When I first wanted to write, I was terrified that if I sat at my desk and started typing, I’d have to see my own juvenile sentences in front of me on the screen. I mustered courage from the fact that I had done a philosophy degree. I told myself that if I’d written 5,000-word essays on ancient metaphysics and Kierkegaard’s existentialism, then I could write a short story.
Over the next few weeks, I wrote a personal essay and submitted it to as many publications as I could find. A few weeks later, the rejection emails came in. I felt a strange sense of relief. I knew that I hadn’t said what I really wanted to say in that essay. My own feelings, thoughts and voice had been subordinated by a writing style that wasn’t my own. It wasn’t really my writing that I’d submitted and I didn’t want something to be published that wasn’t mine.
Several years earlier at university, I was taught how to write sentences that fortified you in advance from criticism. The last thing you wanted was the materialists looking at you over the top of their glasses or the epistemologists tutting at you whilst you were mid-claim. I was taught how to caveat my statements and how to qualify my caveats. I was instructed to italicise the exact definition of my terms so I could ensure as firmly as possible that I was not misunderstood. I learned that you can make an armour for yourself out of commas, colons, parentheses and typography. I’d learned the grammar of fear.
I knew that the essay that had been rejected was written in the grammar of fear and that it was never going to be emotionally engaging enough for the reader until I’d taken off the armour. Over a period of months, I reworked it into something more honest and it eventually got published as a piece called Why I No Longer Read Heavy Books. Several years on, I still have to go through the process of unlearning fear each time I write something new. First drafts evoke feelings of terror and inferiority in me that make me write the most convoluted sentences.
But I have also learned a few ways to dodge my own bad habits and to unlearn fear a bit quicker:
1. Write juvenile sentences
When I look back at my first drafts, I often feel humiliated by how raw and unfiltered my writing was. But there’s something perversely reassuring about my embarrassment. It shows that I was taking an emotional risk from the very beginning.
Accept that your first draft isn’t going to be very good and that it’s going to be something that will mortify you at some stage in the future. Good writing happens through editing. Around 95% of the time I spent writing my memoir was dedicated to editing. If you’re emotionally honest in your first draft, even to the point of cringeworthiness, then it’s going to be easier to edit your work into something compelling than if you’re hiding behind so-called serious writing.
2. Write in the morning
A lot of the best personal writing uses images from the unconscious. You’re more likely to find images like these in the mornings, before sensation and feeling have been lost to thought. Avoid looking at social media or the news. Overcoming fear in your writing is largely about not succumbing to the social pressure we feel about how a “good writer” ought to write. The waking minutes offer us a rare and delicate opportunity to live away from the crowd.
3. Build up from the concrete towards the abstract
Academic writing encourages people to use words like ‘visuality’ rather than ‘visual’ or ‘visibility’. Too often, these sorts of abstract nouns don’t add value to what we are trying to say and they drain our prose of all immediacy. If you’re writing a story, especially a first person story, see how many of these abstract nouns you can swap for a concrete detail. Start out by taking the reader into the senses and work your way up to the abstract. Very often the small sights, sounds and smells are the way to talk about the big ideas.
The tutting epistemologist just wants it to be his turn to talk. The materialist looking at you from over the top of his glasses has nothing better to do with his evening. That twitter troll who has got in your head only has three followers. The school teacher who once said you couldn’t write is still living in the same village. Ignore them all. If you want to write with the grammar of courage then be like Gertrude Stein when she said “I write for myself and strangers. The strangers, dear Readers, are an afterthought.” Or else think of someone you love and write for them. But whatever you do, don’t write to appease people who aren’t worth listening to.
5. Just write
The grammar of fear may clog up your page with subclauses, parentheses, parentheses within parentheses and obscure language, but there is a level of fear beyond that, where there is no grammar, because your page remains blank. Fear has only truly got the better of you if you don’t write anything.