Tag: Ray Bradbury

Conquer Your Fear of Failure

“You fail only if you stop writing.”Ray Bradbury

In 1983, Margaret Atwood rented a fisherman’s cottage in the English seacoast village of Blakeney, Norfolk. She planned to spend the next six months writing her most ambitious novel yet — a complex and richly detailed dystopian tale.

Atwood soon realized she was unable to write. The sheer scope of her novel intimidated her. She spent her days bird-watching and her nights reading bad historical novels and nursing chilblains caused by the cold damp weather. She later referred to that time as “six months of futile striving.”

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Margaret Atwood at Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, Ontario, Canada, September 2006. Photo: Vanwaffle, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

What was wrong? Why didn’t she write? Answer: She was blocked by fear of failure. Her vision of the novel loomed so large in her mind that she felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. She didn’t know where to begin.

Frustrated with herself for wasting months of valuable writing time, Atwood finally did what every successful writer must do in order to overcome the fear of failure: She wrote. She began producing bits and pieces of the story. She sketched in characters and wrote patches of dialogue. It didn’t all hang together at first, but that didn’t matter. After six months, she was finally writing again.

“I grasped the nettle I had been avoiding,” she later said, “and began to write The Handmaid’s Tale.” That novel later became her most successful and acclaimed work. Her advice to anyone who is paralyzed by the fear of failure: “Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.”1

This was hardly Margaret Atwood’s first novel. She had already enjoyed a fifteen-year, five-novel career when she found herself blocked during The Handmaid’s Tale. So the fear of failure is not restricted to beginning and aspiring writers. Successful novelists often experience this fear as well. Like Margaret Atwood, you can conquer your fear of failure and go on to achieve your greatest work.

Embrace the Sense of Failure

The conquest of this fear begins with acceptance of the inevitability of failure. To write is to know failure. Most writers experience more failure than success, and we all strive to achieve a level of perfection that is probably unattainable.

Irish novelist Anne Enright describes a frustration most writers have felt — that of always aspiring to an artistic goal that is just beyond our reach: “I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough, you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, and refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.”2

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Will Self at the Humber Mouth literary festival in Hull, England, 2007. Photo: Walnut Whippet, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

And English novelist Will Self said, “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail. The disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. . . . I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. . . . To continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience.”3 As writers, we accept the inevitability of commercial failure, artistic failure, and even failed relationships.

One True Sentence

The fear of failure afflicts many writers soon after the publication of their first book. The writer thinks, “I fooled ’em once, but can I fool ’em again? What if I only have one book in me? What if I have no encore?”

Suspense writer James L. Rubart, author of Rooms and Book of Days, recalls that after his first book was well-received by critics and readers, he worried that it was a fluke — and that his second novel might not measure up. “The response to Rooms was so strong that I was definitely nervous when Book of Days came out. That whole ‘I only have one book in me’ thing. But a lot of people liked Book of Days better.”

In fact, Rubart says, his mastery of the writing craft increased in demonstrable ways with each new novel. “It took me six years to write Rooms,” he recalls, “two years to write Book of Days, five months to write The Chair, ten weeks to write Soul’s Gate . . . and I’m on pace to finish the novel I’m working on right now in six weeks.”4

Wendell Berry is a farmer, antiwar activist, novelist, and poet. He remembers the sense of unease he felt after his first book was published. He has learned to embrace that uneasy feeling and to anticipate the unknown adventures ahead. “I am discomforted,” he says, “by the knowledge that I don’t know how to write the books that I have not yet written. But that discomfort has an excitement about it, and it is the necessary antecedent of one of the best kinds of happiness.”5

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Ernest Hemingway, 1939

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recalled the twinge of self-doubt he felt as he contemplated a new story:

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say.6

Don’t fear that you have no more stories or books in you. You have barely scratched the surface of all the stories your soul contains. Over time, you have learned and grown as a writer. Relax in the confidence and mastery you have gained from that achievement — and prepare to conquer even greater challenges in the future. Trust your  unconscious mind, your talent, your training, and your experience. Then sit down in front of your screen or your blank page and write the truest sentence you know.

Fail Early, Fail Often

Web writer Diogenes Brito says that he wrestles with a number of fears every time he sets out to write — fear of the blank page, fear of the unknown, fear of being judged, and fear of losing control. But one fear that no longer troubles him is the fear of failure. Brito says he overcame that fear thanks to one of his university professors:

When I was in Stanford’s design program, a professor named Dave Beach had everyone raise jazz hands to the sky. He then instructed us to jump and cheer, “I failed!” I have never forgotten that moment. “Fail early, fail often” was the mantra. The goal was to build up an immunity to failure, so that fear of it would never hold you back. Like [computer scientist] Dick Karpinski says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly — at first.” I remember that, and it keeps me from freezing up. The enemy of creativity is fear, so I keep going, no matter what.7

If you live by the maxim, “Fail early, fail often,” you can write without fear of failure. Train yourself to view failure not as an objective reality but as a false label people impose on a learning experience. Instead of telling yourself, “How horrible — I’ve failed,” simply shrug and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Lesson learned. What should I try next?” Make up your mind to learn from your failures and you’ll stop being afraid.

