How Do You Start What You’re Afraid To?

Knowing when to stop writing is one hell of a lot easier than starting to write in the first place. Though Ernest Hemingway famously said, “you always stop when you know what is going to happen next,” his pronouncement implies that he was already writing like mad. But didn’t Hemingway ever have trouble getting started in the first place?

When to Stop by Jann Alexander © 2015
When to Stop by Jann Alexander © 2015

I do, and maybe you do, too. Though it may have more to do with fear than with technology, for the time being, I’m going to blame it on my tools. There aren’t too many professions in the world where the tools can serve as hinderances. Typically a worker’s tools enhance her skills at her job. When a jeweler takes up his eyepiece, he’s not distracted by its potential; he merely uses it to gauge the clarity and cut of the diamond, and he’s done with it. Ditto the surgeon: She uses the scalpel with precision on the intended cut, then moves in to probe, repair and suture. Where’s the potential for distraction from her task there?

The creative life differs dramatically. There are limitless options. Yet there’s only one critical tool for my job, and it’s my iMac (joy!! little happy dance!). My writing happens here. But not just my writing. All manner of other creative and possibly even important pursuits happen here, and my ability to differentiate which one comes first is directly related to the urgency of the task I’m avoiding. The irony is that because my iMac is the one tool I need, it’s where everything happens—writing my novel, to be sure, but also photo editing, designing, blogging, tweeting, Googling, emailing, reading, finding inspiration.

And what is blogging, if not creative avoidance of the novel I could be writing?


[blawg, blog] noun

1. (informal) an online journal of a writer’s opinions; (full name) weblog
2. a place where a writer writes everything except the novel she is working on now

Knowing when to stop, I’ve concluded, is not the same for writers with iMacs as it was for Hemingway with his Royal (possibly a 1940 Quiet De Luxe, or an Arrow, one of which sold at auction for $2,750 at an Atlanta, Georgia antique sale in June 2007). Type away for hours, hit the # key to signal ‘finis‘ and then it’s off for a Scotch rocks. No other temptations beckon while plunked at a typewriter. There’s just the job at hand: type the story. So stopping was not the challenge. Stopping was the easy part, because there’s nothing else to do but type.

Hemingway typewriter studio FL1
Hemingway’s Typewriter by Acroterion [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Not so on my iMac. In looking at Hemingway’s advice from another point of view—mine, where there are multiple directions to go—I’ve concluded that you always start where you left off. That’s one way of giving myself permission to be the many creative personalities I am. So be it resolved:

You always start where you left off.

When to Start by Jann Alexander ©2015
When to Start by Jann Alexander ©2015

Except when you don’t. During my recent explore my creativity decade, I spent a number of years painting. My canvases always began blankly. They demanded my vision, but I was so stingy with it. Eventually they breathed easier, when I’d finally start a painting; and I completed a goodly number of them, with great passion. But many of them remained mere outlines of their potential. You can imagine how disappointed they were.

As was I. How could I hesitate, how could I not apply mere paint to canvas? My ideas were sketched out, my vision was clear, my palette was ready, I certainly had plenty of expensive brushes and colorful tubes of pigment. But the answer was simple, as simple as the answer that rings in the ears of painters, and authors, around the world: What if it’s no good?

What if it’s no good?

Hagar Olsson in Räisilä
Writer Hagar Olsson in Räisilä, circa 1920 via New Old Stock

This is what holds us back, writers, painters, poets, designers, photographers, artists all. Don’t we all fear our ability to express our vision? It’s a wacky yet false fear, because you are the only one who knows your real vision. The rest of the universe is clueless, having no idea of the inner debate that’s rendering you helpless. So when the universe is finally presented with your vision, admirers will step forward, impressed and dumbfounded by your creative strokes of genius. Who knew?

Only you. Only you will know how much you feared this moment. And how you nearly never got here.

You just have to show up.

Flannery O'Connor Quote
Flannery O’Connor Quote ©2013 Jann Alexander

There is really only one answer for it. You just have to show up. You have to show up each and every time you face the blank screen, or you reach for a sable brush, mix the ultramarine with crimson red and a touch of raw umber, or you print out a chapter for your critique group. You just have to show up. And that’s how you get started, right where you left off. 

How did you manage to show up today?

Not convinced yet that you may be avoiding greatness? Check out ‘Woman. Legend. Blog.’ to see How I’ve Been Avoiding Writing: I Got a Typewriter. And find more on the creative process HERE.

Jann Alexander's A Habit of Hiding_Book Cover

Want a sneak peek of my upcoming novel?

Read an excerpt from A Habit of Hiding here

For more on the art of writing, look HERE.

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27 thoughts on “How Do You Start What You’re Afraid To?

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  1. Oh, I showed up all right. For the blog. For the copywriting job. For the book reviews. For the tweets. Where the heck was the novel? I was there!

