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Strike up a tune

Lynn Jenner


Yesterday I read that all writers have the same four fears. The first one was ‘Don’t know how to start’. The second one was ‘Don’t know what it will end up as’. I can’t remember the third fear, but the fourth, strangely, was ‘Fear of losing control’.
I started reading this list in a sceptical mood. After all, we aren’t all the same, so why would we all have the same fears about writing? And why should there be only four fears? When I think about writing I’m sure I remember more than four fears. But then, thinking more about what goes on in my head when I am writing and when I am not writing, I have started to like this list quite a bit.
I don’t think I ever know how to start a new piece of writing. And worse, I usually find that the way I start is rubbish and not much to do with how the piece ends up. What is even worse is that this time spent not writing and letting myself off the hook because I am supposedly concerned about how to start is total bullshit. ‘Don’t know how to start’ is a pretend problem. It doesn’t matter how you start so there is no problem there except the fear. I say nothing to that fear because talking makes fears bigger, but I have worked out that you can ignore them, as they say you can do with a playground bully.
‘Don’t know what it will end up as’ is exactly the same. Of course you don’t know what the writing will end up as. That is the point. If you did know, you would be holding the door shut on the thing you most want: new ideas. I am often afraid that I won’t have the technical skills to make the ideas dance the way I imagine them. I see those ideas sitting down quietly around the outside of the room like shy boys and girls at a dance, waiting to see if something magical will happen or if it will just be embarrassing. If you are the band, what can you do except strike up a tune and see if they stand up?
It is useful that I don’t remember the third fear, because that allows us all to insert whichever preoccupation is floating around in the air today. Mine is that when I tell people about the latest topic I have chosen to write about, which is the Kāpiti Expressway, they say they can’t quite picture how it will work. That makes me doubt that I can make it work, which I see is a sneaky double-dip intrusion by the second fear.
I have to be honest here and say that I don’t know how ‘Fear of losing control’ over writing is a fear. It is what I most hope for. I want that door open.
Below is my advice to myself regarding fears, doors and bullshit.

  1. Start. Kick open the door. Don’t wait for a written invitation.
  2. Write when you have that sense of the chase. Write when you are white hot and your heart is beating fast. What you write in this state may not last but it will shine a useful light on the territory. And don’t worry at this stage about what form the story will take.
  3. Write when you are white hot and your heart is beating fast because readers need to see that this thing matters. Writing can’t matter to readers if it doesn’t matter to the writer.
  4. The heart as polygraph. It knows if you are pretending.
  5. If writing this story/poem isn’t making your heart beat faster, and you have tried a few changes of angle, quit. It must be someone else’s thing.
  6. Readers are people, and therefore unknowable. There is a certain freedom in that.
  7. However, if quite a few people whose aesthetic judgment you trust say something sucks, it probably does. That isn’t an excuse to quit the territory, but an argument for trying different approaches.
  8. In saying that, sometimes a trusted reader will dislike something that is going somewhere new or unpleasant. The heart-rate test is still your best guide.
  9. Making aesthetic pleasure is your job. Always play seriously with the language. A true story or a story containing facts is still a story. It deserves to be alive with colour and emotion.
  10. NB For tweets or emails, the racing heart is a sure sign that you should NOT proceed.


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