Writing and fear
Five easy steps on one hard road
I recently saw a former magazine editor describe how her job has changed over the past two decades. When she began, the task was to help journalists produce their best work. By the time she finished, the challenge was to convince writers to write the pieces in the first place.
The writers, you see, were terrified of being criticized on social media. It seemed safer, despite being writers, not to write anything at all.
A few days ago — on Twitter, natch — I saw a screenshot of another editor’s post, saying much the same thing. That they have to convince their journalists to do honest, accurate journalism, without anticipating a possible negative reception beforehand.
I find this chilling.
As I typed the above sentences, I imagined a series of comebacks, all squeezed into 280 characters. “Maybe they should be careful about what they write,” says one, as if care and fear were the same thing, as if they even led to the same results. Another reply goes: “But look at this powerful person with hideous opinions, they haven’t been silenced one bit.” This ignores, of course, that people with an established following are never subject to the same consequences as normal people are. It also ignores that extremists are, by their nature, louder and more impervious to criticism. They are also better at cashing in on scandal.
I put it to you that fundamentally decent people are the ones who suffer most from the fear of being publicly taken down.
I am writing this to show you that I am a little bit afraid even to describe and acknowledge the fear of others. There is a reason for this. Enough people who I like, and respect, will react badly to the suggestion that social media can have a dampening effect on journalism, or on writing more broadly. I have had enough real-time experience of their reactions to be able to reconstruct this process.
Fear is real. And it’s not enough to say to people, “hey, just brush off the criticism.” The pain of being shunned is real too. There’s a body of psychological research that suggests there is a close relationship between social pain and physical pain. (I haven’t read all of but here is a recent review essay.) At this point, I’ve heard from more than one person that the experience of having their name dragged through the mud, even inside quite small groups, led them to thoughts of self-harm.
I think it’s disingenuous when people write this off as though it’s no big deal, and frankly, it makes me wonder what other kinds of suffering they are willing to write off.
And yet I want to make an important distinction. Much of the fear I am talking about is still self-imposed. There is a difference between having freedom of speech but being afraid of the consequences of using it, and having no freedom of speech at all. There is a difference between being criticized (fairly or not) on social media and being hauled off for questioning by secret police. Let me tell you, the people on Twitter are a helluva lot easier to mute.
So the question becomes: how do you use the freedom you have? I mean, presuming you want to use it, presuming it weighs on your heart to be self-censoring all the time. Presuming, too, you will use it in a thoughtful manner: without exploiting or hurting those who have less power than you do for your own gain, or to score a cheap point.
Let’s say you’re not evil and you can take reasonable criticism on board and learn from it. But how do you write the things that scare you? The ones that feel like you are telling hard truths?
I wish at this point that I could give you a bullet point list with easy tips to solve the problem of fear. Frankly, if I had that list, I’d sell it to a publisher with a title like How to Beat Anxiety in Five Easy Steps, and you’d be getting next year’s newsletters from my beachside villa on the Costa Smeralda.
I'm not an expert in bravery, but I am rather experienced in the matter of fear. Still, I’ve found a few things lately that help.
First: baby steps. Practice. Try something that feels a little bit uncomfortable. Wait and see how it feels: to write it, to publish it, to see people’s reactions. To see people’s negative reactions. To see that you can survive those negative reactions, that you can, with some discipline, put them out of your mind.
Let’s face it, if you are not a rabble-rouser or contrarian by nature, you’re unlikely to come out with all guns blazing in your next piece. But you can try pushing at the edge of your comfort zone.
Second: watch what resonates with readers. My experience has been that the pieces I was most scared to see published, either because I had exposed something vulnerable about myself or because I had been honest in a way I wasn’t used to being, were precisely the ones that readers responded to.
I think this is the kind of thing you have to try out and experience in order to be convinced of it. It’s not enough for someone else to say it — and I tell you, I have read enough other writers making this exact point. You need to keep a running list and remember that feeling you got when a reader wrote you and said: “You put words to something I felt.”
Third: lean into your fatigue. Have less patience with other people’s equivocations. Get sick of your own. Realize that it’s sometimes easier just to say what you mean in clear, direct language. Accept that you no longer have the energy to dance around your own opinions.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, because I feel like I’m in the midst of a shift in my writing. I had one such shift happen when I became a mother. The sheer exhaustion of having a small child meant that it took me much more energy to read dense academic writing, full of jargon and passive constructions. Sometimes I made the effort to work through a difficult text and discovered that it was hot air with a fancy balloon dress. I just had no patience anymore for writers who couldn’t be bothered to think of their readers.
As for writing, I simply wasn’t capable of producing those kinds of sentences anymore. If I did, I viewed them as a mistake and tried to revise them.
Now, two years of pandemic have me tired in a similar way. This time, though, it’s not style that gets me. It’s fear. I’m tired of fear. My own fear and that of other people. I want people to say what they mean, and mean what they say. I expect that from myself as well.
Fourth: think about who benefits from your silence. Are they good people? Or is it the cruel, the abusive, and the negligent? How much of your life do you want to spend in service of their comfort?
Sometimes, however, what we fear is not so much the prospect of offending people, as insignificance. Who needs me to carry on about this? we ask ourselves, Do I have anything interesting to say? A host of associated worries pop in at this point, about not being an expert in the topic, or not having a college degree. Sometimes the writer has a PhD in the topic they want to write about, but that PhD has mainly served to convince them of how little right they have to say anything about it.
I find this mostly true for women writers. Not exclusively, but mostly.
So, fifth: imagine an adversary. Find someone with an opinion that is diametrically opposite to yours. This can be someone you like and respect — in fact, that may be even better. Now argue against it. Remind yourself what your reasons are for believing what you do. Realize that your observations are not obvious or natural or universal. It can be much easier to articulate this in opposition to someone else’s stance than if you feel you are writing into a void.
Well now. I’ve given it all away. In return, all I ask is that you share with me what has helped you quell your inner censor. Click the “comment” button below, or just hit “reply” if you’d prefer to keep it private. And if you know anyone with a vacation property in Sardinia who needs some cat sitting… drop me a line.
This month I had the pleasure of (virtually) welcoming Prof. Ruby Lal, a historian of India at Emory University, to the Jackman Humanities Institute here at the University of Toronto. Prof. Lal joined us for two events which are both now online. The first was “Craft Matters,” a conversation about the techniques and pleasures of public writing. The second event was a panel with Prof. Lal and Prof. Alison Keith (Director of the JHI and professor of Classics at U of T) about “Writing Historical Women.” For the occasion I had the chance to reread Prof. Lal’s Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, a model for how to write a readable, suspenseful trade book while maintaining scholarly integrity.
Must historical women be inspirational “girlbosses”? Does every story need a trauma plot? In my latest column for the Times Literary Supplement, I argue that Geoffrey Chaucer anticipated current debates about the representation of women and their pain.
The piece that prompted the above reflections was an opinion essay I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, an impassioned plea for academics to apply the same standards of critical thinking we teach to our students in our own professional lives.
I’m also excited to share my first piece for The Walrus, a review of Naben Ruthnum’s mordant satire, A Hero of Our Time. As I keep saying to people, one of my habits when I visit home is to go to a newsstand and pick up a copy of The Walrus. Part of the pleasure of this year in Toronto is getting a chance to connect with the local literary scene — and catch up on some Canlit reading from the past few years.
My essay on “Charismatic Heroines in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women” was just published in a Bonn University collection. I wrote it a few years ago, so in a sense it’s a predecessor to the TLS piece. The Legend of Good Women is not one of Chaucer’s popular works but I think it has so much to offer the modern reader.
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