Writing Scared

The Greater San Diego Council of Teachers of English website recently began advertising their fall “Promising Practices” conference, at which I will be both the opening and the closing keynoter. My opening talk is titled “Writing Scared,” a feeling any serious writer will understand perfectly. Writing IS scary, unless there’s no chance for growth in it, and in that case, why bother?

In the years I taught college composition, I used to tell my students that it was easy to think of a writing assignment, or indeed any challenge, in a way that would overwhelm them. The trick is to whittle down big problems in smaller ones that aren’t overwhelming and that can be handled one at a time. Is a ten-page paper on the Russian Revolution too scary? Well, how about one paragraph on the lives of serfs? And then how about a paragraph on how the revolution was supposed to improve their lot? Can do! And then, how about…well, you get the picture. Lo and behold, eventually you hit page ten.

In the years I wrote Young Adult (YA) books for Lucent Books I didn’t think about the 120-page length. I thought about writing 6 consecutive 20-page papers about various subtopics. That length of paper wasn’t too scary for me–after all I’d gotten through grad school, hadn’t I? Within that I asked myself, “Can you write a paragraph about Jomo Kenyatta? A page about colonialism?” Voila! A 120-page book took shape sentence by sentence because I was successful in never seeing it as a 120-page book.

A few years ago, the same thing got me through writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. An accurate and compelling portrait of the Jewish Partisan movement? Yikes! A contribution to the literature about the Holocaust? Double yikes! A page about the Nazi invasion of Lithuania? Yes. A paragraph about ghetto administrator Jacob Gens? Yes. A book? Eventually.

The fact that writing never stops being scary is tied to the fact that it never gets easy. The biggest difference between my attitude and theirs, I used to tell my students, is that I probably have more confidence it will work out well in the end than they do. And that’s true. I know I can write what I put my mind to. I just have to figure out the baby steps every single time.

I’m thinking about this a lot right now, as I finish up the first draft of my novel THE LAWS OF MOTION. After it’s really done (i.e. revised, edited, revised again, edited again, etc., etc.), I’ll be starting on another, based on an idea I’ve had for several years. The thought scares me as much as starting LAWS OF MOTION did. Some things never change. Can I write a novel about Sephardic Iberia? Wow, I don’t know about that. It’s pretty big, pretty scary. Can I whittle it down into do-able pieces? Awfully glad I think so.