What you need to know about fear.

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Once, I had the privilege of working with six accomplished writers and a herd of horses for three days. It was incredible. The horses have a way of mirroring your resistance to you, without fail.

You might have a very compelling story about why you won't/can't write your book. Try explaining that to a horse!

What does your story about your resistance look like to a horse? Lack of trust. 

To a horse, that feels like fear.

I witnessed some awesome cracking of egos on thtat retreat. Resistance was revealed as stories and choices. Whoa.

Then I got to see light come in through those cracks.


The light coming through = trust.

Just before I left for the farm, I hosted a call with our entire Story Intensive class, to talk through issues and questions that were coming up for them in their semester. It was a powerful evening: another whoa.

It's impossible for me to witness this kind of bravery and honesty without being affected by it. Every time I see someone make a courageous move to prioritize creative work, especially when it feels controversial or impossible to do so, I hear thunder cracking. I can't shrug it off — it feels too important. 

Resistance is fear. And when you witness someone face her own fears, it helps you face your own. 


Here are some stories of resistance that you might not recognize as fear:

• It's not like I'm Margaret Atwood or anything. I'm not writing novels.

• I'm the breadwinner of my family, so I can't realistically take time to write a book.

• My stories aren't that interesting - nobody wants to read about my experience.

• I tried to get into an MFA program, but I was rejected multiple times, so I just have to make peace with the fact that I'm not supposed to write.

• I can't decide if I should write fiction or memoir.

• I don't know how to market my work. Should I get a website up first, build a platform?

• Should I use a pen name or my real name?

• I get paid to produce a TV show/clean people's teeth/teach third grade/balance company books - I'm not a real writer.

• Nobody wants to read the weird/sad/soft stuff I write about.

• Just because I used to like writing when I was young doesn't mean it's my calling.

• I don't have resistance! I just have a lack of focus, and/or I don't like doing what other people expect of me.


Even our most multi-layered, complicated resistance stories are all about one thing: fear. And at the core, that always feels the same, no matter the details.

"Your fear is the most boring thing about you," Elizabeth Gilbert says. "Your fear is just as boring as mine is… everybody's got the same one. It is not precious, it is not special, it is not singular to you. It's just the one we all got wired with when we came in."

Our individual stories about why we aren't writing can be different. They are uniquely crafted for our ego and personality. That's why we treat them as precious stories. They're specialized and detailed on the surface, but they actually all feel the same.

And resistance itself is obstinate, shifty. You have to be vigilant, and use the wisdom you've gained from past experience. It helps to pay attention to the story you're telling yourself, so you can see that it's just a story, and not the truth. You can choose to face your fear, not feed it.

Your writing is actually so accessible to you. It's right there, behind the story that you're telling yourself.  

This is why we've added pre-writing somatic practices to the Story Course before each lesson: to help your nervous system relax before you face resistance. 

This is dedicated to anyone facing the fear that comes before you write something you care about.

To the students in The Story Intensive — thank you for your fortitude and commitment! You are facing resistance every day, every week. You made it past Lesson 3, arguably the toughest one to write through. Bravo! Now, on to Lesson 4, where things get really interesting.

To the six writers who worked with me and the horses — thank you for your courage and honesty! Each one of you looked resistance in the eye, stood your ground, and chose to write anyway. I'm still learning from you.

For everyone in the Story Course — thank you for taking the brave leap! You're on a solo journey with a backpack and a compass. Your resilience and determination help the rest of us find our own resolve when we sit alone at our writing desk.

Every day I need to remind myself about this stuff.

My complicated story is about needing to be online every day, because I'm running a writing school, and it's my livelihood, and it needs daily attention, etc. I'm always scared to take time off. (Liz, you're so right: my fear is the most boring part about me.)

But I have chosen to write anyway. For me, writing a book means being offline sometimes. I went offline around this time before, and nothing broke or fell apart as a result.

In fact, life got better.

So I'm going to use the wisdom I gained from that experiment and do it again. I've committed to some non-negotiable writing time for my novel, and given myself a date to finish this draft.

What about you? What is your story about why you aren't writing?

How will you commit to your writing anyway?

With love,

Sarah Selecky

Photo (top): Sarah Olive on Unsplash.


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24 comments

This is amazing timing! I just posted a short piece called "Dancing with disappointment and resistance." I couldn't agree more about fear being boring. I've committed to my writing in two ways: 1) by launching a new blog and posting short pieces daily; and 2) by working on my novel every day, adjusting the plot and fleshing out my main character's backstory (better late than never). My favorite writing on resistance is in Pressfield's "The War of Art." He says resistance is a reliable compass pointing you to an area of great growth - it's always a choice whether to go there. He has some great advice about overcoming resistance. Thanks for this and for all your articles -- very helpful.
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Bex Montgomery