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  1. Margaret Atwood, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  2. Anne Enright, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  3. Will Self, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  4. James Rubert, “Focus On Freedom: Q&A with Author James Rubert,” SimplyFaithful.com, July 30, 2012, http://simplyfaithful.com/2012/07/30/focus-on-freedom-qa-with-author-james-rubart/.
  5. Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985), 3.
  6. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (New York: Scribner, 2009), 22.
  7. Diogenes Brito, “Fear of the Blank Page,” Uxdiogenes.com, March 10, 2013, http://uxdiogenes.com/blog/fear-of-the-blank-page.

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney.

Trade paperback edition $7.75.

Kindle edition $3.99.

Write Better. Write Faster. Be Unconscious

“Every day I try to be in communication with the universe in an unconscious way.” 
—Paulo Coelho

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John Steinbeck, 1963

Writing faster and writing better is not a matter of techniques or shortcuts or writing secrets. Sure, there are a few tricks you can learn that will increase your writing speed at the margins: You can eliminate time-wasting habits, use voice dictation software instead of typing, and so forth. I talk about these tricks in my books, and they can help you become a faster writer. But these tricks won’t make you more a more brilliant writer.

There’s only one writing insight you can learn that will make you a faster and more brilliant writer: You must learn to write unconsciously

In other words, you must learn to write in flow or in the zone. Great writing does not involve thinking. Great writing comes from a deeper part of us than the conscious intellect. It comes from the unconscious mind.

John Steinbeck, in a 1962 letter to an aspiring writer, said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.” Steinbeck warned the young writer not to stop and edit or rewrite while in the creative process. “Rewrite in process,” he said, “is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

When you are first drafting (or “fast drafting,” as I prefer to call it), always move forward, never look back. By writing freely and quickly and without inhibitions, you tap into the writer’s most powerful engine of imagination, the unconscious mind.

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Ursula LeGuin, 2008. Photo: Gorthian

Ursula K. Le Guin has described her writing process as “a pure trance state. … All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”

In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about a creative faculty we all possess, though few of us are aware of it — ”The higher imagination, you may call it; your own endowment of genius, great or small; the creative aspect of your mind, which is lodged almost entirely in the unconscious.”

Brande underscores the fact that this faculty is the UN-conscious mind, not the SUB-conscious mind, because “sub-” suggests that which is low and inferior. Far from being inferior to the conscious mind, Brande says, the unconscious “has a reach as far above our average intellect as it has depths below. . . . The unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function.” In fact, she says, “the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind.”

One of Dorothea Brande’s most famous disciples, Ray Bradbury, often said that conscious thought is poisonous to the creative process, and that true creativity springs from the unconscious mind. In a 1975 speech, he said, “I have had a sign by my typewriter for the better part of twenty years, now, which says, ‘Don’t think.’ I hate all those signs that say ‘Think.’ That’s the enemy of creativity. . . . Intellect can help correct. But emotion, first, surprises creativity out in the open where it can be pinned down!”

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Ray Bradbury receiving the Commander of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 2009. Photo: Caleb Sconosciuto.

What is the unconscious mind? Where in the brain is it located? Is it in the right brain or the murky region of the limbic system? Is the unconscious, creative mind the result of the synergistic functioning of many regions of the brain working together? Or does the function of the unconscious mind extend beyond the boundaries of the brain? Is it a creative activity of the immortal human spirit — a human reflection of the creativity of God?

I don’t know. No one knows. The term unconscious mind is a convenient label for a phenomenon we can’t explain. We don’t need to know where the unconscious mind is located or how it works, but I can tell you this from my own personal experience:

The unconscious mind is the key to unlocking our incredible creative powers.

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney.

Trade paperback edition $7.75.

Kindle edition $3.99.

Ray Bradbury and Groucho Marx

I recently discovered that Ray Bradbury made an appearance with Groucho Marx on the 1950s quiz show You Bet Your Life. At age thirty-five, Ray had two novels and a short story collection to his credit (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and The Golden Apples of the Sun), as well as the screenplay for John Huston’s motion picture Moby Dick. It’s an entertaining TV appearance from May 24, 1956. Among other things, we learn how Ray Bradbury met his wife. Ray is on-screen during the first eight minutes of the program. Enjoy.