    Unfortunately, the novel got pushed down the list of priorities. In fact, I think it just fell off.

    Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Everyone works better with a little structure, don’t you think, Anita? But creatives are often self-employed, so their structure must be self-imposed. Creatives are also easily distracted from any given task by new ideas and inspiration, and that’s a great problem to have. Darn schedules, yes! But often we get to make our own, which is more than the typical 9-5 person can say. Good to hear your thoughts, thanks.


      1. Yes! Creatives (at least this one) are easily distracted and structure is our friend and our nemesis. I have a serious love hate relationship with it. I get so much more done with it and fight it like a 2 year old fights a nap. Go figure!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this post, Jann. I really did laugh when I read the paragraph about what holds us back! Only we know our vision, the universe/public doesn’t have a clue until we put it out there. We just have to show up and put it out there!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Jann,
    Loved your post and the Flannery O’Connor quote. I am reading a great book which really addresses all those issues of resistance very well: “The War of Art” by Pressfield. I have very effectively managed to dodge my crippling self-doubt re writing a motivational/philosophical/memoir. Not only is there the self-doubt as a writer, there’s the difficulty with my role as “hero”. Well, while finding out more about the hero’s journey, found out that I’m not actually meant to get it right the first time or have lady luck on my side every time either. There are supposed to be complications but there is also supposed to be the happy ending and and as I went through pneumonia and then chemo, I was too sick to write and while I knew the ending didn’t have to be perfect that wasn’t what I had in mind. I was supposed to come out on top. Fortunately, I came through and conquered the mountain again.
    I have nowgot my kids back to school so it’s time to lock myself away in the dungeon and work on that. Just do it!! Thank you for the reminder!! Rowena

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your resilience seems to be serving you well, Rowena, and your story is a great reminder that we can all keep pushing on towards our goal, even as we face daunting challenges. I’m glad my post made a great reminder for you. Appreciate your comments about your journey–thanks for stopping by.


  4. I love love love this post! How often does our fear hold us back from just diving in and doing something great? I have a great fear of the work not being any good, this is true. But do you ever just scare yourself with the darkness that longs to come out of your pen (or through your fingertips onto the keys)? In my personal life I try very hard to be cool, calm, or bright and bubbly as the occasion warrants. But in my writing life, I explore a lot of darker themes and topics, and sometimes it’s really scary to mine that part of myself for inspiration.

    Again, great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So great to hear your enthusiasm for this, Amalie, it’s affirming when others can relate to what we write. I like your observation about personal life v. writing life, and how your personality changes. I think that happens with me, too. Never thought about it, but I’m glad I am now, thanks to your insight. Food for thought. It would make a good post, Amalie, thanks for taking time to respond.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved this post, Jann!
    It made me think of Brenda Ueland over and over. Have you ever read, “If You Want To Write” from 1938? I did in 2011, and Brenda has taken up permanent residence in the back of my brain ever since…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m thrilled that my post brought Brenda Ueland to mind, Adam, that is high praise. Thanks so much your comments. Her book is on my writing shelf, and clearly deserves another look. I’ll get back to that soon, glad you suggested it.


  6. Thank you for this. I’m saving it to read and re-read. I’m currently stuck between asking myself “is it good?” and the well-meaning encouragement of “just write for yourself.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And there are so many paths inbetween that, aren’t there, Trish? It helps to read what other writers have to say on their blogs, I’ve found. If you are seeking some blogs on writing, check out posts shared on Twitter on Mondays using the #MondayBlogs hashtag, and on Wednesdays using the #wwwblogs hashtag. Many, though not all, of those are by writers, on the writing process. Best of luck!


  7. Technology can SO turn into your master, the poor writer becoming a slave to its many offerings. Alas, I am reading an article on how to get started writing – seated at my computer – instead of actually writing. How ironic.

    However, my time spent here has obviously been well spent. Although I have heard this message many times before – you just need to show up – you have done it in a way with a set of images and words that has had a more significant impact this time around, so thank you for that!

    So, now I am off to do some writing – after I check my e-mail and blog comments. Just kidding, well, sort of 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to hear from you, Dave, I’m thrilled that the visuals reinforced the message (I’m a big believer in visual learning), so thanks for taking time to comment. But that’s the paradox of technology, isn’t it? There’s always something beneficial to be found there. So it becomes a question of how much time to spend. I don’t find it easy to resist. Sounds like a struggle we both have!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes, it’s too easy to find excuses not to show up for creative opportunities. It’s hard to see a time of funk, as a time of pregnant opportunity.

    I have plenty of excuses…for not doing any art for almost …a year! By the way, I appreciate your tweet on my post for blogging as writing candy. It really is a treat for those who love to write, photograph and share.

    Liked by 1 person

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