Writing a novel is a great pleasure, but it’s also quite a responsibility: it won’t ever exist unless you put the hours in and coax it out from wherever it is. When I think too much about my novel deadline (which is looming pretty large and ominous on the horizon now!) I get flashes of fear – I feel like I’m pulling the story out of me on a string from some deep, dark place. Sometimes the string snags on something and it seems as though if I tug it too hard, it might break. That’s frightening. So then I have to walk away, go to the sea or climb a hill, take my mind elsewhere and let it recharge.
A lot of people have a fear of writing. Students come to me and say: ‘I’m frightened that what I’ve written won’t be original.’ Or: ‘I’ve completed my story/novel/poem but I’m afraid to try and get it published – what if nobody likes it and it’s a giant flop?’ I try to get students to write through the fear, break the ice in their own heads by using techniques such as flow writing (writing fast and wild, without hesitating), as this enables contact with the unconscious mind rather than allowing ourselves to be stifled by our critical, editorial function. Once creative writing students start to produce pages of writing and discover the knack of picking out the gems from the dross, their excitement at what they discover often effaces any fears they might have had.
I ask my students (and myself, of course; that’s the handy thing about teaching writing – it encourages you to practise what you preach), What amazes you? What hurts you? Where does the emotion in your freewriting lie, and which topics does your writing spiral back to again and again? These are the ones to work with.
Here’s a good start to intense writing: ‘My greatest fear is…’ Now write without stopping for eight minutes. Be prepared for anything. Some people say they can only work with fear driving them forward. I think of it in two ways: Either fear is what makes the story remain embedded in its deep, dark place, in which case, chase it away, or else fear is the beating red heart of the story, in which case, let’s write about it!