Fear is a natural instinct. It triggers the “fight or flight” response when we’re faced with a direct threat to our survival. Fear also has a memory. When you get burned once, you avoid touching fire for the rest of your life. That’s all good, but there’s a downside to fear, too. We fear imaginary threats and miss opportunities because of our fears.
Fear and Freelance Writing
Do thoughts like these run through your head when you think about applying for freelance writing gigs?
- “I’d better wait until I have more experience to apply for an assignment with this company.”
- “This looks safe, but I’ll lower my rate to better my chances of getting the gig.”
- “I’ll do some writing for free first, so I can have a portfolio to show potential clients.”
These are all thoughts based on a fear of the unknown. They’re often conditioned fears based on false assumptions. When you think you need more experience to apply for an assignment with a major media outlet, you may think they won’t even consider giving an assignment to someone who doesn’t have a degree in journalism or years of experience in freelance writing for other companies of their calibre. The fact is that editors are looking for writers who can give them the copy they need by a certain deadline. They do want well-written copy, but they couldn’t care less who it comes from. Lowering your rate or writing for free just diminishes you in their eyes.
I read something recently by a freelance writer who started from the bottom just like most of us. He looked at finding assignments differently, though. He understood fear and used it to his advantage. “Fewer people are going to be applying for this job because they will be afraid to,” he thought and started right off applying for well-paid corporate assignments. He didn’t mention rates, because he didn’t know what to charge. In most cases, he was offered far more than he would have asked for. Unlike most of us, who inch our way up the pay scale, he discovered early how much a freelancer can earn.
Fear and Writer’s Block
When I was about 19, I went up to a cabin in the woods for a weekend to get started on my first novel. When I came back, I had nothing to show for my efforts. I sat down at my typewriter, but the words didn’t come. When they did, I’d rip the paper out of the typewriter and throw it on the fire because the work was so far below the standard I had set for myself.
I no longer suffer from writer’s block. Words just pour out because I don’t think before I write or compare myself to others. When I’ve finished an article, I go back and edit it. When I finish a chapter of my book, I put it in my first draft folder and go back to it later.
Article or content writing and creative writing are two different animals. Article writing is easy for me now because I have it down to a formula:
- Strong headline
- Engaging opening paragraph
- Separate sections with headers
- Use bullet points
- Call to action in final paragraph
It’s just a matter of filling in the blanks and checking for spelling and grammatical errors when I’ve finished.
Creative writing is different. When I sit down to write a chapter, what I produce comes as a surprise even to me. Just last week I sat down to write Chapter 12 of This Could be Heaven, a story about my 8 years in Cambodia. I knew “Our House” was going to have content about the difference between how a Cambodian builder constructs a brick house and how an American or Australian would build one, but I wasn’t prepared for what ended up on the page at the end of the day.
Creative writing comes from some place deeper and thought just seems to get in the way. When I reread my chapter, I realised that the things I learned about Cambodia while building my house and overcoming my Western prejudices were far more important than the mechanics of building.
It’s been the same with members of every writing group I’ve belonged to. The members start off with a plan, but within a short time, their writing improves because it starts coming from the heart. Some even end up scrapping their first efforts after discovering what they really want to write about later.
That sort of happened to me. My book was going to be about my wife’s amazing life. She comes from a very poor background, but took it a step further when she got lost in the jungle at the age of about 8 and didn’t find her way back for 3 years. Since it’s written from my perspective, I had to write about myself, but kept it to a minimum. The others in my group said it made them feel like I was leaving out some of the most interesting stuff. I still resisted until another member put her young adult novel aside to write a short piece about her near death experience. When we told her we wanted to hear more, she made the same grimace I made when she and the others told me not to worry about writing a memoir.
“Yeah, but you’re not writing about yourself,” I replied. “You’re writing about all the amazing people you’ve met and places you’ve seen from a unique perspective.”
“And so are you!” she replied. It finally clicked for both of us that writing a memoir isn’t necessarily egotistical. More importantly, it finally clicked that these books were crying out to be written. As long as we didn’t worry about how people were going to react or or whether or not anyone will read them, the words flow and we get tremendous satisfaction from the act of writing alone.
This is just the first of a three part series on fear. I’ll cover fear and expat living in the next part and wind it up with some tips about overcoming fear in general in the third part. If you’re interested in following along, please sign up for my mailing list.