Fear, Creativity, and Courage…in Front of People

The first time I remember feeling a paralyzing, shameful kind of fear, was when I was twelve.  I had dreams and even bigger plans (as most twelve-year-olds do) to become famous. Well, if not famous, at least I wanted to be seen. I had my eye on an acting class at what I considered to be a prestigious community theater, but instruction was expensive. Really, really expensive. I begged, pleaded, and somehow managed to convince my parents to sign me up. I waited for the first day of class with bated breath. I imagined all of the wonderful things that would follow once I stepped foot on stage.  As I sat in cushy theater seats and waited for class to begin, I practically closed my eyes and wished for my fairy godmother to make me special.theater-seats

But what unfolded was not at all what I had imagined. An hour later I huddled in the back of our family car in tears, begging my dad to never make me return. I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened. It was too awful. Too embarrassing. Too…revealing. In one hour I had learned this: I had nothing important to say. How could this happen in a short sixty minutes? I’ll give you a hint: improv. The class was working on improvisation, which essentially means, “winging it.” We were supposed to get on stage (in front of people!) and act out whatever the instructor desired, with other students I had never laid eyes on, or let alone had spoken to (in front of people!). In my whole “become famous” plan I had forgotten one small fact. If I wanted to act, I must get up and act (in front of people!). Almost famous

I wouldn’t call myself a shy kid. But at age twelve, I had already cultivated a healthy fear of looking stupid. I watched the other students get up on stage and easily make the audience laugh. They were clever. They were funny. And they were smart. In my twelve-year-old eyes, I was absolutely none of these things. When my turn came, I blurted out some sort of incoherent sentence and then bolted behind the piano and waited for the torture to stop. Afterwards, I slunk to the darkest section of the cushy theater seats and cried. It turned out, I wasn’t special at all. I had nothing to contribute. Fear had got a hold of who I thought I was. My dad, bless his fatherly heart, didn’t make me go back.

FearNow, thinking about it, I wonder what could have happened if I had faced my fear and tried again? As I got older I pushed back at fear in other ways….learning new skills, public speaking, writing, but I never ventured out onto the acting stage again. Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” It is in our human nature to face our fears. He goes on to say, “Mental toughness is a skill and like any skill it can be developed. Learning how to overcome fear is just like building a new habit.” Humans want control. Humans want to conquer and that includes taming ourselves. Some of us have had more practice at facing our fears than others. But I love what Pressfield says. Overcoming fear is creating a new habit; a habit of courage.

A few months ago I had the chance to rewrite my only “acting class” story. My eight-year-old daughters’ theater school sent out an email inviting parents to attend an open acting class reserved for adults. Even as I read the email my heart rate increased. For a moment I thought, just delete it. No one will ever know that you saw it. But, I couldn’t. The twelve-year-old in me whispered, “Come on. You can do it.”courage

Seth Godin says we need to practice overcoming our fears, even in inconsequential ways. He says, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people…?” This acting prospect seemed to fulfill the above requirements. I was determined to put my dramatic and traumatic childhood improv story to rest. I emailed a small group of friends and said, “Look at this opportunity! Doesn’t it sound fun?” I hoped they couldn’t sense my fear in the email. Luckily, I have very courageous friends. We went to acting class. And lo and behold, it was an improv class. We had to act stupid, and silly, and make people laugh…and we did it all (in front of people!). Let me add, it helped enormously to have friends who were by my side.

I'm clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’m clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’ve learned that fear and creativity are forever linked. What makes you afraid in your creative life is something that you must face and conquer in your real life. Years ago, the thought of writing a novel made me want to vomit. I hardly whispered it aloud. But that fear underscored what I had to accomplish. The more we practice facing our fears the braver we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and demand that you face your creative goals with zeal. And when you can’t muster zeal, surround yourself with people who have compassion but also tenacity. It is brave to live our creative life out loud. There is courage in choosing creativity, but we must surround ourselves with only the most honest, and bravest of innovative allies who help us, succeed or fail, in front of people.

(Additional sources: http://jamesclear.com/overcome-fear)


Jen White has a degree in English teaching and also earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE is her debut novel and was born from the real experience of Jen being accidentally forgotten at a gas station with her younger sister and cousin.  Jen currently tries not to boss around her five children and husband in San Clemente, California.



