Shouting into the Void: Fears of a Writer

Writing is a strange compulsion to have; especially when you didn’t expect to be a writer or have an audience in the first place.

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Writing is a strange com­pul­sion to have; es­pe­cial­ly when you didn’t ex­pect to be a writer or have an au­di­ence in the first place. Writing is a deeply per­son­al en­deav­our. A pas­sion­ate writer can’t help but pour some of them­selves into their work. When you pull from a place of hon­esty, a place of deep­est held be­lief, it leaves you vul­ner­a­ble, and your in­ner thoughts are naked to out­side judgement.

The fear of most writ­ers I feel is that their wis­est words won’t mat­ter, and their most bril­liant in­sights will fall on deaf ears. Their most per­sua­sive ar­gu­ments will all be for naught. As writ­ers we fear our writ­ing will lay un­read, com­plete­ly for­got­ten and alone. A wast­ed ef­fort col­lect­ing dust on the ever grow­ing shelve of the in­ter­net. We fear that we re­al­ly are alone in our opin­ion, and that the world will re­ject what we have to of­fer up. We fear we will be seen as fakes and pre­tenders not fit to write a word.

Shouting into the Void Fears of a Writer Side 1Every se­cret au­thor, every in­ter­net blog­ger, every pro­fes­sion­al writer feels some form of this fear. And at times it’s easy to see it in their work. We send our ideas off like ba­bies into the lion’s den of the mar­ket­place of ideas. Persuasive writ­ing is, at its core, an in­se­cure en­deav­our. We wish to have more peo­ple agree with our opin­ion and val­i­date our world­view. The writer seeks ac­cep­tance for their inner-self.

Journalists and op-ed writ­ers left unchecked can have glass egos, un­able to stand back from their work and en­ter­tain the idea they could be wrong. This is a trap that can be easy to fall into when you have don’t have peo­ple to keep you ground­ed. The more self-aware yet un­suc­cess­ful au­thors may wor­ry about be­com­ing a bel­liger­ent ass­hole. Letting the yes-men take over, and the idea of fal­li­bil­i­ty, fade away and your world­view be­comes dis­tort­ed. You can lash out at the pub­lic for not re­spond­ing bet­ter to your work and lam­baste their lack of taste. You can be­come a car­i­ca­ture of your writ­ing per­sona. Beholden to more and more ex­treme ideas and po­si­tions. I think we only need look at places like The Guardian for ex­am­ples of this in play.

It’s like Goldilocks predica­ment. Too lit­tle con­fi­dence and you can’t get your work out there in the first place, but stray too far into ar­ro­gance and you end up a up­pi­ty lit­tle shit un­able to han­dle any crit­i­cism. It seems like a bleak choice be­tween ob­scu­ri­ty and ru­in­ing what made you want to write in the first place. Just en­gag­ing with crit­i­cism is a tightrope walk. You can’t pos­si­bly take on board everyone’s opin­ions, but you have to be able to ab­sorb cor­rec­tions and dif­fer­ing points of view.

You have to rely on an in­ner strength, and be able to wall your­self off to an ex­tent. You need the abil­i­ty to tune in and back out of the pub­lic dis­course. You have to make peace with the fact that you can play a per­fect game and still lose. You can tick all the box­es, do all the right things, and put your heart and soul into it and still fail.

That’s the ul­ti­mate tip, as well as joke, in writ­ing. You will fail and you will have to get used to it to im­prove. You have to be pre­pared to kill your dar­lings and move onto the next piece if need be. A ubiq­ui­tous but valu­able piece of ad­vice is “writ­ing is rewrit­ing,” mean­ing your work will of­ten have to go through many painful and some­times dras­tic changes on its way to be­ing ready. Not every­thing you write is go­ing to be a winner.

Writers who find them­selves thrust into the lime­light with­out ex­pec­ta­tion can be over­whelmed by the sud­den rush of crit­i­cism they re­ceive, even though it’s usu­al­ly vast­ly out­num­bered by praise. As hu­mans we tend to fo­cus more on the neg­a­tive then the pos­i­tive, and we fix­ate on it. Those who can’t pull them­selves away from the rab­ble of voic­es shout­ing in their di­rec­tion will in­evitably re­treat, or be­come con­stant­ly em­broiled with coun­ter­ing their their crit­ics rather than mak­ing their own points.

