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Fear and metaphors

This is something I really shouldn't post here ... it doesn't belong because it's about writing, not libraries. But I'm posting it here for two reasons:

1) I'd like the input of people who write. Not just "writers" but also those who simply write ... for work, for school, for play, for addiction's sake.

2) I have written quite a bit in pursuit of my MLS, and I think I'd like to continue once the degree is in hand.

So, I'd like to become a better writer. In truth, I'd like to become a good writer. I don't feel like one yet, although I do have my moments at times. However, I do lack consistency. I want to be a reliably good writer. I have a couple of style manuals, as well as Walt's First Have Something To Say and Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing; also, I really should re-read The Elements of Style. I need to work on technique, tone, style and organization. But before I can work on those, there's a more primal obstacle I must overcome.

I am a fearful writer. Fearful of exactly what, I don't know. The closest I can come to articulating it is, 'fearful of not giving an issue its due, of not expressing something as richly as it deserves'.

I don't write easily, naturally. I stumble over words and agonize over sentences. I'll start a writing project in plenty of time to finish, revise and polish, but I always end up finishing at the last hour, sleep-deprived and emotionally drained. For years, I told myself that I was simply a night writer -- I just couldn't write in the daytime. But that's not true ... what really happens is that when the deadline is looming and I've been up way too late for the past few nights, that part of me that has been saying, 'be careful what you write/how you phrase that' gives up and goes home. And I'm able to pour out what I think needs to be written without thinking, "That's not right. That's so wrong. Why am I doing this?"

Well, if writing is going to indeed be part of my professional life, I need to end this fear. Short of very expensive therapy, I don't know how.

Also, I think I have the wrong metaphor for writing. I don't know how other people tackle ideas, but often that feels exactly like what I do. Tackle them. Hunt them down, pin them, eviscerate them, put them on display like perserved insects. Yeah, it's odd, but then again, I didn't call this blog Confessions of a Mad Librarian for nothing.

Nonetheless, it doesn't seem like a healthy, stable model that will work in the long term. I feel as though I need a fresh, tough-minded perspective to get to the point to where I can seriously work on my writing and improve. Any suggestions on how I can get there from here (besides, of course, very expensive therapy)?


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At Confessions of a Mad Librarian, Ms. Eli is fretting over how difficult it is to write and asking for advice on becoming a better writer. I began posting a comment to her entry, but realized I had more to say than I wanted to leave on someone else's ... [Read More]


Hi Eli-

I totally understand what you're saying. Since I also write fiction, I've had similar obstacles to get over (like finishing, etc. :D). I think fear is a very deep emotion for writers because not only do you fear not being able to put on paper what you have in your head, the way you have it in your head, you can also fear what might happen when the work you have labored over is finally available for public viewing. I've been lucky with belonging to a professional writers group that really helps educate and build the beginning writer, and that education has carried over into my non-fiction writing. Some things I've learned over the last few years:

1. Saying "no" means success. What I mean by this is that you have to say no to external and internal influences that take away from your writing. Say no to watching tv during time you have scheduled for writing. Say no to others who try to impose structures of writing on you that DON'T work for you. Say no to that little voice in your head that keeps saying "that's not what you really mean to say, is it?" Some of the best advice out there from a NYT best-selling author is that you can't fix a blank page.

2. Break your writing up into manageable chunks. Figure out how long the paper is supposed to be, what your final deadline is and how much time you'll have to write it (after research and things). Say, you have a paper due September 1st and it's supposed to be, oh, 20 pages long. Since it's now February 8th, you have 205 days (including weekends which is something I like to figure in, but you may not) to get this done. You expect to spend about 2 months doing research, so plan for 4 months. This puts you at roughly June 8th. You have 84 days left to actually write the paper. Give yourself 10 days to outline. This leaves you 74 days. 20 pages divided by 74 days means that you have to write roughly 0.28 pages per day. You can say about 1/3 of a page. You can manage 1/3 of a page per day, right? By breaking up the writing into manageable chunks, it no longer seems so overwhelming.

3. Chocolate is your friend. Reward yourself for meeting your goals. If you suffer a blow of some sort, take time to regroup and don't pressure yourself for not working through it. Working through it will only hurt you further.

4. Having a support/critique group is essential to remind yourself that you are not working in a vacuum. Writing is a solitary pursuit. It doesn't have to be a lonely one.

Good luck Eli!

