One of my children has dance in her blood. A few weeks after her third birthday, she attended her first dance class and was hooked. Watching her practice and perform, I’ve found myself learning lessons that apply directly to my writing.
Early on, her class was a “combo,” where the hour was split up between ballet, tap, and tumbling. She eventually graduated to other harder classes and different styles and found her home with contemporary dance especially, winning several first-place trophies in solo competitions. She worked hard to pass her pointe shoe test and became a beautiful ballet dancer.
At one point several years ago, she learned that one of her studio team’s competition routines would be a style new to her, a style that couldn’t have been more different from her wheelhouse, which was contemporary dance.
In addition to their other dances, they would be competing in the hip-hop category.
She came home from the first practice feeling insecure and frustrated because, in her words, she “looked stupid” doing hip-hop.
As her mother—a highly unbiased viewer, of course—I knew that she was a talented dancer who would pick up hip-hop just as she’d picked up other styles over the years.
What happened was something neither of us expected: She became the team’s go-to hip-hop dancer. The girls on older teams were told to watch and emulate her. Her coach had her do hip-hop combinations in front of everyone else to see how to do it right.
The first time I saw her onstage in that hip-hop routine, she completely blew my mind. I’d seen her grace and passion in lyrical, emotional pieces. I had no clue that she had such power or attitude contained inside that little—graceful—body of hers.
Hip-hop became one of her absolute favorite kinds of dance, in part because she was so good at it.
So how did she go from “I hate this; I look stupid” to “I rock this; check it out”?
It all came down to a simple concept that’s stuck with me through many a writing session: Set aside all fear and hit each move hard.
Hip-hop, she explained, doesn’t look cool unless it’s big and hard and strong. If you hold back because you’re scared of, well, looking stupid, you will, in fact, look stupid.
To instead look confident and perform hip-hop well, you have to give every move power. No holding back. When you take power from the moves and dance even harder, you transform them into something amazing. In the process, you become a different kind of dancer. And the audience sits back in awe.
That was years ago, but the concept has stayed with me and informed many writing sessions. It’s helped me through many a scary writing mountain I’ve had to climb.
Here’s the thing: writing is scary.
Writing is hard. Fear can crop up in as many ways as there are sands of the sea. It lurks in drafting, research, revision. It skulks in the shadows, hovering as you send your work to beta readers and critique friends.
And when you’re done “performing,” you really aren’t. You never finish. Once you put your work out into the world, someone new could be experiencing your words for the first time, years after you wrote the book. You have a lifetime to “look stupid.”
Fear crawls up your back and digs its claws into you, trying to make you paralyzed as you try your hand at a new genre for the first time, as you send your first query, as you face the realities of deadlines or research questions, or a million other things, like teaching at conferences, or doing readings of your own work—things you’ve dreamed of but that are utterly terrifying in real life.
Sometimes the fears will surprise you. A lot of them will be unique to you, so you can’t even prepare for them all by talking to those who have walked the path before you. Your path will differ in significant ways.
Worst of all, just when you think you’ve conquered your fears, they’ll find a new form to show up in.
At their roots, the fears all come down to my daughter’s hip-hop experience: We fear that we’ll look like frauds, that our writing will “look stupid,” for lack of a better term.
The great news is that the solution is the very same thing: Go for it. Hit your work hard. Go all the way.
Holding back, worrying over how a story will turn out or how you’ll look to others, or what they’ll think of you, is what fear feeds on. Fear needs worry in order to grow.
Not writing full-out, hitting your story as hard as you can? That’s a disservice to your story, a guarantee that it’ll be weaker than it deserves. It’ll be weaker than you’re capable of.
The only way to grow as a writer is to go all out.
The only way to make great art is to take risks. To try new things. Even when they are uncomfortable. Sometimes especially then.
The only way to conquer fear is to starve it—to find joy in the process and to do the work even when you’re afraid.
So write with abandon the way a child plays dress-up and make believe, happy to wear a princess or superhero costume to the grocery store simply because they love it. No one scowls at such a child. Instead, they smile and enjoy the confidence and personality.
Be that child who, without a care in the world, plays make-believe with every ounce of energy they possess.
Be the hip-hop dancer who leaves every bit of energy they have—and a lot of perspiration—on the dance floor.
Write with abandon by pushing past the fears to write something only you can create.
That’s how you starve the fear. That’s how you find strength and power and passion you didn’t know you had. That’s how you uncover abilities you didn’t know you were capable of.
And that’s how you become the writer you were meant to be.
Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, a four-time Best of State medalist for fiction in Utah, and a Whitney Award winner. In addition, she has four Quill awards from the League of Utah Writers. She’s had success as a professional editor and is the author of over a dozen books, including the Whitney Award-winning Band of Sisters, a chocolate cookbook, and a grammar guide, and is a regular contributor to the Timeless Romance Anthology series, and she’s one of the four coauthors of the Newport Ladies Book Club series. Annette is represented by Heather Karpas at ICM Partners.