Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears

I’ve been reading a lot about fears lately. Not intentionally. But the subject keeps coming up, so clearly it wants to be written about. I guess by me.

Fear #1

I wanted to give myself a break and read something funny, so I chose Paula Poundstone’s book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. I enjoyed her writing so much, I even stuck around for the Acknowledgments. And there it was, staring back at me from the page: fear.

I don’t know how anyone writes for a living. Every writing session is a deep dive into a sea of self-doubt.

If that’s the kind of fear that keeps you from writing, change the subject. Write about something you don’t care quite so much about. Or if you can’t change the subject, change the style: write it from the perspective of a five-year-old. Write it in poetry—in limericks.

Write something that makes you laugh. How can you doubt yourself when you’re laughing?

I do, however, have personal experience with Poundstone’s next observation:

“Once I get going, it can feel exciting and rewarding, but I often have to lure myself with the promise of Butterfingers or raisin toast as a reward for writing progress. It’s a really hard job and can cause weight gain.”

My toaster gets quite a workout when I’m writing for some clients. I think there’s an inverse relationship between carbs and confidence. The more I have of the former, the more I lack the latter.

I need to work on that.

Fear #2

After the Poundstone book, I turned to a book on writing, one I’ve been looking forward to: Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.

I hadn’t even finished the first chapter when…

“As with everything I’ve ever written, I start out paralyzed by fear and frustration.”

Many people mistake fears for writers’ block. But you see? Paralysis is just a natural part of the process. Karr continues:

“The tarantula ego – starving to be shored up by praise – tries to scare me away from saying simply whatever small, true things standing in line for me to say.

Ts’ok. That’s why God gave us delete keys.”

I think you can definitely expect a separate blog post about Karr’s use of language. She’s a poet as well as a noted memoirist. And apparently she fights fears as well.

A few pages later, she clarifies: this paralyzing fear isn’t about writing, per se—it’s about how readers will perceive her writing. She gets the Willits, in other words. But not about whether she’s writing well; about whether she’s fairly representing the other people who appear in her life story:

“The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night. I always tell my students that doubt runs through me every day I work, like the subway’s third rail.”

Okay, let’s cut Paula Poundstone a small break here. After all, her “search for human happiness” is part-memoir. Maybe she’s deep-diving in the same part of the ocean as Mary Karr.

Fear #3

Okay, I don’t really have a third writer to quote here; I just thought “Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears” sounded like a nice title.

I could throw in something from the always inspirational Elizabeth Gilbert, but I’ve written about her work before. If you deal with fear and you haven’t read her book Big Magic, don’t even talk to me.

Well, I have read Big Magic. Several times. But I still get scared. And sometimes I feel paralyzed—not generally about writing. About marketing.

And I’ve heard all the stuff. How it’s just an exchange of information. How you can’t make anyone buy something they don’t want to buy. My latest coach just reminded me it’s just another form of storytelling. And Lord knows I know how to do that.

Doesn’t matter. Every time I run a marketing campaign, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a very narrow diving board—the highest one they have at the Olympics. Maybe even higher. And I’m diving into a pool the size of a teacup. Is it any wonder I get scared?

Liz Gilbert says to talk to your fear-monster. Mine even has a name: MarProk—Marketing Procrastination. But if I forget to give him an alternate assignment before I start marketing, there he is all up in my face talking about the joys of toast and sleep (sequentially, not together) and how little the world needs whatever I’m selling.

Just right

So here’s a reminder to you—and to me—that Goldilocks did eventually find a bowl of porridge, a chair, and a bed that were Just Right for her.

Damn! I just remembered how the story ends. The three bears return home and scare her off. Hmm. Not the metaphor I was looking for.

Time for a quick rewrite:

Keep going and you will find writing work that sustains and feeds you (porridge rather than Butterfingers).

You will find the support you need to do that writing. And comfort in the work, too (the chair and the bed).

And when the bears show up, don’t try to change their nature. It’s their job to be bears; find a way to peacefully coexist with them. And get on with your job:


Transformation: when your window wants to become a sail

I’m in the transformation business. One of the things that excites me most about working with writers is seeing the “afters” from their “befores” as they absorb my feedback and hone their craft.

But transformation can be scary stuff. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not the kind of person who’ll volunteer to be scared. And pay good money for it? No thanks.

not a great transformation
[not my window]
During the big storm that swept up the East Coast recently, a large plate-glass window at the back of my house tried to transform itself into a sail.

