The Writing Rookie #11: Overcoming Fear

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

Fear is, I’ve come to realize, one of my great personal enemies as a creative writer (along with laziness). Part of this is probably just because of the kind of person I am. I suspect, though, that part of it may be endemic to the writing process.


Possibly the hardest time for me personally during the writing of my novel (and since) was the time after the manuscript was finished, while I was sending it out and getting feedback from as many people I could entice into looking at it. I remember several days sitting at my computer, incapable of putting in time on my paid work, almost mindless with fear about the kinds of responses I would get. Fortunately, I was able to get past it with several long walks — and prayers, most of which ended with me putting my work, and my pride in it, on the Lord’s altar: accepting that if it turned out that what I had written wasn’t any good, that was still okay because I had tried my best to do something I felt was worthwhile. Ultimately, the only way I was able to achieve peace was through a sense that my effort in writing No Going Back might be an acceptable offering, even if the work itself lacked value or worth.

The whole experience was something of a surprise. I had no idea that I cared so much what my would-be peers in the community of Mormon letters thought about my work. I had no understanding of just how debilitating that fear might be — that I could be tempted to pull my work from consideration by a publisher and readers, even after I had finished it, just to avoid finding out that they might not like it. I didn’t do that, of course — but I can’t help but wonder how much of that was because of how public I had been about my writing of the book, and how embarrassing and essentially impossible it would have been to suddenly pretend it didn’t exist. At one point, I consoled myself with the thought that if everyone hated the book, I could just drop out of the community of Mormon letters and find something else to do with my time: curl up in a ball and hide, essentially. It was good, I thought, that I lived in Wisconsin, not somewhere like Utah where my social life might involve regular in-person interaction with a lot of other Mormon writers and readers — perhaps the first time I’d been glad of that particular fact. Usually, my lack of ability to spent time at Mormon literary events is one of the few things I regret about not living in Utah.


Back in my graduate school days, I came to a realization that unless you’re in one of the “sexy” fields like queer theory, in order to succeed as a literary scholar, you have to be willing to care more about your own research and writing than anyone else ever will. This presented a substantial challenge to me, since as an externally motivated person, I tend to judge the value of what I do on its value and interest to others and the “ego strokes” I can get from their praise.

Typical advice given to people like me often suggests that we should just somehow choose not to care about what other people think — an act as impossible in my case as flapping my arms and flying to the moon. I’m simply not built that way, and the evidence I see from other people like me is that this is not an area where people typically are capable of change. Yes, it may be somehow better or loftier or more godlike to do what one is doing purely based on internal motivation, but I’m convinced that’s just not an option for some of us.

Including, interestingly, Joseph Smith, based on some of the evidence from his life. Can you imagine Brigham Young ever saying, “If my life has no value to my friends, it has no value to me”? Brigham’s version would have read more like, “If my life has no value to my friends, I need a new set of friends.” But I digress . . .

Fear, it’s sometimes said, is a useful emotion, focusing our attention on potential dangers and ways to prevent them. I’m here to tell you, though, that fear — or the desire for praise — serves little or no useful purpose in writing, unless its value is to point us to some other kind of less risky and more rewarding activity. Which, despite those risks, is not always a good thing, since I daresay there are some things that can only be accomplished by writing books.

I waited the better part of 10 years for someone else to write the first Mormon novel about a gay teenager trying to stay in the Church. No one else volunteered (something I understand a little better now that it’s been published . . . ). Regardless of whether the novel I wrote was worthwhile or not, the idea that someone needed to write a novel of this kind (and many more, hopefully, still to come on this topic) was something I still believe. Now it’s been done. The next one (by someone else) may be — hopefully will be — better. But it won’t be the first, and the reason it won’t be is because I did manage to get past those fears and put something out there.

14 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #11: Overcoming Fear”

  1. Thanks for this, Jonathan.

    The fear and pride swings and interminglings definitely interfere with my production of work. One reason I started AMV was to create some external pressure to write, a voice calling me — no matter how faint it may be. And I did this even though my initial inclination was to not do it because I should take all this time and pour in to producing creative writing.

    Ironically, although I’m still not where I thought I would/should be, the output and quality of my creative writing has gone up in the last 5 years.

  2. “The fear and pride swings” — Just the other day I mentioned to someone how as a writer, one tends to go back and forth between considering oneself the greatest author that ever lived and thinking that one’s work isn’t worth lighting fires with.

  3. Ha-I feel like that Jonathan. Going from I’m the greatest, to this is for my kids to color crayons on.

    Glad I was able to be a link in the chain to people who did like your book.

  4. Looking at myself, I tend to think I should have more fear of what people will think. When I do purely creative writing, it really is mostly to please myself, and then I share it with the idea that maybe some others will be entertained by the same thing; but if not, I still got a real kick out of creating it and out of rereading it, from time to time.

    I’m sure there will come a day when I regret putting somewhat irreverent, impure things like the Sugar Beet and my novel Kindred Spirits into the world, and I’ll wish I had worried a little more about what others thought. Reading the definition of “light-mindedness” the other day, I was surprised by how much it applied to some of the creative writing I’ve done. I admit, I get some passive-aggressive release of tension out of my unfettered creative writing, sticking it to a culture that I don’t like in many ways or even just to the absurdity of life itself, in some ways. But perhaps that’s just adolescent and masturbatory of me, in some ways.

