Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Fear (and Loathing) of Writing

For a long time, I’ve been struggling with an inability to write. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I don’t know how to say it and I was afraid I would say it wrong.

At the beginning of this month I resolved to block off three hours (from 9pm to midnight) every night to write without distraction. At first I promised myself those hours would be dedicated to my novel, but then I expanded it to my personal writing – any fiction, short stories, articles, blog entries, whatever. But what most often happens is that I sit down at my system and stare blankly at an empty screen for a few minutes, getting worked up to a panic, then I wander off to “think,” get something to eat, then I come back end up surfing the net. My favourite sites seem to be: Facebook,,, and its feminist sister site

Not too long ago, I broke out in a cold sweat at the thought of having to write an article for work. I had been given more than enough time and resources to research it, but I still found myself paralyzed in front of a blank screen wishing I could be struck by lightning – anything to get me out of putting words to paper.

I realized that what I have is a real, legitimate fear of writing. Writing isn’t just typing words to paper (though it ultimately comes down to that). It’s having new experiences, it’s reading, researching, revising, submitting, and marketing yourself.

It sucks. And it’s starting to cost me.

I’ve been struggling with this for years. I’ve let down quite a few people because of it and it has really taken a toll on my sense of self. I know part of it is my need for perfection. I am not satisfied with just throwing words together; I want every sentence to sing. I’m also impatient. I don’t want to go through the gruelling tempering period it takes to make a great writer. I don’t want to have scads of manuscripts lying around, I want my first one to be gold and I’ll endlessly write and rewrite it – setting the goal posts ever farther away, to get that.

It would be easy to say that I’m lazy and that I lack discipline, though I’m sure that’s a big part of it. Without a deadline, I’ll dick around forever on a task. It would also be easy to say that that I don’t want it enough. I want to live the writer’s life – chuck it all and just become a freelancer, moving from country to country soaking up life and living by the products of my pen - but my writing has never felt truly legitimate. A part of me feels that being a writer is for chic bohemian types who wear dashikis and live in New York or Paris – it’s a lifestyle, not a job. All these would be true, but that wouldn’t be the whole story.

The heart of the matter is, I’m scared that I’m actually one of those self-deluded writers who think they are the next William Shakespeare, when in truth they couldn’t string a coherent sentence together. I’m scared that I’m a fraud and the minute anyone sees my writing I will be exposed. I’m scared that I won’t ever be able to make a living on my writing. I’m scared of going out of my comfort zone and exposing myself to the world – which is what separates the great writers from the hacks. I’m scared that I’m a hack.

I know many writers who say they don’t feel quite as alive as when they are writing. Others say that while they find the process difficult, they do it because they feel compelled to it. I don’t. In fact, there is so much anxiety for me around writing that I try to avoid it as much as possible.

Unfortunately, writing is just about the only thing I do well, so when I don’t do it, I feel guilty that I’m wasting my talent. At the same time, when I do try to write I feel guilty that I’m indulging in a frivolous pastime and that I would be better off doing something useful – like cleaning the bathroom.

So writing isn’t fun for me. It’s nerve-wracking, dispiriting and has driven me to the edge of suicide on more than one occasion. I tried giving my writing an aura of legitimacy by doing it under the cover of journalism, but it turns out that reporters are not necessarily writers. They both write, but they have completely different motivations. I’m now trying publishing with an eye toward academia down the line.

I don’t hold out much hope, though. I should probably learn a new trade (dressmaking has always fascinated me) but, with my lack of common sense and people skills, I doubt I’d be any good at that either.


  1. I don't know what to say except that I've read your writings and you have nothing to worry about? But I guess this is personal.

  2. I don't want to offer a sympathetic platitude but really, I think everyone goes through this period of loathing their own writing. I didn't write for a year because of it, but I've come to treat it as a distraction. If ever I don't like something I've written and I feel like backspacing everything, I just say to myself, stop distracting yourself from the matter at hand. Even if I hate the way it reads I put it down because the book has to be written... And I think everything you experience is preparation for the writing so even if you're not doing, your always prepping for it.

  3. This piece is heartbreakingly honest and true and quite lovely. But the funny thing is that the only way to conquer or, rather, suppress these dark feelings is to write. Writing, alas! is the only cure for the writing sickness.

  4. Um, you wrote this post to and for me. The title should have been Ms Amaka 's Fear (and Loathing) of Writing because you TRULY captured the way I feel about writing.

    My greatest problem is SELF DOUBT. If I can overcome that, I might as well find the cure for cancer...