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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Working past the fear

The fear is always there, before you start. If you can just start, then you’re in it and you’re okay.

I mean this to apply to writing, because that’s my experience — but how many other things can it also describe? Bungee jumping? I have no idea about that. But what about anything that’s worthwhile, that calls on what’s inside of us? For each of us that's different, it's personal what we’re pushed by ourselves to do, what we long to do — but I wonder if there isn’t this fear almost always.

It gathers before you start, and the answer is ... to start.

I’ve been working for months to gain time, a couple of hours each morning, to start working again on a book. It's a young-adult novel that’s half written and rewritten, and the second half I have thrown out to completely reimagine. I had to leave the project in early spring because there was too much else, and we were doing a Kickstarter campaign to fund publication of my first book for younger readers, Treasure Town, which, because the campaign succeeded, will come out next spring.

And after working gratefully through all that, in the summer that is quiet with very little travel, with the promotion work for the new book off in the fall and winter and with enough paying projects to fill the rest of my workday and keep me going, I can finally do what I love and long to do: work on this book. It’s very adventurous and it’s scary. So the fear gathers.

I’m used to that because I’ve been writing for a living for so long, and my fear is always part of doing this — and it always gathers at this stage. The more challenging and boundary-pushing and risky the project, the more you are scared before you get into it — so that's not a bad thing, the fear is a good thing in a way; but it is there. And you can learn that if you do start, it dissipates. Maybe not entirely, or maybe yes, it’ll vaporize; but either way, it will lose its hold.

People talk about writer’s block and I think that’s when you don’t start. If you don’t for a while, the fear gathers and gathers, until it is something dense and physical and you really can’t push through. It’s too much. Or you think you can’t. I’m lucky: I got my training writing for newspapers, where you didn’t have time to let it build up, you had to just start, so you just did. And I learned, doing that.

I often use my notebook to push through, and to warm up. In Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind, which I was rereading in recent weeks as I used my notebook to get back into the “real” writing, to get that momentum and energy going as I approached restarting the book, this is one of Natalie’s rules for writing practice: “You are free to write the worst junk in America.”

This works for me. I think it’s maybe the key. What stops us from doing anything truly worthwhile is that we’re afraid it won’t be good enough. That we won’t be good enough — or if the work isn’t, it will show that we are failures. It will confirm our fears. So I tell myself, “Just write something — it doesn’t have to be good. You’ll come back to it anyway.” A draft is always only a draft.

Then when the time arrives, the actual time to start (or restart) the important thing, I may make myself a deal. I can read Internet news, or answer emails or whatever, until a certain point on the clock — say ten minutes, to the top of the hour. And then I have to start. So I do.

And as I do, as I begin working and digging into it, something does lose its hold, something does dissipate. It’s almost like a part of your mind says, “Oh, this isn’t so bad. This water isn’t so cold. This trail isn’t so steep. I’m okay here.” And you keep going. Every day a little bit. As you get into it, you start to look forward to it. Instead of pushing away from the work you are drawn to it. You can’t wait for the time.

And now you are okay. You’re working. You’re into it, and the fear is left behind.

I’m still not bungee-jumping, though. Some fear is smart. 

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