Overcoming Page Fright

The scariest part about beginning is simply that: beginning—sitting down and starting. Page fright is agony; even the most celebrated writers have dealt with it. Ralph Keyes gathered a few of those writers in his book The Courage to Write:

All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It’s really scary just getting to the desk—we’re talking now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine.

—Fran Lebowitz

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.

—John Steinbeck

What is so awful about starting? Why is it so difficult? Keyes wrote:

The best time of writing is before any words have been committed to paper; when all is prospect, clear in one’s mind, and clearly brilliant. The problems begin when one attempts to record that vision on paper. No matter how gifted and experienced the writer, this simply can’t be done . . . “The awful thing about the first sentence of any book,” agreed Tom Wolfe, “is that as soon as you’ve written it you realize this piece of work is not going to be the great thing that you envision. It can’t be . . .”

No book on paper can ever match the one in one’s head. What Paul Valery said of poems is true of all writing; it is never completed, only abandoned. Once writers realize this, they’re faced with a cruel choice: shall they leave their premature baby in a basket on some publisher’s doorstep, or shall they hide that poor child in the basement and turn away from writing as an impossible dream?

Accepting this harsh reality is the most important step in overcoming page fright.

Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder; they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner. If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly.

—Lawrence Block

And once we accept this fear, we might even be able to turn it into a strength, as William Faulkner did. He wrote:

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.

If you’re afraid of starting, or if you’ve already started but been brought down by fear, now is the time for a new beginning.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.

—Stephen King

Sign up now for more inspirational tips from a professional editor delivered right to your Inbox.