsessed with it, I think it’s fair to say. But Thompson’s idea of fear wasn’t the same as yours or mine – no creepy, crawly spiders or getting dizzy on the top of a ladder.
No, his Fear was something much more profound and insidious. It was a metaphor for all the ugly, loathsome, stinking things in the world that threaten truth and beauty. Reportedly, the first time he used the term “fear and loathing” was in a letter he wrote after JFK was assassinated, so that may give you some idea.
His first published use of “fear and loathing” appeared (probably not coincidentally) in his first piece of Gonzo journalism, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Then, of course, there’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, probably his most famous work.
Incidentally, he never talked about fear of writing as far as I know. Which may lead to you ask, quite rightly, well then what the hell?!? Why not talk about the writers out there who do talk about fear of writing?
Two reasons, both of which I’ll get to in a moment.
The Fear of All Fears
But first, let’s talk about fear when it comes to writing. All writers have felt fear at some point or another when they sit down to the blank page. For some, it’s a vague, dull ache. For others, they’re acutely aware of why they’re afraid – and why it’s stopping them from writing a word. But no matter what flavour your particular fear is, it ultimately freezes you up and kills creativity.
Here are some of the fears we face, some obvious and some not:
Fear of failure
Fear of success
Fear of embarrassment
Fear of putting yourself out there
Fear of not knowing what comes next in the story
Fear of having to write a second book if this first one takes off
Fear of ruining an idea
Fear of wasting time
Fear of not putting enough time in
Fear of feeling like an imposter
Fear of being too big for your britches
Fear of not being good enough
It’s this last one that is the most important one – perhaps we could call it the Fear of All Fears. Every fear listed above it ultimately circles back to a deep core fear that you’re not good enough. Not only that, there’s the pressure of trying to compete against other, “much better” writers. (Much better, at least, in your mind…! We are our own worst critics.)
The possible exception in this list is “fear of success”. But really, I would argue that ties into imposter syndrome because you’re constantly afraid of being “found out” despite your success, which in turn circles back to the fear of not being good enough.
With this negative feedback loop of fear, it’s a wonder we get anything written!
Thompson’s Fearless Writing
So why talk about Thompson if he didn’t fear writing? Because there is a lesson in his own fearless approach to facing The Fear. We all get scared. That’s human. But doing something about it – that’s heroic.
“...like a thing that might have to be killed.” Isn’t that deliciously vicious? Because, of course, the Fear does need to be killed.
I also bring up Thompson because he wrote the first half of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without thinking about it – just completed in one sitting. (That’s the legend, anyway. The semi-official version is that he did some light editing before the final went out. But still...) Here’s a book that’s considered to be a classic in certain circles that is essentially a first draft.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone could – or even should – submit the first draft of any novel. But writing without thinking is definitely something we should all be doing for the first draft.
Here’s one secret to writing without thinking: simply remind yourself that nobody has to ever read your work. And if nobody is going to read it but you, that means your free to just write and write and write.
Now, I know you’re going to ask, “But what if I want to publish it? Obviously someone is going to read it. What then, Mr. Smarty Pants?”
And I’m going to answer, “Yes. You can publish it if you want. You can give it to someone else to read it if you want. But that comes later down the road. When you’re ready. With a conscious decision and a polished draft. Right now, only you are going to read it. No one else. So write whatever you want, however you want to write it, safe in the knowledge you’re writing only for you.”
Key Takeaway: It’s easier to be fearless in your writing when you remind yourself that no one has to read it but you.
Fun Writing Exercise
Get a blank piece of paper or whip open your laptop. Write down all the things that will go wrong in your life if you fail at writing your next short story, poem, piece of creative non-fiction, or whatever else you’re about to write. And I mean everything that will happen if you screw it up.
You get arrested.
Invasion from outer space.
The garbage truck will just swoosh by your house on the next pick-up day.
Now, write down all the bad things that will happen if you mess it up a second time. Two nuclear wars? Maybe your house caves in. I don’t know. Bonus points if you can name the number of nasty Facebook comments you’ll get about this unpublished gem, too.
Read the list over. Study it. Laugh at it. Crumple it up and throw it away or delete it.
Then, start writing for 20 minutes about whatever you want in this whole wide world. This is something that you’re never going to let anyone read, so go crazy. Don’t forget to come back and tell us how it went in the comments below.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
Here’s Thompson reading the ending from his first published book, “Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs”, talking about fear turning into exhilaration and finding The Edge. (Jump ahead to 5:07 if you want to skip right to that line.)