Scared? Uh, yes, I believe I screamed. Well, “exclaimed.” With growing urgency and volume each time I saw it bow in. Eventually we found some tape to support it. I’ve been through enough hurricanes to know you’re supposed to tape the windows, but this wasn’t supposed to be a hurricane!

After taping the window, we hung a blanket over it for good measure. My friend said it was to prevent the glass from blowing into my house if the window shattered. I think it was more to prevent me from screaming at each new shape the window assumed. She assured me the window was rated to withstand 100 mph winds—and she’s a builder; I figured she should know.

Transformation & Fear

My friend and I reacted differently to the window’s attempts to transform itself into a sail. I went straight to fear; she saw nothing amiss. That’s the thing with transformation. No two people approach it in the same way.

Something that’s routine for me—like writing—may scare the living daylights out of someone else.

Other people can sell ice to Alaskans (a phrase that packed a whole lot more punch before we destroyed the polar ice caps). But even thinking about selling can render me practically comatose with fear.

How do you move through the fear to transformation?

First, if it’s a rational fear—like shards of plate glass flying through your home to decapitate you—Take Appropriate Action. By the way, the local newscast said winds reached 93 mph in the town next door, which totally vindicated my fear. Then again, it wasn’t 100 and the window remained intact, so my builder friend was right too. But I was right-er. (Not that I’m competitive or anything.)

If it’s an irrational fear—if it’s not going to kill you—then by all means Take Appropriate Action. Action is the only thing that can banish fear.

I know, I know. I hate reading that too. I wish there were a pill you could pop, or a website where you could click a button and the thing you’re afraid of magically gets done for you. But really the thing you need to do is…suck it up and do the thing.

How? When you’re paralyzed with fear, how do you take even one step forward?

Elizabeth Gilbert says to have a conversation with your fear. If you haven’t read her book Big Magic yet, do that ASAP.

And I’m going to offer another suggestion based on my recent experience: Hang a blanket over it. Picture your fear on the other side of a big window and just tape up a blanket. Or draw the curtains if you’ve got ’em. And leave your fear standing outside.

If you’re feeling vindictive, you can imagine your fear standing out in the cold. If you’re a kinder person—and I feel certain Liz Gilbert is a kinder person—give it a lawn chair, a strong SPF sunblock, and a gossip magazine to keep itself occupied while you do that scary thing.

Then Take Appropriate Action

Writing isn’t going to kill you—not unless you do it while hanging off a mountain one-handed. And marketing hasn’t killed me yet. I have no doubt that one of these days, I’ll remember that.

Transformation can seem scary. But the more you can ignore the fear and do the thing that scares you, the less power that fear will have over you. At least that’s what they tell me.

Transform yourself into a more powerful storyteller. Join my one-day Anchor Your Ideas challenge, March 17th. (Blanket over the window optional.)

Thanks, writers.

thanksYes I love my friends and family (and my canine assistant Fenway, too). But when I look through my daily lists of gratitudes, one word pops up more than any other: Writing.

I’m grateful that I get to do it—and for a living, even. So thanks to my clients, and to those of you who read what I write under my own name, here and elsewhere.

I’m grateful that I get to read it—so many writers doing beautiful, important, moving work.

  • If you haven’t discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, you have two seasons’ worth of glorious binge-listening ahead of you. Today would be a fine time to start.
  • And while I’ve always found Masha Gessen’s work fascinating, it’s become even more urgent (if depressing) as the country I love slides toward authoritarianism.
  • David Litt, a fellow speechwriter, made me laugh out loud with his White House memoir.
  • And Elizabeth Gilbert gives me hope. I don’t have a satisfying link for that; guess I’ll have to write about her soon.

And I’m grateful that I get to teach it. It’s a cliché that you learn from your students. But clichés become clichés because they’re true. My writers inspire me with their questions, their insights, their excellent work in a jaw-dropping number of genres. And their courage.

I’m grateful to everyone who writes and pushes their work out of the nest. Thank you for letting the rest of us share your ideas and wonder at your creativity.

So here’s a Thanksgiving blessing for you, my fellow writers:

May your desk chairs be comfy and your WiFi be strong.

I look forward to seeing what we all come up with next.

Need a jumpstart to get yourself writing? Mark your calendars for my next quarterly 5×15 Writing Challenge—December 26th-30th.

It’s not always easy

Oh I talk a good game. I tell you not to believe in Writer’s Block, the Loch Ness Monster of the word world. But just because Writer’s Block is a myth doesn’t mean it’ll always be smooth sailing when you write.

Take today—well, yesterday by the time you read this. I had to add maybe two sentences to a draft I’d been working on. Two paragraphs at the most.

