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“Whenever something good happens to you regarding your writing, you get nervous,” my daughter tells me. She’s talking about when my work is accepted by a journal or anthology, when I’m on my way to publication, when I get a good review, win a prize.

And, if I’m being honest, I need to add this: Whenever something bad happens to me regarding my writing (when my work is rejected, when publication seems impossible, when I do not get a good review or prize), I want to say, “See? I told you.”

I’m always bracing myself for failure.

For years, I’ve told students in my workshops they need to possess both arrogance and insecurity to be a writer. Arrogance enables you to think that what you write might matter to somebody else. Insecurity forces you to keep going back to your work to revise, to try to make it better.

But what role does nervousness play? And what is the key to getting rid of that nervousness or, at least, toning it down a notch? How do you become a person who approaches writing with a sense of calm?

Be a dead writer?


But if you’re reading this, you’re alive, and we need to work with that. Is there some trade secret all the successful writers know?

Dorothea Brande, in her 1934 book, Becoming a Writer, wrote: “First of all, becoming a writer is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer’s temperament.”

What is a writer’s temperament?

Well, here’s what it is not:

  1. You’re paralyzed by praise. You think, surely they’re just trying to make you feel good. Or maybe the praise is sincere, but they don’t know good writing, so you can’t trust them. Or maybe they know good writing and meant what they said, but you know all that could change in an instant.
  2. Discrepancies paralyze you. The discrepancy between the glowing image in your mind of the work you’re about to create vs. what actually ends up on paper. How they rarely match. If only readers could see inside your head, they’d know what a fabulous writer you are. There’s also the discrepancy between what you’re writing and what that very accomplished Pulitzer Prize winner has written.
  3. You’re so afraid of failure, you don’t take risks. Your inner critic is forever blowing the whistle. Maybe you stop yourself before you even begin, before you take the risk of writing at all.
  4. What’s the use? is your mantra.

How do you develop a writer’s temperament?

Persist. Persevere. Without discouragement or bravado. With curiosity. With wide-eyed wonder. With the attitude that anything can happen — and so what? It’s the attitude of a survivor. Regardless, you’ll be right there, at your sturdy little desk, pecking away. The novelist, Fred Leebron, once said to me: “It’s a war of attrition. Don’t attrish.”

So, it turns out the key to continuing to write even while riddled with nerves is to continue writing even while riddled with nerves. It’s the trade secret every successful writer knows. It’s also the problem every successful writer struggles with.