She had not told her parents that she had written the book….She didn’t even send [them] one. If that had noticed its existence, they didn’t mention it.

Most beginning writers intend to impress, placate, or shock imaginary parents. Real ones are a different matter.

I ran across that quote, from A. S. Byatt’s A Whistling Woman, maybe seven or eight years ago, and it stuck in my mind. (If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably know that I’m a huge Byatt fan and actually got to be on a BBC radio program with her once.)

It came back to my mind when I was finishing Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. This is my third and final post about the book, and that particular kind of fear–described both by Byatt and by Keyes–is the kind that struck closest to home for me.

A quick recap of my previous two posts about the book: Keyes points out that writers produce bad, unclear, over-wordy work for at least two reasons: they want to sound intelligent and are afraid that plain and straightforward prose won’t accomplish this; and they are afraid their thoughts will be rejected or jeered at, so they obscure their ideas in impenetrable prose.

I’ve certainly seen both these fears in operation, but they’re not my particular Waterloo.

This one is.

Anxiety about reactions by others can cripple a writer. When expressed at all, this fear is usually articulated as, “What will people think of me when they read what I’ve written?” But it’s not “people” we’re most scared of. It’s specific individuals….

I often ask writing students to picture privately the person whose response to their writing concerns them the most. Usually it’s a spouse or parent. Sometimes it’s another relative, a friend, or an old teacher….Whoever’s opinion worries us the most is our “censor in chief.”

Keyes points out that this fear is not unfounded, because good writing deals with human relationships, and what we know about human relationships comes from…our own. With people who are close to us. And will read what we write.

To write well, he tells us, we

must write honestly; not in the literal but in the emotional sense….To touch their readers’ feelings, writers must first improve reception of their own, then set up loud-speakers so that others can listen in. Doing this creates potential problems….Emotionally candid writing can jeopardize important relationships. Any ongoing relationship is based on some discretion. Writing demands revelation. Reconciling this conflict puts writers in a literary-human bind: wanting to be open yet not wanting to offend those they care about. This is a fundamental courage point.

I will say right now that I have no idea how to resolve this conflict. Keyes provides a few quotes from other writers who have faced it: William Styron (“I was half paralyzed by the awareness that my parents and my sisters…would read whatever version of their life came out of my typewriter”); John Fowles, who rewrote one of his novels only after his parents died because he didn’t want them to read it the way he wanted to write it; Allen Ginsberg, who never intended to publish “Howl” (“I wouldn’t want my daddy to see what was in there”); Gordon Lish (“I don’t see how you can write fiction honestly and ably without interfering with serious relationships”).

Well, that’s a lot of help. Particularly since I actually don’t want my private life to resemble the personal relationships of any of the writers Keyes quotes.

So Keyes didn’t give me any answers. But the two chapters where he talks about this kind of fear were revelatory for me, because I’ve spent years complaining to my closest confidants that I never can find the time to do the kind of writing closest to my heart. I love the history I write, and I get a particular kind of satisfaction from writing curricula. I don’t want to quit doing these things. But there are other books I want to write–and have wanted to write–and can’t seem to get to.

Now I know why. I pictured the particular reactions of particular readers, as Keyes suggests, and it became clear: I’m not writing those books because I’m afraid of what those readers will say.

Let me quickly absolve my parents–of complete responsibility, anyway. All writers worry about what their parents will say, and the closer the relationship is, the more we worry. That’s a universal. (“Parents,” Keyes writes, “are the most ubiquitous censors in chief for writers at every level.”)

But I’ve discovered that I have a much wider circle of potential censors.

This is an eye-opener.

I’ve got no solutions. And while fears are always worse than realities, I think my fears are pretty solidly based in fact. (Hey, I’ve gotten jumped on for being ASSOCIATED with a book that some of my regular readers didn’t like, and I didn’t even write it.)

On the other hand, I have suddenly been able to work on those long-neglected manuscripts. I’m behind my deadline on the history series and barely keeping up with the language curricula, so I haven’t abandoned them; don’t worry. But all at once I’ve found some time that didn’t exist before, and I’ve used it to write words that I couldn’t get out, two months ago.

Sometimes looking at a problem with two eyes is the closest you get to a solution.

Showing 10 comments
  • Dawn Hudson

    I enjoy reading whatever you write, even if I don’t always agree. One of my favorite authors is Madeleine L’Engle and I only agree with her about half the time but she makes me think and examine why I don’t agree and I am grateful for that. Praying that you write more, without as much fear of reprisal, as I would enjoy learning and examining more of your writings. Thanks for challenging yourself and us.

  • Christine Guest

    Even though I’m one of those impatient people waiting for Writing with Skill; I’m so glad you found an insight for the writing that you want to do.

    There is not much emotional risk is writing knitting patterns (although Ravelry forums can get savage) but I was delighted this week when I bought a pattern that I can use as a model to help me structure the mitten pattern I’ve been working on for a year and a half.

    Such finds are gifts, even if they mean you have to choose whether to use them or not.

  • Sandy

    I have a blog that is somewhere between poor and mediocre, so I don’t believe I’ll be writing a book anytime soon. Still, I have this same fear myself. I censor what I write before others have a chance to be offended. I’ve long thought that is this contributes to ‘poor and mediocre’, but there seems to be no help for it.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    Maybe it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of people who are going to be upset, no matter what you write. So you might as well dismiss their criticism from the outset and write the story you have.

  • Kez

    I guess that’s one of the reasons why authors use pseudonyms for different genres and hope no-one ever finds out 🙂

    Well done for breaking through that block.

  • Diane W.

    “Do the thing you fear the most and the death of fear is certain.” I’m much better with that in theory than in application, but I’m still fairly confident that it’s true.

    I hope you decide to pursue writing whatever your “dream book” might be, because now I’m insanely curious to read it.

    Close your eyes and jump, Susan!! 🙂

  • Nely

    I’ve been walking around with this same problem, but was never able to put it into words and have not heard anyone else ever mention it. I feel relieved that I am not the only person struggling with this issue. Now I have to go think deeper about this. :o)

  • Karen

    Your writing has had a profound influence on my life, and all I thought I was doing was researching homeschooling methods the first time I read anything by you. More power to you as you write what is closest to your heart–please, please go for it, regardless of the critics!

  • Paige

    Thanks so much for sharing this! It helps more than you know to see that you deal with some of the same fears. I’ve enjoyed everything you’ve written, keep up the great work!

  • Rebecca Silva

    I go into a mild panic attack when I consider that my children might work faster than you can write the next books in the curriculum series. On the other hand, I read The Revolt and Though the Darkness Hide Thee this summer and thoroughly enjoyed them (sorry – couldn’t help picture you as Amanda Clement, even though the physical description didn’t match). I’m very conflicted now: Do I selflessly encourage you to write your dream book (the next greatest American novel?), or do I selfishly encourage you to get busy with the History of the Renaissance World AND Writing with Style? I suppose it doesn’t ultimately matter…I’m going to read them all eventually.

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