A Writer’s Worst Fear

writer worst fear

Today’s guest post is by author William Kenower (@wdbk) and adapted from his book, Fearless Writing, published by Writer’s Digest Books.


In my years of teaching and speaking, I’ve met a lot of writers. Each of them, it seems, has a pet fear. Some writers are afraid of poverty, others of obscurity; some are afraid of writing a dull book, others of writing a shallow one; some are afraid their writing is too literary, while others fear that theirs is not literary enough. The list goes on and is as varied as the stories these writers tell in their workrooms. But the more I’ve listened to their worries, the more I’ve been convinced that every writer’s pet fear stems from the mother of all fears: What other people think of what I write is more important than what I think of what I write.

What makes this particular fear so seductive is its apparent practicality. It seems practical because we are not just writers; we are authors. It doesn’t matter whether you have published thirty New York Times best-selling novels or have just sat down to begin your memoir. If you have ever shared even one thing you have written with another person, you are an author. The moment you surrender this thing you wrote in the supreme privacy of your imagination to the unknown of another person’s mind, your relationship to your writing changes. You are no longer writing in your journal or diary. Now this poem or story or essay is destined for another human heart, and every author quickly understands that he has no control whatsoever over what occurs when that other human heart receives it.

It is a little disorienting. If I am an author, it is quite natural to want—indeed, even to need—the validation of others. If I have any aspirations toward making a living at this, I certainly require other people to like it. I need an agent, an editor, and a publisher to like it. I would prefer if a few critics like it; and I certainly need readers to like it. If no one likes it, then I might as well be writing in my diary.

But writers have something else in common besides this shared fear: They prefer solitude while writing. This is exactly the problem with what other people think of what I’ve written: Those other people aren’t with me while I’m writing it. No matter how much I want other people to like it and how much I dread the idea that they will hate it, I am still the only one writing it. I can receive all the feedback and editorial notes in the world, but in the end I must go to my workroom alone and choose every word. No one can make these choices for me. It doesn’t matter who my target audience might be, how big a contract I receive, or how many Twitter followers I have—I am still the one choosing. Whether I like it or not, the only way to write is to consult my own curiosity and imagination. Nothing else can tell me what word or sentence or scene should come next. Like it or not, my imagination and curiosity are all I have.

In this way, writing is a form of deep self-acceptance. But do not make too much of this term. It is often seen as a spiritual mountaintop, accessible only by a dedicated and holy few. Writing has taught me that we accept ourselves all the time; it’s just that many of us don’t realize it because, in truth, self-acceptance often feels as natural as breathing. The moment I stop fretting about what other people think of this paragraph or that sentence, the moment I have accepted that no one else is actually in the room with me and that to write I must consult only my own curiosity and imagination, I have accepted myself. Nothing is more unique to me than my curiosity and imagination. I am never more myself than when I ask, “What interests me most?” Only I know the answer.

Finally, here is a strange truth with which writers must live: Even if no one likes what I have written, I can’t stop being interested in it. I may be embarrassed, hurt, disappointed, suicidal even, but my curiosity does not actually turn off or change shape because someone else isn’t as interested in what I have written as I am. That curiosity cannot simply vanish; it may get stuffed down, ignored, or disguised as a different story, but it will remain in place until I shine the light of my attention on it again. It is as if beneath all the fretting, jubilation, and despair that often accompany sharing my work with others, my curiosity, my imagination, and I don’t actually care what anyone else thinks. No matter how bad I feel if someone doesn’t like what I’ve written, I cannot correct my curiosity to please other people, even if I wanted to. I’m stuck with it.

This is why the moment I believe that someone else’s opinion of my work is more important than my own, I am lost. I have nothing to guide me through the uncharted waters of a story. If I believe this, then I have annihilated my own curiosity in favor of another person’s. I have nothing to offer, and yet I keep writing and wondering why I don’t like a word of it.

I admit that I came to this understanding by a long and torturous road. For much of my writing life, I didn’t just believe that I cared deeply what other people thought about my writing—I knew it empirically! Every time someone told me they liked what I had written, whether in the form of a critique or an acceptance letter, I felt good. And, conversely, every time someone told me they didn’t like my work, I felt bad. It was as predictable as fire feeling hot and ice feeling cold. My goal was to become such a Good Writer that people would almost always like what I had written, and I would consequently almost always feel good. After all, I couldn’t think of a moment in my life when I preferred feeling bad to good. So I had no choice but to care what people thought, because their opinions determined how I felt, and how I felt was extremely important to me.

By and by—by which I mean about twenty years—I questioned whether I truly cared what other people thought of my work, or if my motivations went deeper. If I only cared about what other people thought of my writing because their opinions seemed to make me feel good or bad, didn’t this mean that my ultimate goal was simply to feel good? I began to wonder: Did their opinions actually, scientifically, immutably cause me to feel one way or another? I asked myself if there was one instance where someone’s praise hadn’t made me feel significantly better or one instance where someone’s disinterest or downright dislike hadn’t made me feel any worse. I recalled, of course, numerous such instances. is meant my response to those opinions wasn’t as predictable as re and ice. Which meant that something else besides those opinions was responsible for how I felt.

