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Writing Through Your Fear

Keyes, Ralph. The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1995. Print.


In The Courage to Write, Keyes tackles the fears many writers – both new and experienced – face during the process of writing. He opens his book by discussing the many anxieties of children’s author E.B. White, and how White used many of his larger fears to create his beloved novels. Keyes addresses many of the common fears experienced by authors – such as inadequacy – which can sometimes lead to writers’ block or may prevent someone from writing altogether. More than just discussing the fears though, Keyes shares stories from authors who have experienced these fears and their methods of working through them.

In the second half of his book he begins discussing ways to actually use that fear to improve your writing. “Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing,” writes Keyes (emphasis in the original). In an interesting chapter titled, “Should you write in the nude?” Keyes discusses many of the superstitions and routines authors employ to help with their writing process from handwriting vs. free-writing, to writing standing up, sitting down, or lying in bed, to what one wears while writing (according to Keyes, novelist John McPhee wore a bathrobe and tied the sashes to the arms of his chair to keep himself in it until he reached his writing goal for the day). Near the end of the book Keyes covers the possible benefits of the Writers’ Workshop and concludes the book by discussing the rewards of writing and suggesting that the most successful writers are not necessarily the best writers, but the ones who had the determination to work through their fear.

Critical Analysis:

                Keyes’ book is written specifically for the timid writer, with a writing style that is very open and personable; the book was reminiscent of the first few chapters of Miller’s Write to Learn. Like Miller, Keyes has a way of writing as though he’s speaking directly to the reader. Keyes addresses the fears writers feel honestly, with a wide variety of examples from successful authors. The main goal of Keyes’ book is not necessarily to make the reader into a better writer, but to encourage the reader to not give up on their writing. Keyes doesn’t draw any specific conclusions within the book; however he offers many tips and pieces of advice for writers to conquer these fears. He also makes it clear that no matter what your fear is, you’re not alone – all writers experience these fears during their career. The use of examples from a range of successful authors helps the reader to understand what they’re feeling is normal, not a sign of any personal inadequacy as a writer. While this book isn’t designed to be read as a textbook, it would most likely be useful in a higher level composition course or a creative writing course to help students reconcile their anxiety and get a glimpse of how professional authors handle their anxieties.

Relevant Quotes:

On Writing:
“The more I read, and write, the more convinced I am that good writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I’m about to tell you.” (112)

On Teaching Writing:
“Course taking and conference attending are regarded with deep suspicion by many working writers. ‘How can you teach writing?’ they ask. Probably you can’t. Writing techniques can be taught. But that’s only one purpose served by writing classes and not necessarily the most important one. Their more important lessons are conveyed in the realm of spirit.” (171)

“The best thing writing courses can do is help participants develop the will to write. They provide a setting where aspiring writers can look inside their hearts and find the courage to tell us what they see. That lesson is infinitely more valuable than any about story structure, use of dialogue or time-shifting techniques.” (171)


Modernizing Classics

Use The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to discuss the idea of modernizing classics. After watching an episode (or possibly several specifically chosen episodes) discuss the updates to the story, what changes the creators made to the story to modernize it, and how these changes affect the story. Do they work? Does the modernization increase interest in the original? Does the modernization detract from the original in any way?

After discussing the video as an example, have the students choose a well-known scene from a classic story and write their own modernization of the story. It could be in the format of a narrative, or possibly a script for a web series similar to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.