A former client recently interviewed me for a podcast he was creating on the subject of failure. He wanted me to talk mainly about a writer’s fear of criticism and rejection, to help his listeners understand their fear of failure and eventually learn to write in spite of it.
When I told him I didn’t believe that fear of failure was the root of writing inhibition, he seemed surprised–even though he and I had worked together for some months.
“But that’s what I’m thinking about whenever I procrastinate on my writing projects,” he disagreed. “I’m worried about people telling me my writing isn’t any good.”
I told him that worry about critics response to what he wrote might float on the surface of his avoidance, but that beneath that worry, lurks a deeper fear: the fear that his writing might be quite good, and that his success might create waves within an important relationship.
For years I adhered to the fear-of-criticism view of writing block. If people postponed sitting down to write, it was because they were afraid of a bad grade, of the story or journal article being rejected, of literary agents turning them down, or–if they were “lucky enough to get this far–of negative reviews.
Then one day, as a client told me about his inability to write the kinds of articles he needed to be awarded tenure, I realized that what he was saying was only a small part of the story. After all, this client had gone to Harvard as an undergraduate, then to one of the most prestigious graduate schools in the country, and finally to an assistant professorship at a top-ranked university. Though he insisted that he felt like a failure, he had a robust string of impressive successes behind him.
Over the next months, I began thinking about my clients‘ writing inhibitions in a new light. Most of them had experienced quite a bit of success by the time they came to work with me, either in school or in their chosen careers. Yet they had become focussed on the possibility of failure. So focussed that their fear of walking into failure’s trap had paralyzed them.
Why? Why with a bundle of success behind them could they see only failure in the future as far as their writing was concerned?
As I explored with my clients their relationships in their family of origin, with their parents and siblings, along with their current relationships, I began to discern a similarity: whether in the past or in the present, my clients believed, often unconsciously, that somebody in their life would suffer as a result of their writing success.
The Harvard graduate was protecting his father, who had died several years earlier, by not being able to write. This father, who had been nationally prominent, had been involved in a scandal, and had never fully recovered his status. For another client, it was her mother, who had died of cancer when the client was quite young, never having published the novels she wrote. Yet another client was concerned that her husband might resent her success, particularly the time she took away from their family to write.
Without realizing it, each of these clients was protecting a loved one by inhibiting their own writing. The Harvard graduate, the woman whose mother had died of cancer, the client concerned about her husband’s resentment–each harbored the deeply buried belief that their success as a writer would be unfair to their father, their mother or their family.
Of course, such deeply held beliefs are more complex than I’ve portrayed them. And they are not easily retrieved. It takes persistence and patience. It takes learning to be kind to oneself, to create a safe environment in which to write and explore what lies beneath the fear of failure we all conveniently reach for.