Exploring that “something else” is best left for another post. In the meantime, remember this: You will find your confidence and begin to write fearlessly the moment you stop caring about what anyone else thinks. That’s it. Really. I have suffered greatly over my writing life. I’ve felt blocked, gotten rejected, and have abandoned stories I couldn’t finish. In every instance, my suffering abated the moment I stopped caring what anyone else would think of what I was writing.

Fearless WritingIf you want to write something and share it with others, if you want to be an author, begin simply by forgetting about all those other people with whom you will eventually share what you have written. Forget about criticism and praise, forget about markets and agents and editors. You will remember all of that in time. But for now, forget it. No one is looking over your shoulder, no one is reading what you have written, and no one has an opinion about it. Right now you are alone, and it is time to write.


If you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend taking a look at Fearless Writing by William Kenower.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.
William Kenower

William Kenower

William Kenower is the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion, the Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine, and a sought-after speaker and teacher. In addition to his books he’s been published in The New York Times and Edible Seattle, and has been a featured blogger for the Huffington Post. His video interviews with hundreds of writers from Nora Ephron, to Amy Tan, to William Gibson are widely considered the best of their kind on the Internet. He also hosts the online radio program Author2Author where every week he and a different guest discuss the books we write and the lives we lead.

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18 Comments on "A Writer’s Worst Fear"

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Carol Coven Grannick

Thanks for this! There’s no question that the most meaningful years of my writing life have happened since I set aside the longing for publication and wrote because I wanted and had to (as I described in a long-ago column for AUTHOR). As I wait for responses to submissions of that work now, I long for a new project, a story, to grab me and take me back to caring about nothing but my work.

Christine Lind
What an inspiring way to start my writing day. This post injected a calm and beauty to my heart reminding me why I write in the first place. I woke this morning checking my many submissions to see if anyone liked what I wrote. Sometimes they do, but even that doesn’t really give me confidence because maybe the next thing I write they won’t. I am printing out this post and placing it along side my Bible and devotionals. It doesn’t belong with the grammar or POV books- it belongs in the company of what I read that brings back… Read more »
Carmen Amato

I think this post will resonate with many authors. I first wrote books because we couldn’t find the age appropriate action adventure books my son wanted to read and followed up by writing the sort of novels I wanted to read. I think any time you write a story that you’d find worth reading and imbue it with the greatest quality you can, others will find it worth reading, too. Yours is the most important validation.

William Kenower

Thanks, Jane! Glad to see this is resonating with so many folks. It certainly helped me. Stay fearless!

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[…] “I am never more myself than when I ask, “What interests me most?” Only I know the answer.” https://janefriedman.com/writers-worst-fear/ […]

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[…] On the topic of writing, I just read a fantastic piece written by William Kenower about writers’ worst fears and how to face them. You can check it out over on Jane Friedman’s website entitled A Writer’s Worst Fear. […]

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[…] https://janefriedman.com/writers-worst-fear/ Get over worrying what someone else thinks of your writing. For now. Write without being afraid. I’m starting to do this. It has taken me a while to get to this point. I know I need others to critique for me and that I’ll need to work with editors, etc. but getting to the point where you feel confident in your work after being blasted by others in the past, is hard. It is doable. […]

nancy

wow…is this good! definitely not to be read just once, but over and over, like a mantra when sitting down before writing an honest piece.

William Kenower

Awesome. It’s a practice, Nancy. Every day, every day, every day. Stay fearless!

Jeane\' D. Ridges

I was sitting here writing and forgot I had saved this story to read and decided to take a look. The other day I told myself who cares what others’ are going to think how do you feel, how do you want to envision this. Right now in tears, I pick back up where I was but want to take a moment to say thank you for your words because I hadn’t realized how important that revelation was.

William Kenower

My pleasure. Write what you love and stay fearless. Everything takes care of itself when you do!

JOHN T. SHEA

So true, so obvious, yet so easy to overlook and forget! Many thanks!

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[…] Kenower examines a writer’s worst fear, and Hannah Ross discusses your daily writing […]

Lily

Thanks for he post. Very inspiring. This is something I’ve been looking for.

Andy Hyde
I’m at a crossroads in expanding my capacity to write and growing in confidence, to open my notebook and blog/read to others. I think as long as what we write remains hidden away we aren’t aware of the growth that can happen once we open our mouths with the words we have penned. I have for twenty years (plus) written stories and penned thoughts that had remained collecting dust in my journals…I knew I had a voice, God only knows why it’s taken me this long to open the covers and share some of it. Perhaps the reasons you have… Read more »
William Kenower

Glad it helped, Andy. Everything we love, whether we write it or read it, is meant to be shared. Share away.

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[…] This a huge fear – especially for first time writers. I lvoe the way author coach/strategiest Jane Friedman describes it. She worte: […]

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