Whenever anyone asks how I started writing, I think back to the beginning. My answer usually has something to do with fanfiction, or with sitting at my computer screen with one of Meg Cabot’s books propped open in my lap to use as a model. Sometimes I talk about the hours I spent roleplaying on the Neopets forums, or the life-changing experience of studying creative writing at an arts boarding school for my last two years of high school.
Whichever way I slice it, writing has been an important part of my life since middle school. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, and every decision I’ve made in my life has led me closer and closer to that goal.
But as I gained more knowledge and experience about the craft and business of writing, something happened that I didn’t realize. I put up a wall of fear around myself. Rather than writing for the thrill of creating something new for the world, I’ve become a nervous writer: I don’t tend to talk about what I’m working on; I have a hard time taking myself seriously; I think constantly about whether what I’m writing will sell, or if it’s worth it; I rarely think anything I write is any good at all. It is a wall of fear and self-doubt that I wear like a comforting blanket so that I avoid doing any sort of writing work at all. Writing’s become work, a strain, a struggle, something that needs to be dragged out of me kicking and screaming.
I know I wasn’t always this way. It happened gradually, little invisible doubts and fears piling up on themselves without my knowledge. It’s only now that they’ve congregated around me in such large numbers that I’m starting to notice them.
I might never have noticed them if I hadn’t been working on cleaning out my old room at my parent’s house. We’ll be moving in with them this summer, which means the various boxes of books and memories need to be gone through and consolidated and sent away to storage. One of these boxes was a box I packed hastily when I moved out of my dorm at the end of my senior year of boarding school. Not being anything immediately useful, like clothes, it was never unpacked. It was filled with photos I’d had pinned to the walls, as well as a stockpile of old schoolwork. I found science notes stacked with old poetry homework and several copies of stories I’d written for a fiction workshop.
I haven’t written a short story or a poem since I left high school. I’ve always had the intention of being a novelist—of taking characters on a long, long journey, so that when you reach the end, the characters are so dramatically changed you look back on the beginning with a sense of nostalgia. That’s something that’s difficult to attain in a short story. And in a poem—forget it. I only took poetry classes because they were part of the creative writing package. It was never something I took great pleasure in writing.
But as I read through sheaves of old prose and poetry I’d written and promptly forgotten about, an odd realization dawned on me. Seventeen-year-old Amber knew less about writing than I currently do. She’d read fewer books on crafting plots and characters, she’d never been to a conference, she didn’t have an agent—heck, she hadn’t even written a full novel.
But the most important thing she didn’t have was the wall of fear. She wrote as if she knew she was the best writer in the world. She wasn’t worried about whether these stories would sell. She wrote as if she were saying, Look at this. Aren’t you impressed? It’s good, isn’t it? She wasn’t afraid to try new things, to push boundaries, to write and show it off. She didn’t worry if the things she said were worth saying—she just said them with confidence, threw them out into the world and didn’t look back.
These days, I don’t write short stories. Hell, I don’t even blog. I’m constantly worried about what other people will think (that old self-doubt drilled into me from childhood) or whether what I’m doing is good enough. I’ve surrounded myself with a paralyzing wall of fear that’s prevented me from moving forward.
The worst thing about this wall is that it’s invisible, and it’s incredibly persuasive. It convinces me not to turn something in yet because it’s not ready, it could be better. It stamps down ideas I have before they’ve turned into anything, because it tells it me won’t be good enough before I’ve even tried. And in the process of doing all this, it convinces me that these are rational, logical conclusions—that I should be proud of myself for being responsible and revising again, or that it’s a good thing I didn’t speak my mind on a topic because someone might disagree with me and then I’ll be in trouble. The wall of fear convinced me it was a safety blanket, when really it cut me off from my dreams, my goals, and I what I really, truly want.
If you’re reading this, then maybe you have a wall of fear of your own. Maybe you’re looking for ways to dismantle it, and to write with the confidence a teenager with a world of possibility in front of her can write. I hate to disappoint (another self-conscious fear attributed to my childhood), but I don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway. But I hope that by becoming aware of this wall of fear, and consciously making an effort to not be afraid, I begin to rebuild my confidence and take it apart bit by bit.
And hey, I wrote this and put it out into the world—it’s just one crack in the wall, but it’s a start.