Getting Unstuck: Do What Scares You

October 26, 2023

With Halloween almost upon us, this month’s Getting Unstuck has an appropriately terrifying topic: facing fears, not just in our writing, but in our lives, in order to improve our craft.


Even though I have at least three possible ways to drive to work, I choose the same route on both legs of my commute every single day. I go the same way every day because I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll get lost. Essentially, I’m mired in a fear that’s rooted in personal history (I get turned around pretty easily).

In driving and in so many areas of my life, I like routine. It’s safe. It’s easy. It’s comfortable. It’s not great for writing creatively.

As a writer, “comfortable” can be a bad habit. If we—I—avoid writing the uncomfortable, scary, uneasy, hard stuff, our writing will be bland, uninspired, and maybe even a little dishonest. And maybe that’s true of real life, too. Maybe we have to take risks not just on the page, but in our work, our play, our relationships, and even our thoughts. What if doing what scares us makes us better writers?

Moreover, what if we could think of fear as useful, as productive even? In this TED Talk, Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Dreamers, says, “We think of fear as a danger in and of itself…but what if we thought of fear as an amazing act of the imagination?” Fear is, after all, a series of what ifs. Walker says that fear is basically a way of telling stories to ourselves. She says, “Our fears focus our attention on what will happen next…in fear as in fiction, one thing always leads to another.” If fears are stories, then we are the authors of both our stories and our fears. And so, what if instead of being afraid of being afraid, we learn to read our fears like we read stories? What if we learn to understand what our fears mean? What if we follow the story our fears are telling us and let it play out? If we learn to read our fears, we can start to see which ones are valid and which ones are not.

Okay, so, don’t be afraid of the wrong things. But what do you do with valid fears? How do you keep them from getting in your way? In this episode of W/MFA, Savannah Sipple, author of WWJD & Other Poems says she felt held back by fear for a long time. Sipple grew up in the Evangelical church where, she says, there was a lot of shame about being gay and so she struggled to be her authentic both in real life and on the page. She says she “had to dig deep to find that place [of honesty]…but once I was able to do that, it opened up a lot of doors and windows in my writing, it created a shift.” But, how? Sipple says she “had to do a lot of writing” in conjunction with therapy to get to a “place of acceptance.” For Sipple, doing the work of self-acceptance took away her shame (which is a kind of fear) and made her writing better.

Overcoming fear doesn’t necessarily translate to success, at least not in the traditionally measured ways. Sure, if we try something scary and fail, there will be some part of our brains that tells us the fear was right all along. It’s so much easier to not try than to try and fail, isn’t it? In this episode of How To Fail With Elizabeth Day, Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other, says about her abbreviated time as an actress, “I don’t actually believe in the idea of failure; I think everything is a step towards the next thing that you’re doing.” I don’t think I’m alone in saying I like to be good at things. But if you only ever do what you know you’ll be good at, how do you grow as a person and a writer? If we can let go of the fear of failure, think of all the things we can try.

Wondering how long you have to do things you’re not good at? Evaristo says that “you stay in the game and learn the skills you need to learn to achieve some kind of greatness.” For me, “greatness” means better than when you started. Which means you should keep at the hard thing until you get a little better, and then maybe a little better than that.

Ultimately, I can’t say what fear does to your writing, but it makes mine rigid. I often get stuck on a plot point I want to make happen or a character I think should behave in a certain way and I’m sometimes so deeply afraid of making the change I know needs to be made—deleting a boring scene or letting a character do that awful thing or creating a better obstacle for my protagonist—that I spend months—even years—working and reworking something until I finally do the hard thing.

I haven’t completely figured out how to tap into my fears for the benefit of my writing. I still drive the same route twice a day. But I’m trying other things that make me uncomfortable—I’m taking an improv acting class, for one. Is it fun? Yes. Is it terrifying? Heck yes. Is it good for my writing? Time will tell, but I think I detect a new confidence in my voice, and I’ll take it.

by Jen Dupree


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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