Stephen King Still Fears Failure. How About You?

Stephen King by Oscar Oliva OA / DeviantArt
by Oscar Oliva OA / DeviantArt

Today’s guest post is by freelancer and author Marcy McKay.

The November 2014 issue of Rolling Stone interviews the master of contemporary fiction, Stephen King. The Q&A covers a myriad of interesting topics for writers: the author’s typical working day, his literary legacy, as well as how alcohol and drugs affected his writing back in the day.

However, one quote in particular shivered through me. It might change your thinking, too.

The interviewer casually asked him, “You still fear failure after all these years of success?” King replied:

“Sure. I’m afraid of all kinds of things. I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.”

Holy apostrophe, Batman! Stephen X@#% King still battles fear?

After four decades of publishing, with over 350 million books sold (both fiction and nonfiction), and winning the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters—that guy still combats fear?

One writer-friend read that quote and bemoaned how it was hopeless for the rest of us. We’d stay buried in self-doubt forever.

Wrong attitude.

Those same 33 words freed me.

Learning from the Master

King fully admits his self-doubt. He worries his imagination will never even show up to the page, or worse, he won’t find the perfect ending for himself or his audience.

Hmmm, that sounds pretty much like the rest of us.

I know, I know, most of us will never be as prolific as the author of Carrie, Stand By Me and The Green Mile. We’ll probably never pen our memoir and a precise how-to that becomes a classic like On Writing.

It should still give us hope. Endless.

What Stephen King Teaches Us

King’s comments on fear offer three important takeaways:

1. Fear is part of the creative process.

We’ll never graduate and move on from fear like we did from high school. It’s a shadow always lurking behind us. It’s a horrible enemy that must be slayed over and over again.

2. Name your fear to destroy it.

Examine your fear to find the wisdom there. Look for specifics in your creative monsters.

  • Do you struggle with self-doubt like King? If so, at which stage? The beginning, the middle, the end, or all of the above? If so, be prepared, then ignore it and keep writing.
  • Is perfectionism a problem for you? Do you throw out draft after draft of your manuscript because it’s never good enough? Maybe you spend two hours rewriting one sentence? Striving for excellence is admirable, while perfectionism is damaging.
  • Are you a procrastinator? Do you keep telling people you’re still conducting research for your book when the truth is you’re too scared to start?
  • Do you sabotage yourself with alcohol or drugs to the point you can’t write? Do you create drama in your life instead of in your stories? Are you whiner who always talks about writing, but never writes?

3. Stop resisting fear.

Now that you understand fear part of the creative process, stop fighting it. Learn your internal/external signals as to what’s happening, and use it to your advantage.

Don’t misunderstand me: Even when you realize fear is part of the writing process, it will still scare the hell out of you. Each and every time. Except now, you’ll know what to do.

Shut up, sit down and write.

Do not wait to gather your courage first, then write. Write first to make the fear go away. Until it returns again. Then, you write through it once more.

The cycle repeats itself endlessly.

Why do we torture ourselves like this?

For that, we return to the Rolling Stone article: The interviewer asked King about retirement, if he saw himself still writing into his eighties and beyond.

King’s response was perfect.

“It (writing) fulfills me. There are two things about it I like: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.”

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