Sarah, thank you for posting this, it was exactly what I needed to read today. I found myself in tears reading through some of the excuses that fear feeds into our mind as rational thought, because I recognized so many of them in my own fears and somehow seeing the words that run through my mind come from somewhere else let's me see them in a different light. It let's me see the truth behind the fear and it's comforting knowing I'm not the only one who battles the demon of fear and writing.
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This email update arrived in my inbox just at the perfect time. Thank you.
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I tell myself I can't 'force' the work, or it becomes too dry, artificial, and I'm just 'grinding out crap'. But I know the truth. I may start out grinding, but if I stay with it long enough, good stuff does come out if I keep my butt in the chair long enough on any given day. Thank you for sharing the truth about resistance. It's just plain old fear.
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Resistance shows up for me in so many ways, often in a seductive voice. 'Oh, you're tired. Just relax and rest' or 'You should really focus on your primary business. There's no time to distract yourself from real work'. I am just beginning to recognize the myriad ways that resistance derails me. Now it's time to go beyond recognition and work past resistance. It seems all puffed up, but resistance is really just a empty bully.
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Great questions! Writing my boring fears in my journal now.
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okay, in the spirit of total truthfulness, i'd have to say my WAFs (worries/anxieties/fears) about writing are always that i'm already too old. zadie smith wrote 'white teeth' when she was in her early twenties. i've done nothing yet, and by the time i've put in those 10,000 hours there's no "guarantee" i'll be tapped into anything magical, at least not for a sustained period of time. i'm afraid i'll give myself over to it, and nothing will be there to catch me. that feels so strange to type out. and it makes me feel sad to see it all laid out. it also makes me laugh because it's so silly. age means nothing, and the best version of me knows this. it's just the wispy little WAF me that still whispers sad stuff into my ears.
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Jennifer Louden

I am reading this instead of writing although I will go write immediately after writing this. I work with people's stories around their fears every day and still here I am, afraid. What is my story? I can't figure out what the book is about and so I need to go back and figure it out before I write more. If I could just articulate the heart line and be sure that is the one I want to develop the book around, then I could write. But then I don't know what to write.... and I go back to looking for the heart line... what is this book about? And then I decide "I'll just get this other project finished and then I can work on the book" and a few more weeks go by. The fear underneath? I'm too dumb to do this. I'm not stubborn enough :) I can't.
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Lorrie Beauchamp

I now see my resistance as an energy-gathering exercise. When I find myself delighted to attack the housework, leaping into the car to help Mom shop, or volunteering to rid the world of injustice.... it's because the last thing I want to do is sit down and write. Then, heated up by my persistent procrastination, I boil over and start bubbling. The end result, produced under pressure, is usually quite good. Perhaps there's a method to our madness! And most certainly a madness to our methods.
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Mary Montanye

Sarah, I've been paralyzed with fear. I jump all over the place with my reasons for not writing (resistance). The biggest one which you nailed is do I write a novel or another memoir or stick with short stories. I feel like I'm in a perpetual, non-ending, no-way-out loop. But, of course, the answer is to recognize this for what it is and pick one. I can write one and move to the other later (if the first is finished) if I want to. Thank you once again for your wisdom and your honesty.
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I've been reading your posts and letters for two years now, without daring to pop my head in. Resistance comes from years of not having the right tools to get past the barricades I consistently set in place, for any written word project. Years ago, when university programs didn't accept my writing and research as 'rigourous enough', I accepted this as a state of academic inferiority. Beginning to recognize that regaining trust is going to have to = a change in how I see myself in my work - along with working on how to write consistently to regain some kind of momentum.
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I'm studying creative writing in university and fear is always a part of my process. Every time I sit down to start writing a new draft or submission I get scared. There is always this fear that I won't be able to write well or do the idea in my head any justice. I'm always worried that being afraid when writing isn't normal. I see now that that isn't necessarily the case. It was comforting to read this article and all of the comments and remember that other writers go through the same thing. There is nothing wrong with being afraid of writing. It is always challenging to get through that fear at first but once you do it really is a powerful thing. Something I hope to feel more and more as I mature as a writer.
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Thank you Sarah. As always, I've gleaned some wisdom. My fear is boring -- I hope it hears this -- as I'm loving it. I also just heard Augusten Burroughs on YouTube, he said when you have writer's block, write about the block and why you have the block. And then it will slowly unblock. : )
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Catalina Ines Arabia

Thank you so very much Sarah! I just subscribe to your site and I am already finding ways to cope with this stagnant fear. This year to fight my fears I began working on the 5'wp-index card. which is writing for five minutes on an index card. It really helped me, and now every time I feel the subversive fear creeping up I used an index card. I fact I do not leave my home without it! I love your experience with the horses: be present and aware! Deeply grateful to you, Catalina.
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Wendy Woods :: Personal Style Coach

