Voices of Doom

The desire to write is strong and passionate. Yet the barriers to writing can be equally formidable. Why?

Writing is a risky business. Aside from the considerable economic risks, it’s also something that others around us don’t always understand very well.

The Voices of Doom

So it makes sense that fear comes free with the deluxe writer’s package.

It also comes with a chorus, a veritable boys’ choir of vicious little fiends inside each of us, just waiting to sing out all our deepest fears. You know what I mean: the internalized voices of parents, teachers, and other adults who influenced us as children, when we were still being pummeled into shape.


And where those voices from the past leave off, we’re more than able to pick up the slack for them:

  • “I’ll tell all my friends that I’m going to write a novel, and then I won’t.”
  • “Even if I write the novel and send it to publishers, no one will accept it.”
  • “Even if I publish the novel myself, I’ll get bad reviews. Everyone will see what a failure I am.”
  • “My ex-wife will recognize herself in it and sue me for what little I have left.”

The Seven Demons

Our fears tend to fall into one or more of seven categories. Or, at least, it’s a helpful exercise to say so for the purpose of naming and gaining control over those fears. By naming them, we give them limits. And once they have limits, they can be overcome.

Fear of Failure

Of course. You’ll work for years and years and no one will ever care about anything you do. Your best will never be good enough. Your family and friends will be embarrassed for generations to come. Your name will be whispered in infamy by your great-grandchildren.

Fear of Rejection

This is a shade of the fear of failure. Fiction demands an unhealthy dose of self-exposure as you open up your soul and bleed onto the page. So when an editor turns the book down or a reviewer criticizes it, it’s hard not to feel like you personally have been put down.

Fear of Success

A lot of people are skeptical about this. “Yeah, poor baby, how awful it would be if you succeeded.” But it can be a very real fear.

To succeed in a new endeavor means breaking with your past. To succeed in something like writing may seem transgressive. Maybe you were taught that your mission in life is to be a parent, and that you’ll like it—or else. Maybe you were taught that your purpose in life is to be an accountant, and that you’ll like it—or else. When we strike out to be successful in writing, we may be afraid of that vague yet awful “or else” hanging over us like the proverbial shoe waiting to fall.

Society’s fascination with artists can be a factor in our fear of success, too. Artists are often—on the one hand—glorified as divinely-inspired, lovably-eccentric kooks who are above the normal rules of behavior, but also—on the other hand—vilified as lazy troublemakers prone to substance abuse, promiscuity, and outright weirdness. If you succeed as a writer, must you accept one or the other or all of those labels?

And what about envy? Will your friends envy your success? Does anyone actually like someone that they envy? Will your so-called friends be secretly hoping that you turn out to be a one-hit wonder whose success conveniently vanishes as quickly as it came?

And by all that’s holy, if you’re successful, you might actually have to do it again. And then the expectations will be so high, how could you possibly succeed?

Fear of Speechlessness

A novel is supposed to shock people with the gravity of its insights and the unadulterated power of its originality, right?

Damn. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and it can choke up your creativity, making you afraid that you have nothing to say. “It’s all been said before. No one can do it like the old masters. This idea’s not profound, it’s just funny.” This is a particularly pernicious manifestation of the Adversary: we dismiss our idea of being a writer before we even give ourselves a chance.

Fear of Giving Offense

The other side of speechlessness is logorrhea: the fear of having too much to say. In Hedge King in Winter, I portrayed a disabled person as being incapable of holding political office. I don’t personally have anything against disabled persons; the culture in which the story takes place is just superstitious. Yet I’ve been called to account for this. And I can well imagine being poked in the chest with a cane at the supermarket by a person who’s lost a limb. “You’re an ignorant clod,” he’ll tell me.

You might fear something similar. Your liberal friends will hate you when you expose their conservative sympathies. Your mother will suffer an apoplexy when she reads that sex scene. Your father will be disappointed by how unsympathetic to “the faith” your work is.

Fear That Others Will Recognize Themselves

We all draw from our own lives to find material for our writing. And in the privacy of our own rooms, we can write vividly and with glee about our friends’ annoying habits, or with vengeance about an uncle’s inappropriate behavior. But what happens when it’s published? Will we have to buy up every copy in the local bookstore before they see it? Can we get them permanently banned from the internet so that they can’t buy it? Is writing worth more than family and friendship?


Until acted upon by an outside force, an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest. It’s simple physics. You have a job, a family, and friends. Friday night is date-night. Wednesday night is that new episode of NCIS. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the kids have dance classes and pee-wee football. Aunt Edna is having everyone over on Saturday for a potato-salad picnic. The holidays are coming up. You’ve already been thinking about writing that novel, maybe for a long time, maybe for years. Why not just keep thinking about it? You can put it off for another week—month, year, decade—because, after all, you’ve already put it off this long…

Inertia isn’t exactly a fear. It’s just the most effective weapon fear has in its arsenal. To write, you have to push your life out of the way, which takes a lot more energy than it took to put life in the way in the first place.

Get Over Yourself

Have I scared you? Probably not. You’ve probably thought all this and more already. But remember, fear and self-doubt are habits we learn, often from those who have teased us into compliance or forced us into conformity. And at some point, if we’re going to be writers, we have to unlearn these bad habits.

At a crucial moment in A Merchant’s Tale, when it seems certain to the protagonist that disaster must inevitably befall him and his companions, he thinks to himself:

“Here I am, straggling through the barbarous countryside, with a wagon of pickled beef and a cursed chest containing who knows what, waiting for bandits to slit my throat. Is this what a life of adventure is all about? Uncertainty? Threat? Fear?”

Actually? Yes. That’s what a life of writing is all about too. And if you and I are going to succeed as writers, we’ll have to deal with fear head on. We’ll have to face the Seven Demons and reclaim our Selves. Becoming a writer isn’t like a job search. It’s not about learning a new skill. It’s about reclaiming who you really, always and already, are.

We all have a great work in us, some unsung song demanding to be let out. Maybe it’s time to unlearn our fear and remember to write again.


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Commitment, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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