Worrying about how people will respond to our writing can be paralyzing. In fact, it’s number two on my list of things that masquerade as “writer’s block.” And make no mistake, fear of judgment is a powerful thing, even for those of us who insist we don’t care what people think. When it comes right down to it, we usually do care (and that’s a good thing – if only because it can help keep us from getting sued).
Where I see fear of judgment crop of the most is with my clients who are working on memoir. Generally people don’t decide to write about their lives because everything has been perfect and uneventful. No. They’re writing about some really hard things: death, abuse, addiction. And these things rarely happen in isolation. They involve others who might not want to be a part of a public narrative.
To deal with fear of judgment in memoir you have three options:
- Get permission. Talk to the people you’re writing about (or let them read a draft) and get their buy-in. This has the added bonus of creating opportunity for reconciliation.
- Get comfortable with the fact that there will likely be blowback. (Even if you start with #1, you might end up here.) Be as honest as you can in your account of the story and (when you’re ready to publish) consult a lawyer.
- Wait for ’em to die. This works best if you’re writing about someone significantly older than you, but even then, it’s not ideal. Start with #1 if you can.
Now for the stories we make up…
There are two ways fear of judgment pops up when writing fiction.
The first is that you’re worried people will recognize themselves in your characters. This is an easy fix. Just give the fictional character a significant characteristic that doesn’t match the real person. If the person you’ve modeled your character after is fat, make your character thin. If they have beautiful hair, make the character bald.
Here’s the weird thing: people will see themselves in your work in ways you can’t even anticipate. They will see themselves as the hero (even if you used them as a model for your villain) or they will insist that they always do that thing that one character does (clicking pens, popping gum) so they must have been the inspiration. It’s unavoidable. Practice saying “it’s fiction.”
The second way fear of judgment gets in the way of fiction is that we’re worried about how people will react to what we’re writing about. Maybe your story touches on a delicate subject (such as abortion or gun violence), or maybe you fudged an historical detail (for example you’re writing a story set in 1842 and reference a book that wasn’t published until 1843). It’s called artistic license and you’re allowed, but it doesn’t mean you won’t hear from readers.
There’s an easy fix for this too. Create a document called “Author’s Note.” Every time you feel the need to defend yourself to your readers, write up your defense in this file.
In my latest project, I actually did reference a book that hadn’t yet been published at the time my story is set (it was too perfect not to use, and it was published just months later), so I wrote up a little blurb for my author’s note: “You might notice that the book I referenced in part three…” And you know what? By the time I actually got to a finished draft I had cut that whole part anyway, but writing up a little blurb about why I was making the choice helped me to get over the fear of potential judgment and keep writing.
Once you realize you’re dealing with fear of judgment, these are the steps you can take. The biggest challenge with this form of writer’s block is that it can be difficult to even recognize. That’s where mindset comes in. When I work with my clients in my Sit Write Here coaching program, I start by teaching them mindfulness techniques that can help them figure out why they sometimes avoid their writing. Sometimes it’s fear of judgment. Sometimes it’s that they’re trying to write in the wrong format. In my work, I’ve come up with 10 things that often masquerade as “writer’s block.”
To learn more, click here.