When Someone Rents a Billboard To Tell The World You’re a Terrible Writer

8290599649I shared my greatest fear here at the blog the other day (the one about publishing my fiction, not the one about staring down another two years of dirty diapers). I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through what it is about that particular thing that makes me so scared.

At first I thought the main fear is that it won’t be any good, which is kind of a silly thing to be afraid of. If it’s not very good, then a few of you will read it and think, Hmm, that’s not very good, and then you’ll get on with your life. You probably won’t think (that much) less of me simply because I wrote a terrible novel that didn’t deliver. You (probably) won’t track me down and demand your $10 back. You won’t take out billboards in major cities and have them say, “Shawn Smucker is a terrible writer.”

That is not a likely outcome. It’s nothing to be afraid of. (Besides, if you rented billboards, at least my blog traffic would spike.)

I’m also fairly certain that at least some of you will enjoy it, which will be nice. Some of you might even enjoy it enough to talk with me about it, or share it with other people. That seems like a reasonable outcome to expect.

That doesn’t sound like something to be afraid of.

There’s a small chance that most of you will enjoy the story quite a bit, in which case you will tell your friends about it and they will enjoy it, too. You’ll say mostly kind things about it, and you might even like one or two of the characters. That sounds like a fun scenario.

And not in the least bit scary.

None of those three outcomes sound scary to me. Not at all, in fact, now that I’ve written them down, where I can see them. When you throw light on the shadows, it’s amazing how quickly they disappear.

But it leaves me thinking, if those three outcomes aren’t what I’m scared of, then what am I actually scared of? What fear lies at the foundation of my hesitance to publish a book of fiction? What is really keeping me from doing that?

It didn’t take me long to find out the real reason for my fear: I’m worried that it won’t be exceptional. I’m worried that by releasing this book, I’ll be confronted with my ordinariness. This, I think, is what scares me the most as a writer.

But I’m realizing there is something I fear more than being ordinary.

I’m extremely frightened of not writing fiction. I’m scared of what not sharing my work will do to me, my creativity, and my general growth as a writer and a person. I feel that I have a few major life lessons to learn on the other side of publishing my stories, things to learn about myself and the world.

The last thing I want to do is carry untold stories to my grave. Even if, told, they are only read by a few hundred people.

That’s what I’m afraid of.

So I ask again, “What are you afraid of?”

20 Replies to “When Someone Rents a Billboard To Tell The World You’re a Terrible Writer”

  1. Whew, that being ordinary one – that hits it for me, too. I wonder what brings us to that belief that we need to stand out, to be exceptional. Is it generational? Cultural? just part of being an artist?

    For me, the other fear is that I will come to think I am not capable, that if other people find my work mediocre, I will come to believe that, too, and to believe that will mean that I do not write.

    Definitely a lot to ponder. Thanks, Shawn.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Andi. I’m still working out this fear of being ordinary (or non-exceptional, or non-famous, or whatever is at the heart of it).

      As an aside, I don’t ever see you not writing. Me neither. I think that’s something to keep in mind.

  2. Darn, I already has a down payment on a billboard . . . .
    Fear is so tricky for me, as soon as I try to stare into that cavernous cave, to find what lies in its heart, a thousand little fears fly in my face like bats startled by the light. The fear of being ordinary, yes. The fear of not being important, yes. The fear of being wrong. The fear of being un-lovable. There are so many bats in that cave and the darkness goes such a long way down.

    1. Your comment makes me wonder if there is really a single root of fear, one thing at the heart of my hesitance, or if it is simply a barrage of many. If there is a root, I think it might be the fear of being un-lovable. Now that one runs deep in everyone, I think.

  3. Have you read Jon Acuff’s book START? He has a great chapter on fears, and one of the things he says is to write down your fears. Be completely transparent with yourself about what those fears are, and write them down. They begin to lose their power when you realize how silly they are – your post reminded me of that.

    Also, I am realizing that anytime I create – I feel vulnerable. Even if it’s something pretty insignificant, it makes me feel vulnerable. There is nothing to hide behind if it doesn’t work, or if it doesn’t deliver. I am working on a small wood-working project right now that I will be giving to someone as a gift. I am completely building it by hand, and yesterday as I was coating it in poly – I began to feel a strong sense of vulnerability followed by the voices:

    “What if it doesn’t work right?” “What if it breaks when they are using it?” blah blah blah

    It’s just a simple gift made out of wood, and yet I still felt vulnerable because it’s completely my creation. Funny how that works.

    1. I’m glad you’re creating, Clint. You have a lot of talent. And I think the more that we create, in all kinds of different ways, the more it frees us up to create in the ways that are the most important to us, the ways that make us feel most vulnerable. Thanks for your thoughts here. Good stuff.

  4. I totally know where you are coming from. And this happens particularly with writers because there are so many great writers out there. Just when I think I’m ready to start writing, I read something that makes me think, “Crap, I could never do this.” I know illustrators who think the same thing–they see exceptional works of art and wonder why anyone would every pay them to do it.

    Here is one thing that I have suggested to others that has sometimes worked…

    Several writers I know–who would be called successful by any measure–tout the book and workbook called “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maas. One writer I know who has nearly 100 novels to her credit always starts a new novel by buying another of these workbooks and filling it out to help her get started. The book that goes with the workbook is very approachable and easy to read. Basically I think the books give you a security blanket to know you are at least following a solid plan.

    Give them a shot; couldn’t hurt.

  5. I had an editing client contact me with an email that opened with: “Mr. Stewart, I have written a terrible novel.”

    Maybe he figured if he said it himself, it wouldn’t feel so bad coming from me. Btw, it was actually a pretty good novel.

  6. Oooh, I loke the idea of writing down fears and casting some light onto them. I know I’m feeling the need to write more about specific topics and while I’m definitely afraid of not being good enough (or I suppose ordinary) I’m also afraid of just adding to the noise. As a big reader, I know that’s a ridiculous concept.

    Anyway – thank you for sharing this and and for setting a brave example.


  7. I’m afraid of being completely unknown, ignored, cast aside like yesterday’s news. Because even hatred, vitriol, criticism are at least a form of engagement. I would welcome the billboard–because that would mean at least someone cared enough to engage enough with the work to hate it.

    Better that than being ignored.

  8. Great Shawn, really great. These words can apply to so many scenarios. I have realised recently the value of fear and that embracing it and realising the reason you have fear is because you are pushing yourself and taking yourself out of a comfort zone.
    If you feel fear and you face it – you rationalise it and don’t back down, that’s something to be proud of.

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