No, it’s really not always easy

Most days I can turn out 300 words in under half an hour, so this should have been a piece of cake.

Cake…yeah, that’s about the only thing I didn’t eat as I tried to avoid my work. Everything seemed to get in the way: the constant rain (I felt trapped inside), the conference calls that punched a hole in my day, the exhaustion that overtook me as soon as the calls were done.

Did I remember all of Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful advice about dealing with fear? Reader, I did not.

Did I remember any of my own wonderful advice about just making your fingers hit the keys, even if all you end up writing is “I have no idea what to write”? Negative.

Did I…yeah I know lists are supposed to have three things in them. But whatever the third thing would be here, you can rest assured I didn’t do that either.

I moped. I pouted. I napped.

I felt like a hypocrite.

It's not always easy

And then I remembered that I’m not a hypocrite; I’m a human being.

So I popped a piece of dark chocolate and I sat my ass down at the keyboard. Well, in my chair in front of the keyboard.

And I wrote what I needed to write.

It may not be the most brilliant work I’ll ever do. But it’s done—and that’s the most important thing.

It’s not always easy. But you can’t let fear silence you.

So write, already.

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Don’t you know you’re a good writer? — Frequent Questions

Q: Don’t you know you’re a good writer?
A: [incoherent mumbles]

Full disclosure—today’s Frequent Question doesn’t come from a reader. But it’s definitely a frequent question: Mine.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve worked with start out thinking they can’t write. And again and again, I find myself asking them some version of the question above.

Their answer, sadly, is usually some variation of No. Nobody ever told me. I had no idea. Are you really sure? You’re not just saying that?

One of my challenge writers posted a beautiful piece to our Facebook group—an insightful essay about creativity and how it takes many bad ideas to generate one good one. Brené Brown would have been proud to write that. So would Seth Godin.

And then in the last paragraph, she called herself a “wannabe writer.” I wanted to cry.

good writer

Another of my writers called herself “a non-writing aspiring writer.” Hard to imagine how that could be true since the “non-writing” writer wrote those words in a writing assignment!

It’s interesting, this need people have to deny what they are doing while they’re doing it.

I mean, if I took violin lessons I wouldn’t call myself a violin player the first time I picked up the bow. But I wouldn’t call myself a “wannabe” violin player either. No matter how squeaky my “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” might be (memories of that 3rd grade Christmas concert still sting), I was playing the damn violin. And if I’d kept at it, I bet I’d have gotten better at it.

The writing you do today may not be as good as the writing you do two weeks—or two years—from now. Or it may be every bit as good. We all have occasional flashes of brilliance balanced my much more frequent flashes of mediocrity. That’s the way creativity works.

But you don’t need someone to anoint a writer. It’s a verb. You want to be a writer? Write.

Everyone wonders: Am I a good writer?

Look, I don’t mean to give you more sticks to beat yourself with. So you’ve wondered if you’re a good writer. Who hasn’t? But please, please, please don’t let that stop you from writing.

Every time you make words come out of your fingers—on a keyboard or with pen and paper—you are writing. And it’s a verb—remember? If you write, that makes you a writer.

Self-confidence deserts everyone from time to time. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic:

“Creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it.”

If you haven’t read that book, go buy it and spend just 15 minutes reading it right now.

Because you need to hear things like this:

“You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.”

Of course, as I see it that’s not 100% accurate. You do need permission from one person: Yourself.

And that’s one of the main emotional issues we tackle in Writing Unbound. Getting out of our own way, giving ourselves permission to use and develop the talents we have. Claiming the title of “writer” because—say it with me: It’s a verb.

I write.
We write.
Therefore we are writers.

So here’s the first thing I tell the people in Writing Unbound: Whenever you start to write something, put these words at the top of the page:


Eventually you’ll believe it. And then you get to modify that sentence:


Just keep writing every day. Don’t let anyone stop you.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

“How should I use research?” — Frequent Questions

Q: How should I use research when I present? Don’t people need to see it?
A: That depends. Do you want to get them in action or put them to sleep?

I’m a hard-core researcher myself. I once wrote a 40-minute presentation with over 500 footnotes. The footnotes weren’t on the slides, though; they were in the script. And the client didn’t read them—they were just there in case anyone asked. This particular client was famous for talking off the top of his head and I wanted the audience (his clients) to know he’d done his homework.