    Not only in literary efforts but also in my employment and church, I just don’t care enough about what others think of me.

  5. Responding to Chris: And yet look at the many worthwhile things which your lack of fear has freed you to do — like starting Irreantum and Zarahemla Books (and I’m willing to count The Sugar Beet as well, even though I sometimes found myself glancing around for tall trees to attract any possible lightning strikes while I was reading it).

    Honestly, I think any particular mindset has its strengths and weaknesses. Goodness knows there are times when I think my tendency to think about all the ways something might go wrong is helpful, in both editing and real life. But I also tremendously admire the things people like Chris can accomplish, which I think I would have a hard time ever doing.

    I find it endlessly fascinating just how diverse we/you humans are, in so many different ways…

  6. For what it’s worth, I think some of the writers of self-help, doctrinal and LDS genre novels will look back and see that their work is impure and irreverent as well. Which isn’t to repudiate their work or to defend the Sugar Beet 100% (although puncturing self-righteousness [of all stripes, orthodox, fundie, liberal, etc.] and bureaucraticism is a public service, imo, especially if done with wit rather than pure snark), but to point out that all communication in this world is fallen and the Gospel circumscribes and is meant to refine all discourses.

  7. William,

    A good point. All of our mortal work and art is, in that sense, impure — and inherently sacrilegious, as any act of creation (or sub-creation) is when compared to work by the Creator.

    Has anyone but me (here) read Tolkien’s little allegory, Leaf by Niggle? It presents a fascinating (and hopeful) vision of how mortal art can be taken up, perfected, and made a part of God’s creation. (There’s an essay out there waiting to be written on how Tolkien’s views about art harmonize with an LDS view, possibly even more than they harmonize with his own Catholicism. Maybe I’ll write it someday…)

  8. .

    All of our mortal work and art is, in that sense, impure — and inherently sacrilegious, as any act of creation (or sub-creation) is when compared to work by the Creator.

    I can’t agree with that any more than it’s sacrilegious when we serve our fellows. We are supposed to emulate God. It only becomes sacrilegious when we start keeping all the glory for ourselves.

  9. I think God sanctifies our sacrilegious-ness when we do it to emulate him and bring joy and understanding to his creations and can do so because of the atonement and the mercy it brings. But I’m admittedly using the word sacrilegious in a peculiar way to highlight the limitations inherent in all mortal creative efforts.

  10. Following up to William’s latest: The limitations and also the pride/arrogance inherent in human attempts to do imperfectly what God does perfectly. I think that a humble recognition that it *is* inherently arrogant is one of the requirements in order to make the creation of art (or other human endeavors) acts of worship of God, instead of acts of competition. I’m not sure there are ultimately any other options. (I’m thinking some of the Tower of Babel here, but I’m not quite sure how it fits in.)

    All of human life, in the Mormon view, is an act of incredible audacity–until and unless sanctified through consecration to God.

  11. All of human life, in the Mormon view, is an act of incredible audacity”“until and unless sanctified through consecration to God.

    Could you clarify?

    Do you mean “all of human life” as it pertains merely to existence?


    Do you mean “all of human life” as it pertains to what we attempt to make of it?

  12. I think I meant “all of human life” in that as God’s children, everything we attempt to do is an imitation of something God did first and better, from building families to creating and ordering the physical things of the earth (God, after all, being the one who first planted a garden). In some sense, those efforts all wind up marring God’s work unless and until the Atonement makes things right. As individuals and parents, we damage Heavenly Father’s children in ways that would be quite unforgivable were it not for the Atonement’s power to heal them.

  13. Aren’t we taught that the Lord ORGANIZED matter and that what he created was patterned on something that went before?

    I am of the opinion that the Lord, as an organizer/creator, wants us to be audacious and gives us the tools to do so.

    It’s terribly audacious to believe that we are gods (organizers/creators of worlds) in embryo, and we’re the only Christian religion that believes this. Outrageous! It’s one reason evangelicals hate us so much.

    In fact, I’m not even sure any Pagan sect believes that.

    Thus, not to exercise that willingness to emulate him–however imperfectly–is to say, “No, not interested in being a god, thanks.”

    I like to think the Lord thinks of us far more highly than that, and I don’t think the Atonement has anything to do with the perfection of our creations.

    It’s practice for godhood. Like writing our letters until we have something approaching legible penmanship.

  14. I agree with all that — that this is exactly what God wants us to do, and that it is what we are set on Earth to do. The only part I disagree with is that I think the Atonement has everything to do with it. I think the Atonement is precisely what makes this whole strategy — practicing things imperfectly in the hopes of improving — work at all. Without the Atonement, we would be eternally stuck, with all of our efforts at imitation of God doomed only to make things worse — because we would be unable to repent and become better, and because those (including ourselves) damaged by the mistakes we made would have no prospects for healing.

    This is one reason, in my view, why the gospel is an essential part of human effort. Humanist philosophies like classic Romanticism that exalt human effort without the necessity for God are, in my view, very much like the Tower of Babel: dangerously unbalanced and likely to cause harm. But then, as I pointed out before, I think that all human efforts are likely to cause harm, without God’s corrections.

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