"Advice that comes from a place of fear is never, ever correct." Christy Dena, Seven Enviable Lines session, Emerging Writers Festival Town Hall Conference, 26 May 2012
I went to the first day of the Town Hall Conference, part of the Emerging Writers Festival, today. I went expecting it to be interesting, but also expecting to be a spectator, in mind as well as voice. (Rather to my own surprise, I did end up asking one question - of Emily Maguire - and making one comment, in the Writing Groups discussion; so my voice was less silent than I'd anticipated, too). I was wrong - I got engaged, and I got jolted, in a good way, out of standing on the sidelines in my mind.
I have a rather large confidence problem when it comes to my writing, or at least my creative writing. I don't fear critique so much as complete rejection. Let me explain. I quite enjoy having a discerning and uncompromising eye on my work, picking it to smithereens. I take criticism (reasonably) well and am not usually stubborn beyond all reason about accepting the need for change. What I worry about is not that my work's imperfect, because, well, d'uh. I worry that it is, actually, unmitigated crap, with no redeeming virtues at all. That worry is what has held me back from submitting my manuscripts (there are three and a half of them now) to agents, publishers, or taking real steps towards self-publication. That worry is what makes me anxiously seek out "writer's guides" and "advice on writing and marketing" and then feel all confused and helpless when I read it, and realise I could never do the things or be the writer they all advise. That worry has held me back with my fiction writing all my life long - well, once I passed out of the grand hubris of my teens, wherein I merrily submitted stories and poems all over the place, and, moreover, got them published and won junior prizes for them.
I heard many wonderful writers speak today. Many of them were entirely new to me, and I have a long list of books to follow up (I brought home Romy Ash's Floundering, just to get me started - I'm heartily intrigued with the premise behind this, given how much I loved the similarly-based Room by Emma Donovan, another book about trauma from a child's-eye view). I learned things about the publishing process that I didn't know; I got some really useful tips on structure, process, and voice; and I felt I learned a lot from listening to these generous and articulate artists speak about their craft with a whole range of different foci. I laughed along with Lawrence Leung; I was moved by Sydney Smith and Ali Cobby Eckerman; I was absorbed in the wise words and warm personas of Anita Sethi and Emily Maguire. I found Paul Fearne, Fregmonto Stokes and Damon Young fascinating, and enjoyed the Writers Groups discussion with Dan Ducrou and Penni Russon very much.
But I will tell you the big takeaway of the day, the game-changing idea that will stay with me. It was introduced early on, by Christy Dena, and then echoed back, in different words, by many of the other speakers. It is this:
Don't let the fear of failure make your decisions about writing for you.
This applies in so many ways. It's about taking business-y, cautious advice because you're afraid of your own decisions and don't trust yourself. It's about not wanting to submit work because you're afraid of rejection. It's about censoring or suppressing your voice, and the story you want to tell, for fear of offending or annoying others.
I have been afraid. No, I am still afraid. In all these ways and more. I'm not short of ideas or the will to work at them. I'm not a non-completer or shy of the hard yards; I do finish written pieces, and I redraft and redraft and pick over their bones. I have been afraid to go beyond this, though. I am afraid to.
I think, though, that I will, all the same. Fear isn't much of a way to live a life, when all's said and done.