Okay, I’d done his homework. Which may be verboten in academia, but in the business world it’s, well, business as usual.

use research, and cite your sourcesI use many quotations when I’m teaching. It’s in my DNA; I grew up reading primary sources. And I always cite the author and work it comes from on the slide, as you can see. When I’m giving a speech or guesting on a podcast, I’ll also prepare a resource sheet for my audience with a list of books I mentioned and URLs of any web-based resources.

I don’t like having my clients speak with slides. So if I wanted to use that quotation, I’d have my client say something like:

As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her book Big Magic—quote—”Creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it.” Gilbert is talking about creativity, but I think it’s true in any endeavor.

The second mention of the author’s name serves as an “unquote.” It also reminds the audience again what her name is—a little speechwriters’ trick.

Can I ever use research?

Of course you need to use research. And source it properly, or you cross the line from “using research” to “plagiarizing.”

While dissertations bristling with footnotes may bring all the academics to the yard—or the quad, as the case may be—in the “real world,” you need to integrate your research seamlessly into your presentation or your writing. You need to—and say it with me, regular readers; it seems to be the theme this week—

Tell A Story.

I’ve been there. I once labored for months over a piece of writing—for myself, not for a client. I researched the hell out of this thing, drawing material from places obvious and obscure. I committed to send it to a friend and set a deadline for myself, so I would actually finish it. The day after I emailed my precious piece to my friend, I re-read it. And saw…

It was garbage. It read like I’d written it for an academic journal. Nothing wrong with that, but I had intended it to be entertaining. Definitely missed the mark there.

I sent my friend another email:

“I just re-read this thing and it’s terrible. And that’s not false modesty. Don’t waste your time reading it.”

A few weeks later, I got a reply. My friend, looking for the silver lining:

“You sure did a lot of research.”

So—is that what you want to hear after someone hears you speak? Is that what you want the audience to remember?

Or do you want them to remember your ideas, the story you tell?

It’s your choice.

I’m afraid of writing. How can I push back? — Frequent Questions

Q: I’m afraid of writing. How can I push back?
A: Didn’t your mother tell you it’s not nice to push?

I realized the other day that I was doing it again: procrastinating. Day after day, this project appeared on my To-Do List. Day after day, it remained the only thing not crossed off.

And then I realized: Dammit, I’m afraid.

Afraid of writing? “The less I fight my fear, the less it fights back.” Elizabeth GilbertI’ve been doing this writing thing for a long time now. You’d think by now I’d recognize fear when it came calling. I do generally recognize it faster than before—that’s progress. (This piece isn’t due for another three weeks). But still, it chagrined me that Fear was able to slip on a trench coat and a fake mustache and slip right past my defenses. I tell myself I should know better by now.

Oh, one more thing. This project I was afraid to start? It’s a presentation I’m giving. About courage.

Afraid of writing? Join the club

Everybody feels fear around their writing from time to time. Whether it’s fear of starting to write, fear of your subject matter, fear of inadequacy…Fear, like the British royal family heading to a wedding, wears many hats. If only it would adopt their distinctive wave too, it would be so much easier to spot.

The best way to get over fear of starting to write is—you will not be surprised—to write. Make a commitment to just 15 minutes a day, every day. If that feels too long, do 10—or even 5. But do it. Find an accountability partner, or join a group. I’m in the middle of leading a 5-day Writing Challenge right now. But you can sign up to hear about the next challenge I’m launching. And proceeds go to charity—so if doing something good for yourself isn’t motivation enough, do something good for someone else.

If you’ve got it in your head that you’re not creative, or you don’t deserve to spend the time on yourself, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her book Big Magic especially for you. Seriously. Read it this minute.

One thing I often remind my coaching clients—and it’s something that helped me when I was so afraid of writing that I never did it—is:

No one needs to see it.

I emphasize this to take away the fear that someone will read your writing and say negative things about it. Also to stop you from saying negative things about it pre-emptively. While you’re creating, you can keep your writing safe and secure in your computer. Unless you print it out or email it somewhere, no one needs to see it.


Someone does need to see it eventually

First maybe a teacher. A writing group. We all improve with constructive feedback.

But don’t get so caught up in this semi-private feedback loop that you never open your work up to the public.

Trust your instinct, yes. But don’t trust your fear. If your writing group says it’s good, if your coach says it’s good—then push your little bird of a draft out of the nest and publish it. Start a blog. Put it up on Medium or HuffPo. This gets easier the more you do it. Validation awaits you—and validation feels so much better than fear.

If your writing is stuck in the closet, read Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work! I’m not usually a fan of exclamation points, but this subject deserves one.

Write! Now!

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing