Stephen King Still Fears Failure. How About You?

Stephen King by Oscar Oliva OA / DeviantArt

by Oscar Oliva OA / DeviantArt

Today’s guest post is by freelancer and author Marcy McKay.


The November 2014 issue of Rolling Stone interviews the master of contemporary fiction, Stephen King. The Q&A covers a myriad of interesting topics for writers: the author’s typical working day, his literary legacy, as well as how alcohol and drugs affected his writing back in the day.

However, one quote in particular shivered through me. It might change your thinking, too.

The interviewer casually asked him, “You still fear failure after all these years of success?” King replied:

“Sure. I’m afraid of all kinds of things. I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.”

Holy apostrophe, Batman! Stephen X@#% King still battles fear?

After four decades of publishing, with over 350 million books sold (both fiction and nonfiction), and winning the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters—that guy still combats fear?

One writer-friend read that quote and bemoaned how it was hopeless for the rest of us. We’d stay buried in self-doubt forever.

Wrong attitude.

Those same 33 words freed me.

Learning from the Master

King fully admits his self-doubt. He worries his imagination will never even show up to the page, or worse, he won’t find the perfect ending for himself or his audience.

Hmmm, that sounds pretty much like the rest of us.

I know, I know, most of us will never be as prolific as the author of Carrie, Stand By Me and The Green Mile. We’ll probably never pen our memoir and a precise how-to that becomes a classic like On Writing.

It should still give us hope. Endless.

What Stephen King Teaches Us

King’s comments on fear offer three important takeaways:

1. Fear is part of the creative process.

We’ll never graduate and move on from fear like we did from high school. It’s a shadow always lurking behind us. It’s a horrible enemy that must be slayed over and over again.

2. Name your fear to destroy it.

Examine your fear to find the wisdom there. Look for specifics in your creative monsters.

  • Do you struggle with self-doubt like King? If so, at which stage? The beginning, the middle, the end, or all of the above? If so, be prepared, then ignore it and keep writing.
  • Is perfectionism a problem for you? Do you throw out draft after draft of your manuscript because it’s never good enough? Maybe you spend two hours rewriting one sentence? Striving for excellence is admirable, while perfectionism is damaging.
  • Are you a procrastinator? Do you keep telling people you’re still conducting research for your book when the truth is you’re too scared to start?
  • Do you sabotage yourself with alcohol or drugs to the point you can’t write? Do you create drama in your life instead of in your stories? Are you whiner who always talks about writing, but never writes?

3. Stop resisting fear.

Now that you understand fear part of the creative process, stop fighting it. Learn your internal/external signals as to what’s happening, and use it to your advantage.

Don’t misunderstand me: Even when you realize fear is part of the writing process, it will still scare the hell out of you. Each and every time. Except now, you’ll know what to do.

Shut up, sit down and write.

Do not wait to gather your courage first, then write. Write first to make the fear go away. Until it returns again. Then, you write through it once more.

The cycle repeats itself endlessly.

Why do we torture ourselves like this?

For that, we return to the Rolling Stone article: The interviewer asked King about retirement, if he saw himself still writing into his eighties and beyond.

King’s response was perfect.

“It (writing) fulfills me. There are two things about it I like: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.”

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post and tagged , .

Marcy McKay

Marcy McKay is the “Energizer Bunny of Writers.” She’s an award-winning short-story author and copywriter, as well as a freelance journalist. She believes writing is delicious and messy and hard. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her free ebook, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Find her on Facebook.

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48 Comments on "Stephen King Still Fears Failure. How About You?"

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Anita Cooper

Thanks, Marcy for the great article. Who knew King faces these fears. Maybe that’s why he’s such a master craftsman at horror!

One reason I love watching movies made from his book is that I’m always looking for him to play bit parts in them. Kind of like “Where’s Waldo” only scarier! 😉

Marcy Mason McKay

HA! I love Stephen King being a horrific “Where’s Waldo?! And I felt EXACTLY the same way about SK fearing failure. It comforted me, somehow. Thanks for stopping by and making me smile.

Krithika Rangarajan
Marcy It’s wonderful to find your articles all across the WWW! #HUGSSSSS I can relate to being a whiny procrastinator who always talks about writing for herself, but never does, because she is too afraid to start and believes she has no creative ideas either. However, last night, I could sense myself getting tired of my excuses. So maybe, very soon, I will stop complaining and just write for myself – hey, why not today…or at the most tomorrow! (OOPS – was that an excuse yet again? See how my brain functions) Thanks again for your fantabulously inspirational post #HUGS… Read more »
Marcy Mason McKay

Hi Kitto. You’re going to LOVE On Writing. I keep it on my desk for inspiration. I hope you do write FOR YOURSELF today. You’ll be happier, healthier and more productive overall, and that doesn’t suck.