Thanks for the suggestions. The manageable chunks, I've been trying while in school. It doesn't get rid of the doubts ... I usually end up feeling like I've grafted content together that don't really fit because I was having completely different thought processes between the outline and the completion.

1 and 3 I need to work on. 4 never occurred to me. I have friends in writing groups, but they are all fiction writers. Other than NMRTWriters-L, I've never heard of any support group for professional writers in the library field.

Thank you so much for giving me options to work on ...


I know what you're talking about, I feel the same way. My main fear is wondering how my work will be judged by others, will they think my ideas are stupid, will they come up with a whole bunch of suggestions that I never thought of. And so I rewrite and rewrite, hoping to come up with the magic solution on revision 57.

I think this came from university where the study guides all said that you should try and find out what the lecturer wanted to hear, and write that. I don't agree with that anymore, but it's a bad habit to break. I wonder too much about what people will think of my writing, and it makes it too difficult to do.

I still don't know how I got through my thesis, 35000 words that I don't know how I managed to write. I managed to do the biggest bursts of idea forming on trains, planes, and while at other's people's houses. Ie, anywhere that wasn't home!

I've got a conference paper due in a month or so and I'm taking the opportunity to review my study methods, writing style, and revision methods. I'm hoping it will help to finally knock the 'what other people think' phenomenon on the head.

A review committee would be a great idea, where people could all share their papers and ideas before publication, I'm sure it would help lots of people. It's popular amongst fiction writers.

Oh, see, that brain bursts when I'm nowhere near a piece of paper happen to me all the time. ALL the time.

I see your point about the 'how other people think' mindset. I know a lot of writers say that they write because they are compelled to ... they do it because it's worse not to write. I don't think I'm that sort of writer, and the idea of not caring how other people react to my writing seems very false.

Your review committee idea is an interesting one. Most of the writers who do writers' groups are in realspace ones. I wonder if a virtual group would work as well (assuming you can keep out trolls and the like) ...

Thank you so much for your input! I feel ... well, just as crazy, but not as alone.

Couldn't help throwing in my two cents, since I just published a book on writing for publication (how's that for self-referential? :)). The two ideas that have helped me keep writing more than anything else are:

1) Write every single day. Even if you're tired, you're busy, you don't feel like it, the baby threw up on you, you feel uninspired -- if you sit down for half an hour or an hour or 2.5 double spaced pages every single day, it trains your brain to be in the habit of writing.

2) Only write about things that interest you. This is easy for me to say as a non-academic, non-tenure track librarian, but I figure life is too short to waste a lot of time writing on uninspiring topics just for the sake of being published. Also, pity the poor readers who have to sit through some of the junk that's out there just for the sake of being on someone's resume or to help get them tenure/promotions. If you write about topics of interest, then you do (as Walt points out) have something to say!

I don't think NMRTWriter ever took off as it should have, but your idea of a critique group is a good one. If you don't have a formal group, share your work with colleagues, with people you have met online, etc., and be willing to give your comments on their work as well.


Sure, there must be people who write because they're compelled to write, who don't give a flying fish what anybody thinks of their writing. Then there are the rest of us.

I'm not sure the fear ever entirely goes away (which is probably NOT what you want to hear!). I think you learn to deal with it and/or ignore it.

Sometimes it comes back. Watching an apparent rise in C&I readership, I find myself becoming more nervous about what I say and how I say it...

Fortunately, there are rewards. Seeing your name in print is one. Going back to your own work a year, two years, five years later is another--both because you'll probably find that your recent work is a little more fluid and polished, and because you'll probably find that the earlier work reads better than you remembered at the time.

Rachel, thank you for your take ... I'l have to hunt down your new book, too.

Writing every day is something I do want to try. I have very little discipline in that regard. That's why I started getting into weblogs from the creative side.

Writing what I'm interested in ... that's usually not my problem. Often, I'm too interested and I don't seem to have the proper distance to the subject.

Walt, I'm not surprised that the fear doesn't completely go away ... but I would really appreciate a substantial alleviation before I burn out in some fashion. Or find a way to channel it productively. I will keep in mind the rewards ...

My comments turned out to be very long, so I just left 'em in a trackback. I appreciate the other comments people have left here. A writing support group (like the impromptu group that has formed around this post?) is a great idea. And I've read some excellent advice on non-fiction writing that recommends learning from the techniques of fiction writers.

