Last week I had one of those days where putting one word down after another felt like trying to tap dance through the La Brea tar pits in steel-toed boots. No matter how hard I tried to eek out a story, the only thing of interest to come from my writing session was the acrobatic show put on by the gray squirrel who likes to pilfer peanuts from the bird feeder outside my window before the blue jays can get to them. One had to applaud his moxie—lord knows, I didn’t have any.
Back when I first started out as a writer a day like that would’ve paralyzed me the rest of the week simply because the judge’s voice in my head (who strangely sounds like Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy) bellowed: “That’s it, Ethel. The girl’s a fraud, I tell you—a genuine, bona fide fraud.” Go ahead, add the laugh track if it makes the experience more authentic for you. I don’t mind.
It wasn’t until a few years later I had the good fortune to attend a panel discussion between authors Dean Bakopoulos and Charles Baxter at the Fox Cities Book Festival. Bakopoulos asked Baxter about his apprenticeship as a writer, and Baxter replied he spent many nights lying awake waiting for the Fraud Police to knock on his door. He also said no matter how accomplished a writer you are the Fraud Police never stop looking for you. Needless to say, I found this insight to be both enlightening and scary as hell.
So how does one drown out Fred or tell the Fraud Police to take a hike when they threaten to break down the door?
In Charles Baxter’s “Full of It”—a letter to a young writer, collected in Frederick Busch’s anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer, he suggests:
To be a novelist or short story writer, you first have to pretend to be a novelist or short story writer. By great imaginative daring, you start out as Count No-Count. Everybody does. Everyone starts out as a mere scribbler. Proust got his start as a pesky dandified social layabout with no recognizable talents except for making conversation and noticing everybody. So what do you do? You sit down and pretend to write a novel by actually trying to write one without knowing how to do it.
Again, sage advice worth consideration. Still, after some sleepless nights of my own, I came to the conclusion that maybe the first step one should take is to actually look Fred or Sgt. Fraud in the eye and see him for who he really is behind all the bluster—FEAR. Fear of not being able to deliver. Fear of letting down your loved ones. Fear of being told you’re wasting your time. Fear of being the most boring, unintelligent storyteller on the planet, maybe even the universe. Fear of the dark, icky stuff you’ll uncover. Fear nobody will read your novel/story/poem/essay. Fear that everyone will read your novel/story/poem/essay. You get the picture.
In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert says “fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to go into realms of uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something to be dealt with.” Perhaps if one accepts fear as part of the creative process, it becomes easier to acknowledge its presence and move forward, especially on those days when the words seem so few and distant.
What do you think? How do you stay motivated when the Fraud Police come knocking on your door? Feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.