Fear of the Unknown


I’m not sure I understand writer’s block. A student came to me asking how she could overcome her anxiety about writing. She said she was afraid that she would write her essay, and it wouldn’t be perfect.

“Okay,” I said. “So it’s not perfect. Look–I find it helpful to imagine the very worst thing that could happen. Then, ask yourself if that’s really so bad. And no matter how your essay turns out, your family is still alive. Your friends still love you.”

“But it’s not perfect.”

“I know. But your professor or tutor will tell you why it’s not perfect, and then you go back, and you do better next time. That’s the way we learn sports, musical instruments, dance. It’s the same way with writing. You need someone to tell you what you did well, and where you can get better. Then you try again.”

More and more, I think this fear of writing that I see among so many students–this fear of not being perfect on paper–is really a fear of the unknown. Because the writing process, like any creative process, is mysterious. Once you begin, it takes you places that you did not expect.

In the documentary “Glass”, Philip Glass compared the composition process to making out shapes in a “foggy field.” When you start, you don’t really know what’s in that field. You find out as you go.

So of course it isn’t perfect–in the sense that you can’t entirely control the direction it takes. And trying to force it be one thing, when really–as the fog lifts–you begin to see it’s another, only botches the whole thing.

Perfectionism, I think, is really a desire to have control. The reassurance of certainty. When in reality, both life and creative expression are processes of discovery. And as we set out from the “safe harbor,” the best we can hope for isn’t certainty or perfection.

It’s clarity.

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