Page Fright

Oh, I’ve encountered stage fright before. That’s for sure. I used to cry during my English class my freshman year of high school when my teacher would make us give speeches. I stand up there and look out at the 20ish kids staring blankly back at me, my English teacher sitting in the back of the classroom with her clipboard and rubric, her red pen shining. My hands would be sweaty, smearing the ink on my notecards. I’d stutter anytime I tried to get a word out. I’d end up in tears, which would only make me feel even more embarrassed, because there I was, sobbing in front of a bunch of other 14-year-olds I was trying to impress.

Stage fright is terrifying. But there’s something that I think is entirely worse than that, and that’s page fright.

I first heard of the term “page fright” back when I read Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write for a class that I took on writing psychology, but the nature of the concept is something I’ve been all too familiar with over the years. The simple fact of it all is this: writing is scary. To sit down and put words on a page, your own words and ideas, to try to articulate those thoughts that fly around your head on a daily basis…that’s a difficult thing to do, and it’s a scary thing to do. There are so many what if questions that come to mind when you sit down to write, and so many of them are full of doubt. What if my writing sucks? What if this idea isn’t original? What if people don’t like what I write? What if I don’t like what I write? What if I switch between past and present tense and then editing is really hard because I can’t make up my mind about what verb tense is best?

The simple answer, when you mind starts racing with these kinds of thoughts, is to tell yourself to shut up. Your writing won’t suck, especially if you’re practicing, and it doesn’t matter what other people think. And why are you even thinking about editing if you haven’t written anything yet? You’re putting the cart before the horse. Just sit down and write, goddamnit.

And yet, that’s a difficult thing to do. I’ve been there before. I open a Word document or a Scrivener file or a Google doc or even just a paper journal, and I stare at the empty page, utterly terrified to put words down on the page. Sometimes it’s out of fear that I won’t say what I want to say, or that I can’t say it well enough. Sometimes I just have no ideas and don’t know where to begin. Sometimes I’m just unsure about committing myself to my writing, even if I know deep down that I really want to.

And sometimes, I don’t even have to be looking at a blank page to have page fright. Sometimes (meaning right now), I’m looking at a word document that already has 31k words on it, my unfinished Camp NaNo novel, and I have no idea how to continue. Sure, I know where the story is going, but I don’t know where to find the motivation to keep writing. In NaNo, it’s there already: I have a word count goal I have to hit everyday. Outside of NaNo, that word count goal is only in my head: I don’t have to hit it everyday, even though I let myself down when I don’t. Sometimes it’s just scary to hold yourself accountable.

Page fright is a very real thing, and even now, I don’t know the best way to combat it, other than to keep writing. Writing may always terrify me, from starting a novel to continuing it to finishing and trying to edit it, but I love it and it keeps me sane, and I think that’s the whole reason any of us do it.

I suppose I’ll leave you with this quote from Ralph Keyes:

“Writing is a form of performance. Page fright, like stage fright, can be turned into focus.”

Use your fear to your advantage. Take all your anxiety and turn it into energy that fuels you to write; energy that keeps your story alive. That’s certainly what I’ll be doing these next two months as I struggle along without NaNoWriMo.