by Bruce Marshall Romans
I want to write about something I think doesn’t get enough attention from us writers. I suppose I want to write about it because it’s often on my mind when I try to work. By work, I mean write something worth reading. I also believe it’s an issue with which many writers struggle, but don’t want to talk about for the very reason itself. What I’m talking about is fear.
As a student, struggling writer, and now a working writer, I’ve learned a lot about protagonists, rising action, falling action, structure, character development, story development, twists, resolution, red herrings, plot, acts, chapters, turns, pivots, exposition, dialogue, subtext, subplots, A-stories, act outs, prologues, B-stories, action, misleads, given circumstances, obstacles, C-stories, spacing, pacing, obstacles, climaxes, antagonists, rewriting, and formatting. To name a few aspects of the literary endeavor. However, out of all these important things, I’ve struggled most with the God-awful, bone-chilling fear of actually writing, of actually sitting down and typing out a story based on some idea I might have or a thought I think may be worth exploring. I’m terrified of it. It scares the H-E-double hockey sticks out of me. It makes me not like writing.
Some writer, I don’t know who, once upon a time said, “I hate writing, but love having written.” I know exactly what they mean. Nothing pains me more than to see that empty white page . . . uh, empty blank screen. Why? You might ask. Well, I think you already know the answer to that. It’s my fear.
Truth be told, I’m afraid right now. Writing this piece. It’s taken me a few weeks to even start, but I ran out of laundry to fold and dishes to wash and rugs to vacuum. So, alas, despite my anxiety and trepidation, here I finally sit pecking out thoughts to you, the reader if you are, in fact, out there . . . I’m afraid because I’m not guaranteed what I’m writing will make sense, be of any interest to anyone, be any good, and most of all, because I may disappoint myself and hate whatever I’ve written. Which would mean I’ve failed.
Every time I start to work on a project, my own or for someone else, I feel that same wave of paralyzing fear overtake me. No matter how long I’ve been writing or how many pieces I write, it never changes. I’m a novice. A first-timer with no idea how to begin. I just know that no matter what I write, it won’t be good and that’s what I’m afraid of. The opportunity for failure with every script I write rears its ugly head daring me to start.
But writing is my job. I have to start. It’s that or take the LSAT, which is a fate worse than eternal damnation, in my opinion. (Have you ever met a happy lawyer?) In order to do that, I have to wrestle this fear into submission. I can’t kill it. I’ve tried. Its life is eternal.
But I’ve learned to recognize it, admit it’s there, and then move past it. I try to use it instead of letting it control me. I’ve found it to be somewhat manageable. The reason for this is, I learned it’s not just me who’s afraid. What??? Yep. That bears repeating: It’s not just me who’s afraid. I think everyone is. In fact, I know everyone is. If they tell you they aren’t, they aren’t telling you the gospel. And, though I’m loath to admit it, I selfishly take great comfort in knowing I’m not alone in my terror. This is part and parcel of the trade, the business of letters, the work of the pen. Fear is the starting line where we all take up a position.
I didn’t always believe this. I thought it was just me alone in self-doubt as I read, with envy, other writers’ admirable works. I thought, “Why can’t I be like them and just write something good?” I’d write and hate it and stop. I’d write and hate it and start over. I’d write and hate it and start editing. I never finished anything. I was afraid to finish because I saw where my work was going, and I couldn’t bear the thought of not being good enough, much less just not being good. I’d rather not complete a script than risk writing something I knew was going to be unreadable.
That was until I had the random opportunity to work with playwright Beth Henley. Beth won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with her play Crimes of the Heart. She is a very respected and accomplished writer, and I was over the moon to be working with her. One night she started talking about her process of writing, and I was all ears. She was a real writer and she was opening up to me, a stranger, and sharing the coveted secrets of the trade and everything she said rang true to all my experiences in trying to write. Beth spoke of her struggles working. She told me she’d write for forty days or so and in that time, she’d create nothing but disastrous prose. But . . . on the forty-first day, she’d strike gold and finally land on an idea or take on a story and then she was off to the races. But . . . she never would have gotten to that gold if it weren’t for the forty days in the dreaded, fearful desert of nothingness.
Beth essentially told me, “You have to be brave and trust that the good stuff will come no matter how scared you are.” She said you can’t stop and start over and edit and rewrite . . . you have to finish and trust you will find it. Don’t let the fear stop you. And this was from a Pulitzer Prize winner. Say what? I thought it would have been easy for her, and then I found out it wasn’t. I found out she had fear too, and that shook me loose. After I worked with Beth, I wrote my first play, got it produced, got it published.
Now, years later, after working with many writers, in many writers’ rooms, rarely has any writer ever mentioned to me their fear without me pressing them on it. It’s their secret they don’t want anyone to know. Somehow by admitting it, it will diminish any talent they may have, I guess. But when I have pressed them, most have admitted their fear and the others have lied about it.
The fact is, we are all afraid, and acting as if we are not does a great disservice to younger writers who may not understand that this is common. Knowing this is a part of the process for everyone is a comforting thought. And now that I recognize it for what it is, I can handle it, even make it work for me at times. I don’t let my fear stop me. Now I make it push me to be better. My fear won’t let me settle; it makes me examine my work and push it past what I initially think it can be. My fear tells me, “If you stop now, it won’t be as good as it could be.” Thus, I don’t stop. I make it better. And then I go back and try to make it even better. I’m afraid to settle. I’m afraid of being mediocre. I’m afraid of being a hack.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re a writer, be afraid, be very afraid because we all are. You are not alone. It’s our nature. Just don’t let it kill your ambition to write. Recognize your fear, say thank you very much, and move on past it. Admitting fear limits its power over you. It’s true. It does. When it has no power over you anymore, you then have power over it. That’s freedom. And when you’re ready to start that project you want to write and the fear begins to feel overwhelming, do like that one fella did who had an elephant to eat: grab an ear and start chewing.
Bruce Marshall Romans, a member of Spalding’s screenwriting and playwriting faculty, writes and develops film and television projects in Los Angeles. His film credits include producing the independent film Blackbird, as well as writing the independent film How You Look to Me. His television credits include selling a variety of original drama pilots to networks including ABC, NBC, Fox, Lifetime, and FX. He has also written and produced four seasons of Hell on Wheels on AMC, Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies on TNT, Marco Polo for Netflix, Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix, and Messiah, also for Netflix. He is currently writing/co-executive producing a new drama, Shantaram, for Apple +.