Why fear is part of writing a book (and what to do about it)

When it comes to writing a book, it seems that fear is an inevitable part of the process. But working with so many authors as a publisher and book coach, I’ve discovered not only is fear ubiquitous, it’s remarkably unoriginal.

The fears, the limiting beliefs, the assumptions that underlie your behaviour and your emotions but which usually lie hidden, can stop your writing almost before it’s begun. You might think you’re too busy to write, whereas what’s actually happening is your inner chimp’s fear of failure is keeping your attention elsewhere, safely in the comfort zone.

Don’t be too hard on your poor chimp: he’s spent millions of years focused entirely on keeping us safe. Safe from external threats, from rejection by the herd.

Here are a few of the variants of chimp chatter I’ve heard from authors and experienced myself:

Fear of rejection and shame:

’What if nobody likes it?’

‘People will judge you when they read your story.’

‘Nobody cares what you have to say.’

‘Everybody already knows this — they’ll think you’re stupid for writing it down.’

‘Nobody is going to want to buy this — it’s rubbish.’

‘You’ll lose credibility — it’ll be embarrassing and shameful.’

‘What if the reviews are bad?’

Fear of visibility:

’Who are you to write a book?’

‘If you set myself up as an expert people are going to lay into you on social media.’

Fear of failure:

’You’re setting yourself up for a fall.’

Oddly, I’ve also had people express fear of success:

‘What if it really takes off and takes over your life and you have no time for your family?’

That’s a cleverer chimp, but it’s still a chimp. It’s still based on fear, the fear of moving from the known to the unknown. The chimp who’s whispering that you’re unoriginal and noone wants to listen to you? It’s sad really: he’s not got an ounce of originality in him, and noone should ever listen to him. Yet still he keeps whispering, and we keep believing him without question.

What’s he whispering to you? Because once you tune in and really hear what’s going on, you suddenly have choices. You can look at the evidence, you can decide whether that’s helpful or not, you can choose a new story. And you need to do this work now, before you get into the real hard slog of writing, so that you can be aware of how your thinking is helping you or not and choose your mindset every day.

I’ve learned something very simple and very profound over my many years, which is that bad feelings aren’t bad things. We flinch away from them and we think they’re a sign that something’s wrong, but they’re just feelings, they’re part of what it means to be human, they’re an important part of our colour palette and our tonal range and life would be less rich without them, just as a painting in only yellow and pink would be hard on the eye after a while, and they can show us useful things.

And I’ve also discovered that personally my greatest tools in this work are faith and curiosity. My own faith sets the context as to how I see everything, of course, because that’s your most fundamental understanding of the world, and I’m not going to go there in what’s left of this podcast other than to encourage you to test your fears against your most fundamental understanding of what life’s about and what really matters, because they don’t tend to stand up well against that. And curiosity is a kind of magic, because it turns out it’s impossible to be curious and gripped by fear at the same time. And that’s my best tip, I guess: when you feel fearful about writing a book, or anything, really, turn on the curiosity. Turn journalist, ask questions about it, dig down to see what’s behind it. Write it down. They do say that when you’re a writer, a good day is a good day and a bad day is material — that’s a great answer to whatever life throws at you.

Taking away the fear isn’t the victory, harnessing the fear is where the magic is, turning it into pains-taking, paying attention, going the extra mile that turns your own creative work — and I include anything you do in your business in your zone of genius in that, as well as writing your book — into something worthy of your own time and other people’s attention.

‘Fear is excitement without breath,’ said business journalist Robert Heller. So breathe, as deeply and as often as necessary, and keep writing.

By Alison Jones, Director of Practical Inspiration Publishing, author of This Book Means Business, and host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast.

For more on this topic, including tips from some of my favourite authors, listen to Episode 204 — The One About Fear.

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