Make the Move: Fear and the Writing Process

          A blank page can be terrifying. To me, the idea of writing is exciting, but actually sitting down and opening a new document with its infinitude of white space fills me with dread. Rock climbing is much the same. Thinking of being on a wall brings exhilaration, and an almost Zen-like contentment—just me and the silent rock—but in practice, rock climbing often makes me feel like barfing and crying. 

          Writers often say writing is the most difficult, terrifying, painful thing they can imagine. Yet books get written. I wonder, how many pages have been written with trembling hands?

          I wondered this last week as I clung to a rock wall fifty-feet off the ground. My legs shook, my palms were slick with cold sweat despite the chalk I applied and reapplied. I stood on a little rock oasis, a generous ledge on an otherwise smooth, vertical rock face. To move up the wall, I had to leave the ledge and reach for a tiny knob of granite of which I’d been afraid since I left the ground, but I’d been managing it until now. It feels impossible to leave this ledge. There was NOTHING above me. It was then that I realized the wall was a blank page.

          Well, sure, I was on a rope. Yeah, okay, I wasn’t in real danger. But neither are you, sitting at your writing desk, trying to stare down a white blank page and losing.

          My MFA advisors say it all the time: writing is a courageous act. We’re supposed to be fearless on the page. I don’t buy it.

          My belayer, the person anchoring the rope I’m attached to, yelled from below, “You’ve got to make the move!”

          I had been on the ledge a while, I guess, tentatively stretching for the hold, missing, retreating. Often my writing practice is the same: writing a few words, not trusting, deleting.

          “I know that! Don’t tell me what to do—you don’t understand—I can’t do it!” How many times have you wanted to yell this at the writing mentors in your life?

          But here’s what I want to say about fear: I’ve learned that fear is essential to my climbing practice. The presence of fear means I’m challenging myself. Likewise, there’s immense value in writing that idea that makes my palms start to sweat. I know whatever scares me this much is absolutely worth writing. A great story or essay is terrifying because its challenging, but also because we just might succeed.

          The only way I’ve discovered for working through fear, both on a wall and on a page, is to accept it. Welcome it into your practice. Use that adrenaline as a springboard because it’s not going away. Let it be that quaking voice that tells you you’re onto something really good. Take a deep breath, accept the joy of challenging yourself, and make the move.

Read Rebecca's essay "The Rider" in our current issue.

Rebecca Young's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Animal Literary Magazine, Literally Stories, Two Hawks Quarterly, and others. She is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction and nonfiction with Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in the tiny mountain town of Leadville, Colorado.