Whoa. xo
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I had original ideas (at least I believed that to be the case) as a young woman and had started several stories geared to young women. When my finance laughed at me, I threw them all away. Now, many many years later and recently retired, I cannot seem to get enough!!! I am taking course and seeking out as many resources as I can (hence, finding your site). I am writing, but everything I put down is a telling of something from my life. Shouldn't a real writer have original ideas?
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I didn't see mine on the list, so here goes. I wrote constantly from the time I could form letters until some time in high school. I don't know why I stopped. But now it's been ten whole years. Everyone who knew me would expect me to have progressed since then. I would expect it. But I haven't done anything in the meantime. I don't know how to be a beginner at something I began a long time ago. Looking at what I was then and what I could be now if I had only tried, nothing I could produce would meet those expectations. It's like I've pretended to be a writer the last ten years, and now I have to admit that I haven't been working on anything. I wasted all that time. Damn, if that isn't depressing out loud. I'm not sure if it helped, as I still can't see my way out of it, but maybe it was a good step to put it here.
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Gosh! Amazing that just the right thing pops up when you need it! Thanks so much Sarah. Like some here, I just don't believe that what I have to say will be of interest to anyone, or that I can do justice to the ideas running around in my head, or that I can justify taking the time to write when there is so much else that just has to be done and so on. And, like Jennifer, I work with people most days who struggle with fear and help them to write their story and to overcome! So why am I allowing fear to bully me, to intimidate me into not doing what I long to do?? Even posting a reply like this is something I don't do because 'everyone else has already said it' or 'what I have to say wouldn't interest anyone'!! So, I've broken through one fear already today. So if I can do it once I can do it again. Thanks again Sarah.
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Oh I just love this post. When I'm not writing, my story is always the same: I don't feel well (actually a legitimate story considering I have an autoimmune disease that flares up, but still an excuse for me nonetheless). Or sometimes it's a variation on not feeling well, like being too tired to think about writing, let alone DO it. Other times it's just that it's "too hard" to start, so I put it off endlessly. OH, and I've also been pretty attached to my all-or-nothing mindset in the past as well: if I don't have a full afternoon or an entire hour AT LEAST to write, I can't do anything. As if nothing else is productive writing time. I've proven all of these stories wrong in the past couple of months, though. I challenged myself to 100 straight days of writing, with the only rules being that I had to write something daily that is strictly for my creative life. No time minimum or word count. Just doing it, if it's 5 minutes or an hour. This has changed my writing life in ways I can't even explain! Also, Sarah, I've been working on a story that was born from the word association exercise in Plot & Drift. I think I've got a novel on my hands, and I could cry when I think about how that story never would have made it to my consciousness if I hadn't been writing daily and been showing up consistently to catch the story as it came along. Also, Plot & Drift is my favorite lesson of any program on the face of the earth, ever. True story. xo
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Lindsay Edmunds

I finished Story Is a State of Mind last month and found it intensely valuable. What I learned: I could write when I thought I couldn't. I understand why stories work much better than I used to.
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Sarah Selecky

Wow. Just... wow. Thank you so much for your comments. And for those of you who wrote out your fears and posted them here with me -- thank you! I can feel the seeming power of those stories, but I'm truly blown away by what happens when you WRITE ANYWAY. Thank you so much for doing this with me. I took a break from social media after posting this letter, and already I have to say that things feel more clear. Reading your comments here is so affirming and reassuring. Many, many thanks: for reading, for writing, for being honest and real. You guys keep me on the right track too. Love, Sarah
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Stephen D. Forman

Ah Michele, you beat me to it. What today we are naming "fear" and "resistance" was for decades known as "writer's block". I'd wager it stretches back to the first writer of the first book. "Dang! Here I sit, staring at a blank clay tablet, chisel in hand. I'd sure rather be going to the big Saturnalia tonight!" Even if procrastination weren't hardwired, it would take nothing to pull writers away from their typewriters. Who wouldn't rather be carousing, flirting, drinking, sporting, loving, laughing or winking ahead of grinding one's soul at the mill of lifeless keys. As a child, if I wrote or did not, I felt no remorse or guilt over the difference. Everything was play, and I took joy in everything. Today, if I do not write, I feel guilt-- why? (What's changed?) The more I contemplate this question, the more my thoughts return to a single answer. 40 years older than that pink child, I'm now viciously aware of my own mortality. Every opportunity is a "missed opportunity" and every hour is a "missed hour" to write. You'd think such heavy crisis would be motivating, but it only serves to depress. Our fears are boring because they're universal, and because most of us are not that interested in the lives of others. Otherwise we'd all be psychiatrists. For me at least, the only "resistance" I can capably overcome is a deadline. The threat of letting someone down proves remarkably motivating-- perhaps this is the success behind answering Sarah's daily prompts or being held accountable to a classroom schedule. For most of us, a self-imposed deadline is no more reliable than sneaking a frosted cupcake while dieting.
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Thanks so much for sharing your fears about being offline! It makes total sense to me. I'm not usually afraid of writing, but I'm afraid of FINISHING. I'm afraid of finishing a piece of work and saying, this is good enough to send out into the world. I'm working through that fear now by finishing a shorter writing project, and then I will set deadlines for myself to make sure the new novel I'm writing stays in progress, that I don't just wind around and around and get lost in it.
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Amanda Niehaus-Hard

Lorrie, I have the same feeling. My house is never quite so clean as it is the weeks in which I have a deadline. After vacuuming the carpets for the fourth time, I usually end up sitting down to work, but it's funny to think of all the things I will do in an effort to avoid that work.
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