Fear and Loathing in the Creative Process

Fear and Loathing in the Creative Process
A student at Illinois Wesleyan University recently confessed to holding a morbid fear of parked cars. He said, ?I?m terribly afraid one of them will roll right over me? (Hamel). The actual odds of a parked car suddenly rolling over him are extremely slim; however, that does not alleviate his fears. It takes this poor boy a great amount of personal will power just to walk across a street where there are parked cars.
As senseless as a fear of parked cars may be, people constantly allow their lives to be manipulated through fears. Political figures fret for days, sometimes weeks, over the wording of a tiny passage from their acceptance speech; poets spend decades of their lives search for that one word to give an infinite amount of meaning to a poem no one will ever read; and authors hold back some of their most inventive creations due to fear of public response. The key is that people must be willing to set aside public opinion and write of the things in their hearts.

Into the Waste Land

In 1922, T. S. Eliot published a poem that sent critics into a fury. Attacking everything from structure to meaning, the public response was a far cry from good. However, this poem went on to become regarded as the most influential English poem of the twentieth century. The poem was entitled ?The Waste Land?.

Eliot was not without reservation in writing his poem, however. When first written, he was so displeased with the result that he scrapped the bulk of the poem. It wasn?t until several years later, not to mention several drafts later, that he was content enough to publish (Eliot, 35).

How would modern poetry be different had Eliot not released ?The Waste Land?? What would poets today be writing if Eliot had let his fears of public rejection persuade him not publish? It is not as if Eliot couldn?t have known how his poem would be received. A variation upon a theme is accepted; total rewriting of the theme is not. Eliot did what few writers are ever able to, namely, publishing a piece that was radically different from anything the world had ever seen. Despite initial criticism, people soon saw the work as more than a failure; they began to see it as the beginning of a new poetic era.

Eliot?s triumph proves once and for all that one never knows how the public will respond to a piece of writing. He even wrote, ?I will show you fear in a handful of dust? (1.30). Against any fears he might have had when it was published, the poem was a success.

Fear Less, Write More

If T. S. Eliot could overcome his fears, so too can today?s creative writers. Writers must be ever vigilant in their fight against their fears. To defeat any adversary, however, it is imperative that one understands its nature.

The most common fear amongst writers is the fear of public response. Often times a writer expresses very personal feelings in his or her works, and it becomes difficult to allow others to scrutinize them. Relationships and love affairs are sometimes taken straight out of an author?s life, and to have a third-party tear it apart is very painful. All people want to be loved and accepted. In putting forth new and wild ideas, writers jeopardize that acceptance; they believe they must very carefully weight the consequences of publication with the benefits.

Students have it worst off, in this regard; they have no choice but to write things that may not be accepted. Many of them are forced to write creative pieces that showcase their talents, and in doing so, they often put forth ideas that are not popular, especially amongst older generations. To the student, this is much like stripping them naked and spreading them out upon a table for everyone to look at. The student feels exposed, always concerned that someone will criticize one part or another (Hamel). Even if this is not the case, to the student, it does not matter.

The secret to overcoming the fear of public response is simply to not care about what others may think. ?Write from the heart, not from the head? (Bryson). This may seem like an impossibility, but writers often find themselves at their most creative when they have no one to write for but themselves. When a person writes merely for himself, never thinking about the other people that will read it, he is more likely to write something outside of conventional boundaries; he is free. Someone once said that she was willing to show her stories to people, but she would die before show her poetry; she felt her poetry was far too personal for anyone else to read.

Daniel of the Alligators

However, not everyone finds it easy to simply forget about those who will be critiquing one?s work. Some people can become so overcome by fear that their end work is incredibly inferior to what was possible without the fear. Take, for example, a student named Daniel.

Daniel was an all-around decent student. He was never in trouble with the law, always had his homework done on time, and always strove to perform to the best of his abilities. Unfortunately, Daniel absolutely dreaded public speaking, especially when he was orally presenting something he had written. His skin would flush, then turn incredibly pale, his hands would lose there ability to hold onto to anything steadily. And then he would begin stuttering, horribly butchering the words written before him. As if that was not bad enough, he would often lose track of his points when writing, and the finished product would sound more like a first-grade textbook than a college student?s speech.

Daniel?s problems came to a head one day when he was assigned the task of writing a two page report on the mating habits of the South African albino alligator. Under normal circumstances, this would have proven no match for Daniel?s incredible skills as a writer; however, he was later told that the paper would be presented in front of his class. Daniel began to panic. That night, after much debate, he carefully outlined his paper, making it a point to discuss several key issues. During much of the writing process, Daniel was distracted by the speaking part of the assignment and was constantly concerned with how his words would be viewed by his fellow classmates. The following is an excerpt from his finished report:
?The male South African albino alligators are attracted to the female South
African albino alligators. Movements attract them. These movements
looks like a dance. This dance is called a mating dance, because it looks
like a dance? (Unpublished source).

Daniel received a D- on his paper. The instructor said if he had been any other student, he would have failed. She did, however, allow him the chance to increase his grade a small amount by re-writing the paper for her. The following is the above excerpt from his re-write:
?South African albino alligators are attracted to each other by a courtship
dance. The female will lead, prompting the male to respond if interested?
(Unpublished source).

Daniel swore off writing and is currently attending a community college. His intended major is organic chemistry (Bryson).

As you can see, in the re-write of his paper, Daniel wrote a much cleaner, tighter, and more to the point paper. This was because the only person other than him who would be reading it was his instructor. The fear was therefore alleviated, resulting in a clearer mind with which to write.


Fear can be a writer?s greatest adversary. It can turn otherwise brilliant individuals into mentally retarded children with speech impediments. It can cause such distress in a writer?s mind that he feels no choice but not to publish what could be his greatest work. However, it can be overcome. If a writer decides to write merely for himself, the result is often the writer on a creative high; without the burden of public opinion, the writer is free to create as he pleases. Had Daniel originally written for himself, and forgotten about his classmates, maybe he would have gotten a better grade. Only when we write as ourselves are we truly free.

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