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The in­ter­net can feel like a glass cage. You need to know when to stop putting your­self out there, and when you need to take time to your­self for re­cu­per­a­tion. Otherwise you can be­come a cir­cus at­trac­tion, a laugh­ing stock around dig­i­tal wa­ter cool­ers. What the in­ter­net calls a “lol-cow;” some­one able to be wound up and sent on a tirade for amuse­ment, and milked for laughs. There is noth­ing sad­der than a co­me­di­an who can’t take a joke, or a crit­ic who can’t take criticism.

Deep down we fear by rail­ing against hypocrisy we can be­come the hyp­ocrite our­selves. The counter-culture can be­come the es­tab­lish­ment, and you be­come the prob­lem you were try­ing to fix. I’ve seen too many rich, ag­ing hip­pies try still pre­tend to rail against “the man” in some form or another.

Rage is a great dri­ver of traf­fic, and an easy crutch to rely on in writ­ing. This is a theme re­peat­ed in my work of­ten, and writ­ers who take part in ac­tivism and sup­port caus­es through their work can have a hard time break­ing out of that pattern.

What hap­pens when there’s noth­ing to get into a right­eous fury about? What be­comes of the fire­brand when the fire goes out? We’re watch­ing a whole in­dus­try of writ­ers des­per­ate­ly try to keep the “women are sec­ond class cit­i­zens in the west” fire alive when those prob­lems have large­ly been rec­ti­fied in the places of the world that ral­ly about them the most. Will the same hap­pen for writ­ing crit­i­cal of es­tab­lished games media?

I spoke in “Video games Are Amazing and Fun, The Culture War is Miserable and Boring” about those who’s en­tire rel­e­vance is tied to main­tain­ing con­flict. I fear be­com­ing one of those peo­ple, reach­ing for con­tro­ver­sy where there is none be­cause that’s what my au­di­ence tunes in for (Editor’s Note: We’ll tell our writ­ers no be­fore that hap­pens. You should see what gets turned down!). If I ever be­come a loud dem­a­gogue who’s out­lived their use­ful­ness and I’m mere­ly en­am­oured with the sound of my own voice, I want you to take me out back and give me the “Old Yeller” treat­ment.

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The deep­est fear of the writer is that they’ll wake up one day and the spell will break. That they’ll ap­proach the key­board and no words will pour out, doomed to stare at a blank page for all eter­ni­ty. Writing can some­times feel like mus­cle mem­o­ry. You just let your fin­gers go, and aren’t re­al­ly ful­ly con­scious of what you’re writ­ing un­til you read it back — you take out the fil­ter and in­ter­face your brain di­rect­ly with the keyboard.

Call it Mojo, call it Je Ne Sais Quoi, call it fuck­ing su­per­pow­ers I don’t care. The best qual­i­ty writ­ing isn’t some­thing you can force — it’s like mu­sic or paint­ing in that way. It may not re­quire the ob­vi­ous skill of sculpt­ing a mas­ter­piece out of mar­ble, but you can tell when a writer is phon­ing it in.

Any writer will tell you about that nig­gling fear when they have an off day. The fear it could just keep be­ing like this. It can be­come self-fulfilling; the fear of writer’s block can make you scared to even at­tempt to write. I know a few good writ­ers who sim­ply get too worked up about the act of writ­ing and it crip­ples them.

Perhaps that’s why so many jour­nal­ists and au­thors are bit­ter and mean-spirited. They’re dead stars of cre­ativ­i­ty mere­ly con­tin­u­ing to squeeze out con­tent to make a liv­ing. Some of them may have been pas­sion­ate, good heart­ed writ­ers at some time, but they live with the crush­ing re­al­iza­tion that they had some­thing and lost it.

I hope some of them have the cog­ni­sance to re­al­ize they need to be do­ing some­thing else in­stead of mak­ing them­selves and every­one else mis­er­able. Take a bow, and exit stage left with dig­ni­ty. You don’t want to wake up one day and re­al­ize you’ve out­lived your rel­e­vance en­tire­ly; that you’ve squeezed every drop of resid­ual fame from your glo­ry days and no one cares who you are anymore.

Once the ride’s over go ahead and hop off. I hope you en­joyed yourself.

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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.