Novel Edit: Vision and Revision


There’s an old writer’s adage that talking about the plot of your novel is dangerous, since telling the story can dissipate your desire to put it on the page. But there does come a time when discussing your plot can really help. At least that’s what fellow Tollbooth author Tami Brown and I are discovering. 

Both of us are looking at a serious novel revision of our current middle grades. We’ve read one another’s manuscripts and are sending them through the sieve together.

This week and next, our posts will share some of our process. Our approach is pretty much organic. Brainstorm, exchange ideas, try out various techniques, and generally help each other dig more deeply into mood, character, plot, theme and structure.

We’ve loosely termed our brainstorming sessions “Vision and Revision,” because what is working for us is to first discuss the overall vision we have for the rewrite, and then create a blueprint for this vision to take back to our desk as we revise.

If you’d like to come along, pull out your novel that’s ready to revise, grab a trusted author to partner with, and jump in!


Each of us has written and (honestly) rewritten our manuscript more than once. But that’s okay. That’s how you let your subconscious out to play. Now it’s time to trust that these drafts hold the clues to revision, that although the soul of the story might still seem to be missing, it’s really already falling, like a shadow, across the page.

So vision is a matter of looking into those manuscript shadows and asking questions.  

Where to start?

For us it’s not at the beginning, but at the end.

Beginning at the End

As a long time short story writer, I’ve learned to trust my intuition and plunge headlong into a story, because somewhere in the process the ending will appear. Seeing the ending is a magic moment, one that sends out a beacon to follow as I write. When I have the ending, I know what I need to add to illuminate the reader’s path, and what I need to cut. That’s what vision is about in this sense, only in reverse. Because we want to create a new novel ending and move backward through the novel to make sure each element serves this end.

(To test this theory, imagine plunking your reader into a labyrinth and asking them to follow a series of dead ends. Imagine how quickly they’ll put the book down. You want the reader to be curious and surprised, but not duped. Moving backward from the ending can show you where you’ve gone off track. The road back to the beginning should be clear, and this goes for all story elements including mood, tone, story world etc.)

Below is a map to our process in moving from the ending backward. Don’t be fooled by its brevity, we found that some of these points can take hours (or even days), to resolve. And for us it’s proving fluid. See what works for you and your editing partner. You may want to outline your manuscript first, then discuss your new vision, or go back and forth between discussion and outline. We’ll be using this vision and outline in next week’s posts to create a dynamic storyboard for revision.


  • Your reader and your character will come to an epiphany at the end of your novel. What is it? Is this epiphany a moment of change (or rejection of change) for your character? Why? How does it occur?
  • Does your new vision of the story ending alter/redefine this epiphany? Can you state this clearly in a sentence or two?
  • To help you state specifically how your character has been changed (or has rejected change) by the end of your story, decide what you want your character and your reader to feel, understand, walk away with at the end of your novel. In other words, what is your theme, and how does it relate to your character’s story dilemma? What is it you really mean to say/convey?

Reversing Your Outline:

Looking at the existing manuscript, use index cards, an outline or margin notes to write down the main point/main movement of each chapter. Try to use as few words as possible.

  • These notes will help you pull back those shadows to reveal the soul of your story. And when working with your editing partner, can be a quick guide when you discuss and revise your story structure.
  • When revising, your notes will tell you if each chapter is clearly focused on your theme and the end result of your character’s struggle, and if each scene within the chapter is clearly focused on the chapter main point/main movement. They’ll also tell you where you need to add, cut or refocus attention.  
  • You’ll use these notes next week when we storyboard plot, character action and motivation.

In the right-hand margin, in your outline or on your index card, write down how the chapter advances the overall story. Again, be brief.

  • These notes allow you to follow the logic of your story, making it easier for you to analyze or discuss your story with your editing partner.
  • When revising your own work, these notes will tell you if each chapter fits into your overall story structure. You might find that some chapters should be shifted or cut after completing this step.
  • You should be able to summarize the main point/main movement of each chapter and how this chapter supports the overall story. If you can’t, that chapter will be one that needs to be revised until you can.

Next: Using vision to create that dynamic storyboard for revision. -zu vincent