Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Oh, what to do about our Writer’s Fears?

When it comes to writing, my fears are your fears.
And Mary Ann’s, it turns out.
And Carmela’s, too.
And April’s and Jean Marie’s and likely JoAnn’s.

WHAT IF I do set out to write my story?

What if…
…I really can’t write this book?
…I really can’t tell this story?
…my storyline’s been done already at least a thousand times?
…my characters lack life?
…not one reader will care?
…and neither will my editor?
…I really can’t write period?!

What if…
each and every English teacher who taught me K through 12 had reason to not even suggest I someday pursue writing?

I mean,
Just who exactly do I think I am anyway? 
Lois Lowry?  Maybe Karen Hesse? 

Since I began writing for children in earnest, not once have I come to a work-in-progress when all of the above fears didn’t whistle, wink and wave.
And now they’re doing so again, noticeably and often, since I declared my Fall return to my abandoned middle grade novel in verse.
My character Lissy Lev has made herself known, loudly: my heart and my head are big enough, she tells me, to accommodate her story, along with those of the writers I  teach and coach.
Give her but one hour a day, she promises, and she and I will be on our way.

This particular story’s time-on-task bests Mary Ann’s current work-in-progress by about 12 years.
I first came at it in the early 90’s, writing the story as an early chapter book.
It’s undergone various iterations, formats, settings, time-lines and all sorts of sub-plots while I circled its heart.
My Writer’s Fears tried, with each and every passing, to rise on their haunches and turn me back.

Fortunately, I kept on; I knew to do what my fellow TeachingAuthors do.
I educated myself – on craft, format, genre, setting.
I hung with talented, caring writers.
I conferenced and submitted and studied my rejections.

This time, though,
after so many years of not writing fiction,
I could feel those Fears whistling Dixie.

last week I did what I recommend my writers and students do.
(What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.)

I remained quiet, re-reading each and every successive draft with its accompanying notes, from 1991 through to 2007.

Then I sat still, remembering the Moment I truly connected with my character, when author Amy Timberlake asked an audience of writers, “What book would you be writing if you knew you had time to write but one?”

Next I studied the words Lissy Lev wrote in 2004, to introduce me to my fellow Paris Retreaters.  I repeated her reasons why I must tell her story.

I also spent time paging through Louisa May Alcott’s Diary, Letters and Journals as Lissy does throughout my novel.

Finally, I paid attention to all the Universe was delivering.

In last Saturday’s Chicago Tribune, one of my favorite columnists, Mary Schmich, quoted Steve Jobs’ now-famous Stanford speech:  Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

Sunday’s Chicago Tribune included an interview with the remarkable Chicagoan Sue Duncan whose eponymous after-school center has immeasurably helped thousands of children: “You do what you can with the time you’ve got.”

Monday’s Chicago Tribune paid tribute to yet another one of my favorite writers, author Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, on the sad occasion of her early death.  Her husband remarked, “She would spend years on a book, distilling it, and when she sat down to write, she said it was like watching a movie.  It was all there.  It came out fully formed.”

Yesterday, through Publisher’s Lunch, I linked to another favorite’s – Ann Patchett’s – book, What Now? and read how she “learned to transfer the contents of her heart onto a piece of paper.”

When it comes to what to do with those Writer’s Fears, I finally realized:
the question isn’t, What if I do write?, its blanks begging to be filled.

The question is truly, What if I don’t?

Louisa May Alcott said it all:
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my own ship.”

Happy sailing!

Esther Hershenhorn


Donna said...

Lovely, Esther. You're right that we all face those dastardly fears.

I know you'll sail through them with your novel. I can't wait to meet Lissy Lev.


Brenda Ferber said...

Well said, Esther. And just what I needed to hear this morning. Thank you! And know that you have readers, like me, waiting to meet Lissy Lev.

Lindsey Lane said...

Beautiful post, Esther. Here is another quote to add your offerings from the universe. And like Brenda, I too, am waiting to meet Lissy.

Kristi Holl said...

What a beautiful blog post! I'm so glad someone recommended it to me. We can all identify!

Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

Pat Zietlow Miller said...

Esther -- This is a lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing.

Pat Zietlow Miller

Esther Hershenhorn said...

What a nice surprise, to return home this evening to learn my earnest reflective post today struck so many responsive chords and provided the Rx the Dr. ordered.
Lindsey's quote, which didn't show up, was a "twofer" in that it came to her via another one of my favorite authors, Kathi Appelt. For those unfamiliar with the original Ray Bradbury quote Kathy passed on at Vermont to Lindsey, it's all about LOVING what you do. Check out Lindsey's reference at
I'm pretty sure Brenda,Donna and Pat would second Mr. Bradbury's sentiment.
Thanks to Kristi's comment, I'm now passing on her Writer's First Aid blog to my students.
Thanks for sharing - and supporting, my fellow writers!

jan godown annino said...

Boosts my resolve. For revisions. With character Bronte Ryan O'Sullivan. My first novel. Good Luck with Lissy Lev. I look forward to reading her story. Many many thanks!

As added gracias, here is a link to Ann Patchett's
recent NYT Op-Ed piece. It appears she will open a bookstore...

I LOVED your references to informative newspaper pieces,( as a former news writer who wants our treasured newsrooms to continue their great function.)

Big thanks to TEACHING AUTHORS. Fabulous blog.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, Jan, for taking the time to send your Kind Words - and - the link to the NY Times article about Ann Patchett's bookstore. She also released an ebook last week.
I'm glad you read the news in print, too. Sometimes I think I'm my Trib's only paid subscriber!
FYI: Louisa May Alcott studied Charlotte Bronte's letters the way my character studies Louisa's!
Good Luck with your novel, your Hollins MFA and your pb with Lisa Desimini - another one of my favorites.
Stop by our blog again soon.

Kate said...

So great to read your post, Esther. It's a good shot in the arm as I wrestle with my writing fears and dive into an enormous revision! Thank you!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, Kate.
I'm glad my post helps ready you to wrestle your revision.
It's always so comforting - at least to me - to know I'm normal, at least when it comes to writing and revision. :)

Sabrina said...

Every time I feel a bit overwhelmed by my fears, one of you wonderful teaching authors posts something about your own fears. So thank you for this post - it is comforting to know that I some what normal as a writer! There is another great quote - that is too long to post here - by Martha Graham, about stepping out of your own way, and allowing the process to happen; that it's not our place to judge (our own work), it's our job to get it out 'there'.
So here I go... to get it out there!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Go, go, go, Sabrina!
And, as I tell my writers and students, "I'm cheering you on!"
I too love your Martha Graham quote. I first learned of it when Anita Silvey presented at an Illinois SCBWI program in the early 2000's.
I GOOGLED it for our readers who are unfamiliar with the powerful sentiment. Here it is:

"There is a vitality, a life-force, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open… No artist is pleased…

There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching – and makes us more alive than the others."

Martha Graham
(to Agnes DeMille)

April Halprin Wayland said...

I love this one you quoted from Ann Patchett--in her book, What Now? she “learned to transfer the contents of her heart onto a piece of paper.”

Beautiful. And somehow empowering.

Anonymous said...

Everything you said is what I have felt.

I am a new writer. Please allow me to add one more.

What if I think it's ready but really it is not?

I say this because I always think of something later after I have sent it out.