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I was in Eugene to give a talk several years ago when I came as close as I have ever come to experiencing stage fright. I was still new to the kind of hour-long talks authors are invited to give. As a young man, I had done a fair amount of theater, so I was comfortable enough on the stage – but it is one thing to memorize your lines and blocking, and another thing to more or less wing it alone at a podium. I never script my talks; in fact I barely follow an outline. I knew from the first time I gave a talk that the more improvisational I could be, the better.
However, on this night, as I waited off stage and listened to my introduction, an insidious thought crept into my head. “What if you have nothing to say? What if you get up there, in front of all those people, and simply have nothing to say?” I began picturing myself mute at the microphone, struck dumb by a form of public writer’s block. My heart began to pound. There is a reason comedians say they “died” when they have a bad night. To stand in that spotlight, my silence a testament to my fraudulence, was as unimaginably intolerable to me as death. I had to do something. I had to save my life. And so I said to myself, “Think of something. Think of something to say right now!”
Nothing came. If you’re a writer, you know that nothing. You turn the spigot, but the hose doesn’t even drip. I had lived my creative life until that evening with a quiet fear of this nothingness. No good day of work could quell it forever. There’s always the next day, and the next blank page. In an instant, my panic spiked—and at that very moment, feeling as if I was standing at the edge of some precipice, I heard a voice in my head. Again, if you’re a writer, you know about voices in your head. You more or less depend on them. On this night, the voice in my head said, “You’ll know what to say when you get there.”
No sooner did I hear this than the host completed my introduction, and the applause began. I stepped in front of the microphone, looked out at the faces, and gave myself a moment of silence – a moment of nothing. Every audience is different, after all. You have to know to whom you’re talking if you want to know what to say. In the next moment, I thought of a story, and I began.
Though writers practice their craft in solitude, we can all experience performance anxiety. Whether you outline or not, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, every writer is aware that something original and unplanned must occur at the desk. We are all explorers; we all write to discover. Without discovery, without the inspired idea or the inspired word, writing would be as lifeless as a spelling test.
Yet if there is to be discovery, there must be an unknown. I know a lot of writers. I know writers who have published dozens of books and writers who are struggling to finish the first draft of their first story. One of the biggest differences between experienced and inexperienced authors is not so much what the experienced author knows, but what they know they don’t have to know yet. Once you’ve finished a few stories—and then a book and then a few books—you begin to understand that most of what you need to know to actually finish a book will be learned as you go. You don’t need to know every scene, every twist, every character. You may not need to know the end. I know several mystery writers who don’t know who the killer is until they get to end of the first draft.
This is certainly true for me. The only thing I know for sure when I start anything, whether it’s an essay or a book, is that I’m interested in the story I’m going to tell. I may have some vague notion of how I’ll tell that story, but all my plans may change once again into the piece itself. What doesn’t change—indeed what can’t change—is my interest in the story. The moment I am no longer interested in discovering how to tell the story, I am done telling that story.
Performance anxiety, whether it’s stage fright or writer’s block, is just a fear of the unknown, which itself is the belief that you must know something you cannot yet know. No matter how hard I concentrate, I cannot know the future. I must finish this sentence before I can know how to begin the next sentence. It’s obvious when I say it this way, but I am as capable as anyone of forgetting where my attention belongs. I am perfectly capable of thinking my happiness, my wellbeing, is waiting for me somewhere out there in the future—out there when I finish this book, out there on the stage, out there when the applause begins. Viewed this way, my life itself is forever on hold, waiting and waiting for the pieces to finally come together.
On the other hand, my interest in stories, my interest in life, is with me right now, right here, in this very instant. When I look for it, that’s always where I find it. Once it’s been found, that interest is like a friend who says, Let’s go! “Where?” I ask. This way! it replies. That’s when I have to decide if this way is direction enough. The moment I choose, my happiness and I come together and we are on our way.
William Kenower is the editor in chief of Author magazine, a sought-after speaker and teacher, and the author of FEARLESS WRITING. He’s been published in The New York Times and Edible Seattle, and was a featured blogger on the Huffington Post. His video interviews with hundreds of writers, from Nora Ephron to Amy Tan to William Gibson, are widely considered the best of their kind on the Internet. He also hosts the online radio program Author2Author, where every week he and a different guest discuss the books we write and the lives we lead.
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