At last count 4,911 books have been published about how to write, what to write, how to write better, how to sell what you write and even how to think about writing.
One of the most informative of these instruction manuals is “The Courage to Write.” Its author, Ralph Keyes, researched, read and interviewed dozens of writers. In the process he learned much about the connections between courage, fear and writing.
These connections are real, not imaginary. Keyes’ findings and opinions are alarming, and in some ways discouraging. By the time I finished reading “The Courage to Write” I found myself wondering “How in the world does any writer have the guts to even begin?”
I don't have the skill, wisdom, experience and wide-ranging knowledge that Keyes possesses. Even so, I believe that in at least one sentence of his book Keyes overstated his case. On page 13, Keyes flat-out says “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”
I don't think that's true. I concede that gathering facts and ideas, and then assembling them into clear sentences, can be filled with uncertainty and tension. But there is no absolute principle that says to all writers, “You’d better be scared, buster. If you’re not, then you’re not really writing.”
In my far-from-glorious years as a writer, I’ve worked beside dozens of colleagues who gave little or no evidence that fear must be an inevitable companion of the act of writing. I saw these writers coping with dozens of problems and snarls that can enter into producing worthwhile examples of the English language. But as I watched them I saw little evidence of these writers being “scared” of the act of writing.
This absence of “writing” fear was most prevalent in the newspapers I worked for. By the time most journalists get ready to write they will have gathered and sorted out the facts they intend to present to the public. The words are there, in the writer’s notes and brain. The blank typewriter page or computer screen is ready. The world is waiting. It's show time, folks.
In news work, the fear of the actual writing process is usually crowded out by a much larger fear: the deadline. This tool was invented by a caveman king in 14,366 B.C. His name was Uggah, and he wanted his latest proclamation to be chiseled in stone by noon next Thursday. He told his chiselers, “Do it, or die!” They did it, and the deadline has been an inspirational device used ever since.
Equally fearsome in newswriting are loathsome editors, especially city editors named Joe or John. I spent three years in a northern newsroom fearing Joe. He was a neo-Prussian who loved to excoriate and humble his reporters for little reasons or none at all. He won the ultimate middle-finger salute: his staff hated him so much we made sure we never took our vacation at the same time Joe did. We wanted every possible hour of distance between us.
John was a sneaky little arschloch (a German word whose English meaning is easily found via Google). He controlled his newsroom by simply firing anyone who crossed him. One day he chose the wrong victim, who exposed John’s Nazi tactics to our previously unaware publisher. Two days later John was gone. Our newsroom exploded in more joy than I had witnessed since V-J Day.
Please forgive these two memory-lane accounts, above. They're the only bad-editor anecdotes I have in my literary memoirs. Most editors are also writers, and want to help their troops, not hinder them.
Also, upon reviewing my remarks about John Keyes and “The Courage to Write,” I should have pointed out that most of his comments apply to fiction writers and poets, rather than to non-fiction writers. Fiction is an open door to a dozen forms of fear, and Keyes masterfully describes them all. Whether you’re planning to write a short story or a 400-page novel, I suggest that you acquaint yourself with Keyes’ wisdom. He will tell you what you’re in for, as well has how to survive it.