A few favorite books on writing:

Writing Fiction: Janet Burrawoy
The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Wm. Blundell
Style--Toward Clarity and Grace: Jos. Williams

Thank you for the book recommendations, Rick. I've never heard of those titles (or the authors), but I will look into them ...

Hey, girl,

I have no magic formula, but I do have three tips which have reduced my fear:

1. Taking a tip from _The Artist's Way_ (which I still haven't been able to get all the way through, or even close), I handwrite 3 pages first thing every morning. I have been doing this on and off for years. Gradually I began to realize that when it was "on" my life began to flow better. I know you are not a morning creature, so this may not work for you. But I recommend giving it a try, say, during Lent. (Those 40 days do come in handy for all sorts of habit-making and -breaking!)

2. From Anne Lamott's _Bird by Bird_: Embrace the concept of the Shitty First Draft. Get it down on paper even if it's the worst thing you've ever written in your life; even if you'd rather your house burn to the ground than anyone read it. Then edit it. I find it extremely comforting to actually create a Word document entitled "Shitty First Draft" so I can give myself permission to write really, really dumb sentences. Just get it out, somehow. And hey, what a motive for self-preservation: you couldn't possibly leave those pages that way -- you have to live until you can fix them! Cuts any suicidal despair right out of the picture. (Excuse my dark humor, but writing can bring out the worst angst sometimes....)

3. Accept that procrastination is part of your process. Oooooh, this is hard. I am still working on it. But beating myself up for not having something done before the last minute, for not being like several people we both know who are organized and on top of things a week before a deadline, NEVER does me any good. I am at my best when I calm down and say to myself, "I can do this. I have done this before. I will do it again. THIS IS THE WAY I DO THINGS, and the results are always satisfactory -- even good." In short, accept that you are good enough, because you are.

And as for you, my dear, remember this: your courage and tenacity in persisting in writing and publishing material, despite the emotional difficulties you've just described, are a huge inspiration to me. Grabbing victory again and again from the jaws of defeat can't be fun, but you keep doing it! My hat is off to you.

P.S. Some of this was learned partly through expensive therapy. Here's hoping these comments are cheaper....

One other thing I'd like to see more resources on - being a librarian, I put a lot of time and effort into finding references for an article before I write it. For example, for an article I'm writing right now I've found maybe 40-50 papers on the subject (way too much), but I keep looking for more, worried that I've missed a golden point somewhere. As a librarian, I'm way too preoccupied with finding information!! I didn't have this 'problem' before I did my library degree.

Where to begin? I think that the best way to improve your writing is to quit trying. By that I mean to either let the work take place or not, without worrying about it or any attendant consequences. If you are a writer you will always write, and eventually you will write well. If not, you will not write; you can't make yourself put forth the effort. I write every day. It is just like eating to me. I don't get stuck or lack for something to write about and I don't suffer any pain from the work. I sometimes wonder at those who go at writing as though they were building a stone wall with bare hands on a rainy day. If it hurts there is something wrong. That crap about suffering writers is wrong; their readers are the ones who suffer. Just write, and if you don't want to, do something else or nothing at all. History is a pretty good predictor of what you will be doing tomorrow. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you must become a writer. Nobody becomes a writer. Writing is like eye color or height, something you can enhance a bit, but that's all. And most of all, don't strain. I can neither sing nor dance, but I have the brains to know this, and that I shouldn't attempt either before an audience. By the way, if I'm any judge you're doing all right.

Fiona, I don't have that problem too much when I'm writing for myself, although I do when I'm researching something for someone else. I just saw a job posting for a News Researcher that listed under qualifications:

* Perseverance, tempered with a well-honed Futility Detector.

I need to work on my FD. That said, I do worry at times that somewhere, out there, there's a document that shows that my paper is going in completely the wrong direction. Luckily, that hasn't happened yet.

Vera and Michael ... thank you. Food for thought.

Wow, a Futility Detector. Man, I really need me one of those.... Or maybe just a voice from the sky that says "IT'S TIME TO GIVE UP."

Whoever penned that job description is a pretty good writer! THERE'S food for thought.

I'll just suggest reading The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb, and Williams. There is a new edition out.

It is another manual approach, but a very good one. I've had success in leaving whatever project I'm working on aside, reading the thing cover to cover, and coming back with a fresh eye for a well-worded argument.


Thank you for the recommendation, calezu. I'll see if I can get a copy before I take off to Atlanta.