Shirley Showalter
Thanks for helping your writer-readers take heart, Marcy. Isn’t it amazing that we can know that fear is part of the process in our heads, but that doesn’t make it easier to believe that this isn’t the end of our ability to create. Fear lives in the heart and the gut much more than in the mind. One thing should get better over time. We should take courage from the fact that we felt just like this the last time we wrote. But often, we’ve forgotten. Maybe it’s like the pain of childbirth? If we didn’t forget it, there would… Read more »
Marcy Mason McKay

Great insights, Shirley. Even though, I know intellectually when fear tries to shutdown my writing, it doesn’t MATTER that I’ve overcome it before. This time feels so much bigger, hairier, uglier than ever before. It’s interesting the mind games we play.

Christina Katz
I read the whole interview last night. And I love his conclusion about writing and personal and shared satisfaction. It’s exactly the conclusion I came to while writing my third book for Writer’s Digest, The Writer’s Workout. I felt that personal satisfaction in writing was so important that I made the premise the central point of the whole book. Satisfaction and ego are not the same thing. We have to get beyond the neurotic striving that writers have suffered from historically, where we are allowed to thrive with the blessing of others but we might shrivel and die without being… Read more »
Marcy Mason McKay

Fascinating perspectives, Christina. Congrats on your Writer’s Digest book. I agree with you about wanting to move on from the suffering writer syndrome. It’s almost a socially-acceptable form of self-sabotage. Thanks for stopping by.

Lorena Swift

King is one of my favorites. I have the same fears…What if I fail to show up on paper? Well, his book, On Writing is the best to address nuts & bolts…figuring out the basics helps find the way to the page…:)

Marcy Mason McKay

On Writing is one of my favorite writing books, too, Lorena. That and Steven Pressfield’s, The War of Art. Really great information how to continually show up to the page. Best of luck to you!

Carol Coven Grannick

I set aside the longing for publication – and for me, that removed the fear of failure. My focus and my writing flourished.

Marcy Mason McKay

Congrats, Carol that you conquered your fear. Writing for the pure joy of it is so much more important than chasing fame and fortune. I hope your focus and writing continue to go gangbusters!

Wendy Percival

The greatest comfort is to know that even The Greats feel the same way as the rest of us lesser mortals! Then it’s a case of keeping going until we emerge on the other side of the fear barrier. I was like a headless chicken with Second Novel Syndrome but I finally cracked it (after lots of work, re-writes etc. until it felt “right”) so I know if I believe, it will eventually come right the next time. Thanks for reminding us that all writers go through the same trauma! 🙂

Marcy Mason McKay

Beautifully said, Wendy. I think the key is stick-to-itiveness. That separates the wanna be writers from the successes. Here’s to keeping going until we emerge on the other side!

Sharon Greene

Just the message I needed to hear today!

Marcy Mason McKay

I’m so glad my post encouraged you, Sharon. Thanks for taking time to say so.

SandyW

Thank you for this. It’s both encouraging and a bit scary I think.

Marcy Mason McKay

Hi Sandy. Great seeing you here, too. You’re right it is both encouraging and scary, but I was so comforted to know that even prolific writers like Stephen King still worry about the same thing!

Eileen Goudge

Great post, Marcy. Truer words were never spoken. I’m terrified with each and every book I write that I’ll fail. It’s that terror to motivates me to do better, reach higher. God forbid I should ever become complacent. Then I’d know it was over.

Marcy Mason McKay

You’re so right, Eileen. We must keep striving to avoid complacency. Good luck to you and your writing!

Cindy Lowman

This advice goes hand in hand with what Elizabeth Gilbert said at a lecture I attended–fear will come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive. Thanks for the great article!

Marcy Mason McKay

I love that analogy, Cindy! Thanks so much for sharing that — it made my day.

Katie Andraski
I am riddled with fear. Right now it’s fear of promoting my novel. Sending my work out has always been a trial and I’ve shut down after a few rejections. Now that the promotion of my novel is on my shoulders I am finding I am still dealing with fear. In fact it has been more like a block than just fear. I have books and addresses to send them to; it’s a simple task, but I can’t bring myself to type the letters, pack the books and take them to the post office. (I do have a busy schedule… Read more »
Marcy Mason McKay
Congrats on your book, Katie. You’ve already done the hardest part – WRITING it. I understand you fear about sending out into the world, though. That it makes it REAL. I suggest you write the UPSIDE/DOWNSIDE of both ways. What’s the upside of sending out the books? They reach the public. Downside is they might not be well received What’s the upside of not sending them out? You don’t get rejected, criticized, etc. However, the downside is nothing happens and you wrote that book for nothing. Then, you have a choice to make — to send, or not to send.… Read more »
Katie Andraski

Marcy thank you for putting it that way. It’s kind of neat to bypass the gatekeepers, and go right to my readers, who seem to like the book. The publishing world is so turned upside down and so much more democratic. I’ve found Facebook boosting posts has really helped sell some books.

