Write What Scares You

Perhaps your writing is boring. There’s no shame in it. Most writing is dull, and I myself have written a lot of monochromatic dross in the past. But you don’t have to resign yourself to this. There are ways to be more exciting. And one of the first things you should look at is whether you’re writing things you’re scared about. When you’re terrified to write something, it’s often a good sign.

This doesn’t mean write everything you’re scared about. Some opinions will indeed get you fired and exiled from polite society. You probably don’t want to die on an ice floe alone. 1 It just means taking fear as a recommendation to consider. If the idea of writing something fills you with fear, take the time to examine whether it’s a sign that you’re on the right track. 

Often, when you’re afraid, it’s because you’re considering a subject that touches on your deepest concerns. Thus, if you put it down, and your piece is ignored and rejected, in some way you’re being ignored and rejected. Your reader is looking at your heart and then deciding to Pinterest about couches instead of caring.

But look. You’re going to be ignored anyway. By default, nobody cares much about you. So you have two choices. Either crystallize what matters to you and express it, and either electrify your readers or be ignored, or don’t, and definitely be ignored. And if people really dislike you when you put yourself on the page, they weren’t going to like you anyway. You might as well make it official. Plus they’re probably assholes, and you shouldn’t let assholes run your creative life. 

Another source of fear is feeling that your chosen subject is stupid or obvious. This definitely means you should write about it. Either it means you’re writing something that’s obvious to you and not others, or that you’re saying what everyone else is thinking and not saying, or you’re reminding readers of an eternal truth that they might have forgotten about. (After all, we can only hold like two concepts in our minds at once.) These are all good things.

If you write about something safer, something you feel is a Valid Subject that befits a civilized person such as yourself, it could be good. But it’ll probably be missing some vitality. Okay, fine: you can’t write thunderbolts thrown by your soul every time. And sometimes a listicle about automating your to-do list is what a reader needs.

But if you never do it, you’ll probably never write anything exceptional. Sincerity is real. You can feel it on the page. You know what it feels like when you read something that breaks through all the falsity and pageantry of most communication. Give that to your readers. 

This principle also applies when you’re working on a large project like a book and you’re figuring out what you’re going to omit or include. If your novel contains a scene that might make you seem eccentric or sentimental or perverted, go there. Your pathologies are everyone’s. Don’t be narcissistic and assume that you’re the only one who’s fucked up inside. 

1

Also you could just use a pen name.