We tell ourselves many reasons why we’re not writing – or not writing as much or as often as we would like. Pick your reasons from the following list: work, family, social life, duties, distractions. But if you want to write and you’re not making writing a priority, there’s actually only a single reason – fear.
Fear of failure is the most common cause of procrastination. So long as we don’t write the book, we can maintain its perfection in our head. The book we dream of writing tends to be better than the book we actually write, and as long as we haven’t written it, it can’t end up being mediocre, can’t be rejected, judged or criticised. But close behind fear of failure is another fear few people even want to acknowledge: fear of success.
Imagine that you write a book and it becomes a best-seller. Really take a moment to imagine it – the invitations to speak, the royalties pouring into your bank account, the envious faces of your family and friends. Does the thought thrill you? Or send a shiver down your spine? Public speaking, money, envy – and haven’t we all heard about the price of fame?
According to researchers, we fear public speaking more than we fear death. That’s right. In surveys of what people fear most, public speaking is consistently number one, and death is number two. Write that successful book and you will be inundated with requests to speak in public in front of hundreds or even thousands of people: literature festivals, book events, radio, TV.
Publishers will expect you to make these appearances. They may even be part of your contract. Would you actually rather die? If you’re struggling to make progress on a book that feels like a winner, you can bet your subconscious has already made the connection between writing and terror.
“You can bet your subconscious has already made the connection between writing and terror”
Dodging the dollars
How about royalties pouring into your bank account? Who’d be afraid of that? Well, surprisingly, a lot of people. Any significant change in our circumstances can be frightening. I have a friend who turned down an advance of £200,000 because, and I quote, “it was a life-changing amount of money”.
In theory she wanted to give up her job and become a full-time author, but in practice, it made her feel incredibly insecure. She wasn’t even sure she could feel worthy of that kind of money, not for a book she wasn’t sure was any good (like many people, she suffers from imposter syndrome). If you’ve never been wealthy, a sudden influx of money can be potentially destabilising. We all realise that money can profoundly alter our relationships with friends and family.
And the same goes for success more generally. When I got a book deal for my first novel, I was disturbed by the way it affected some of my friendships. One very close friend stopped following me on Twitter because, I suspect, they were having trouble dealing with my overly joyful tweets. They said they would come to the book launch, then didn’t turn up. You bet I noticed. We’re not as close as we were.
This friend has not yet achieved the high level of success their talent deserves, and I can see how it would feel unfair to them, but I shed tears about it at the time. I also had a lot of people I had lost touch with get back in touch. Not all of those resurfacings were welcome.
“Success as a writer means being in the public eye, and that can make you a target.”
Finally, let’s not forget what happens to those who stick their head above the parapet: they are liable to get shot at. Success as a writer means being in the public eye, and that can make you a target. Indeed it would be fair to say that, especially in the UK, the more successful you are perceived to be, the more likely it is that people will want to tear you down.
Slings and arrows
Become truly famous, and every offhand remark you make, every tweet, every joke taken out of context, can become a potential focus for somebody’s anger. I had my own taste of this recently when I got my very first commission to write for the Guardian Books blog. It’s not easy to handle the verbal assault of strangers, and many of us would rather not risk it. It’s not surprising that fear of success keeps so many books unwritten or unfinished.
“It’s not surprising that fear of success keeps so many books unwritten or unfinished.”
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Once you’ve recognised that your procrastination is caused by fear, you can employ strategies to overcome it. In recent years, powerful techniques have been developed, allowing you to reprogram your brain so that success is no longer a terrifying prospect. One can completely eliminate, for example, fear of public speaking.
One poet I worked with on this issue, Rachel Rooney, is now comfortably entertaining huge audiences at the Royal Festival Hall! Before I started using these techniques nearly a decade ago, I was afraid of both failure and success. Eliminating those fears took a bit of dedication (a few minutes every day), but I started seeing the results in my writing habit very quickly, got the novel written, got it published, and finally started achieving – after decades – those things I had dreamed of since I was a girl.
Download Ros Barber’s free guide Five Resources to Make Yourself Fearless to learn more about how to prevent any fear from standing in the way of writing. Start taking serious strides towards your dreams!