I suspect part of my freeze comes from what animal trainers call a poisoned cue, where the resistance goes deeper than will. Right now i am focusing on the good feelings of sending the work out, because the rejections will come.

Marcy Mason McKay

You’re so right, Katie, rejections WILL come and they WILL hurt. However, praise and appreciation WILL come, too. As Jane Friedman’s blog stresses over and over — it’s a new world out there for authors. You have complete control over your career. Embrace that: write great books, connect with your readers and the rest will work itself out. 🙂

Katie Andraski

Thank you for responding. This may well be a better time for me because I can get right to my readers, because my books may not fit into slots but might still be good. There is a joy in the work itself that has been so rewarding. And in finally giving it a chance to breathe by finding readers. Jane Friedman is great. I used to read her blog years ago as the publishing world started to change up.

Marcy Mason McKay

You’ve sounded more and more confident each time, Katie. You can do this. It won’t be easy or simple, but just keep taking small steps. One foot in front of the other, toward your dreams.

Katie Andraski

Thank you. Yes on one foot ahead of the other. Yes. I love you book too. It’s true, some of us have to write to stay sane and it’s what we’re put on this earth to do, regardless of how we’re received. I’m coming to terms with the world view that I’m following, which eschews success and blesses the small and obscure.

Marcy Mason McKay

Oooooh, Katie. I love that: you follow a worldview that eschew succes + blesses the small and obscure.

Fantastic! You’re definitely a writer.

Thanks for telling me you enjoyed Writing Naked. I really appreciate that.

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[…] by Oscar Oliva OA / DeviantArt Today’s guest post is by freelancer and author Marcy McKay. The November 2014 issue of Rolling Stone interviews the master of contemporary fiction, Stephen King.  […]

Adan Ramie

If Stephen King still has the fear, then I’m with you, Marcy — that makes me feel a whole lot better! It’s not just us in the lowly dredges who battle with self-doubt; we are in amazing, prolific company.

Thanks for another amazing post, Marcy!

Marcy Mason McKay

I KNOW, RIGHT, Adan?! Now, don’t get me wrong, I had to write something recently and became frozen with fear. When I reminded myself about Stephen King, my head went, “So?”
Still, I pressed on, and was quite pleased with the results. The secret is: KEEP WRITING!

Adan Ramie

I think that’s the answer to a lot of writing problems. Just keep writing, and the rest will follow.

Marcy Mason McKay

You got it, Adan. It’s so simple, but not always easy to do.

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[…] This old style of author interviews created a ridiculously unrealistic image that no one could possibly ever live up to. But in the past five to ten years, there has been a huge shift in terms of an openness that writers haven’t displayed before with the advent of blogs, conferences, podcasts, and more. Even Stephen King said in a hot-off-the-presses Rolling Stone interview that even he still fears failure. […]

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[…] Stephen King Still Fears Failure. How About You? via @JaneFriedman […]

Andleeb

Hello Marcy,

It is really a nice article. Few days back I lost something valuable in my workplace and I got the fear that I can not trust anyone and can not leave anything in my office now. Started asking for lockers and stuff. I do not share office but still something was stolen from my office. I do not know how and when.
But after this I feel bit confident and think my fear is a natural thing and part of some creativity. Will figure out positive it will bring for me.

Marcy Mason McKay

Fear ALWAYS has something to teach us, Andleeb, if we’ll take the time to stop and analyze the situation closer

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[…] Stephen King Still Fears Failure | Jane Friedman […]

Amanda Headlee

Thanks for sharing such inspiring words, Marcy. I enjoy how you took the negativity that is associated with “fear” and turned it around to make it work for your writing habit. Brilliant!

Marcy Mason McKay

Thanks, Amanda. Much of Stephen King’s work TERRIFIES me (he’s probably you’re best friend), but I admire the hell out of him. Just wanted to share my insights with the writing world.

mpinard

I identify with one of the commenters before who said it’s not the WRITING that is hard, or that will banish the fear, but the OTHER STUFF. Editing that same work over and over, blurbing it over and over, practicing pitch speeches, wrestling over titles, doubting whether it’s finished, etc. There isn’t as simple an expedient for these fear problems as Sit Down And Write (oh how I wish there was), but what I’m learning is that taking it one step at a time, and rolling with the punches is key. Great post, Marcy. Thank you!

Kayla Thomas
Hearing that King has the same fears as the rest of us, is quite freeing. I was listening to the Lively Show today and singer, Brooke White, said something that resonated with me. Almost all creatives have some sort of inner torture about our work, thinking we’re not good enough. Knowing others struggle too helps me to grit my teeth and muddle through the rough spots. My worst fear comes when I’m preparing my work for my beta readers. They’re the first set of eyes besides my own to see my stories. I always feel like I’m holding my breath… Read more »
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[…] Stephen King still fears failure. Do you? […]

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[…] Stephen King Still Fears Failure. How About You? By Marcy McKay […]

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