Some people say they write only for themselves. Whether that is true or not, whether they put words on screen only to read them back to themselves, I cannot say for sure. But one thing I know. Many writers, particularly those hoping to become published authors, write with the hope that someone, someday, will read them.
But what if they do read our work? What then?
I am reaching the stage in my memoir where I am looking for honest feedback on chapters. I want to see what a real reader thinks. What flows for them and which parts feel awkward. What emotional connection, if any, they have to the story.
And yet I am afraid.
I have belonged to many writer critique groups, organized and moderated by professional authors. We told each other the good parts (always the good first) and the needs-work parts. But it was always collegial, writer-to-writer, imbued with a sense of community—a community of writers.
But it is also important to hear from people with their readers’ hats on. Because our story needs to work first and foremost on that level.
How to Confront a Writing Fear
1. Name it.
Whatever your fear as a writer, the first step to conquering it is naming it.
With fiction, we may fear that our stories will be boring, or pointless, or full of bland characters.
With memoir, on top of all those things, we might be afraid that someone will consider our childhood too bizarre, our family too strange, our needs and motives sinister, selfish or out-of-step with society.
Above all, in memoir, we fear that we will come across as a self-absorbed whiner, a ‘navel gazer.’
2. Know that many good writers own their fears.
One of my favorite authors on the craft of writing is Bonnie Friedman, who wrote a little jewel called Writing Past Dark. In it she said:
“Every day I must prove I am a writer. The knowledge goes away in my sleep.”
Cynthia Ozick, author of numerous novels and shorter works of fiction, said:
“I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence.”
And even the authors of our beloved classics are not immune. Writing to his publisher, at the age of twenty-six, a full two years before The Great Gatsby was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
“I doubt if, after all, I’ll ever write anything again worth putting in print.”
3. Work through the fear.
This may be the hardest one to do. Because our books are extensions of ourselves, we take it as a critique of us.
It is not. It is just our work. Try to separate the two.
4. Have several projects going on at once—and don’t stalk your reader.
Blogging has taught me a lot about this step. Forget the work you just handed to a friend or colleague. Go on to something else.
Above all, don’t hide behind that couch, watching and waiting for every facial expression and gesture. That’s just putting too much pressure on the reader (and yourself).
5. Whatever you do, don’t apologize for your work.
It is tempting to be like Eliza in @inkygirl’s comic strip. “It’s just a rough draft.” “I’m still working on the middle part.” “Keep in mind it’s a work-in-progress.”
Because we never feel our work is quite ready to see the light of day, right? The things you are looking for in a critique—of your book or just a few chapters of your story—are fresh eyes, honest feedback on plot and a sense of the emotional impact on the reader.
So “zip the mouth and throw away the key,” as they used to say, smile and move on with your writing.
What about you?
Do you ever get butterflies when it’s time to hand your work over to a “friendly reader”?
Have you tamed all your peer fears?