On Doing What Scares You

I’ve been thinking lately about courage and confidence and how these are two words which might seem, on the surface, to be closely related, but actually have very different implications when it comes to the writing life.  Confidence is highly overrated.  Show me a confident writer, and in all likelihood you will also be showing me work that falls short of originality or greatness — because originality and greatness come from the willingness to take risks.  To leap into the void.  To do what scares you.  And while it may seem that this leap would take confidence, what it really takes to leap is courage.  Which is a whole other kettle of fish.

Courage involves feeling your fear — and doing it anyway.  There isn’t a day when I sit down to write that I am not afraid.  Oh, this fear can disguise itself in any number of ways: it can look like resistance, or exhaustion, or distraction, or despair.  It can even look like online shopping.  But what it is, really––bottom line––is the fear that I won’t be able to pull it off.  Whatever vision exists in my mind, whatever perfect iteration of an idea, will never be achieved.  So why bother?  Why even try?

I’ve been reading quite a lot of work lately that plays it safe.  Some of this work is very good, technically.  It reads smoothly, it contains within it some lovely imagery, some fluid sentences.  But in the end, I walk away from the page, already forgetting.  If we are going to spend our lives sitting alone in rooms––I don’t know about you, but I’m still wearing this morning’s yoga clothes, haven’t even practiced yoga yet, and haven’t left the house today except to walk the dogs––if we are going to live this strange, out-of-step existence,  sometimes lonely and certainly filled with rejection and indignity––then the reward for that, counter-intuitive though it may be, is to face our fears, to make the leap, to dare, to be willing to fall flat on our faces, every day, every single time.




  • Nicole

    Great post.

    • Dani


  • Yes.  I love the distinction you draw between words that I agree are often incorrectly conflated.  I lack both but am far more interested in developing courage than confidence.  I know that I never walk away from pages you’ve written and forget.  If anything they bore deeper into my mind and spirit over time.  This must be a mark of truly courageous writing.  Thank you for that example.  xox

    • Dani

       What a lovely compliment, Lindsey.  Thank you. 

  • Cyndi Pauwels

    Your comments resonate with my mental struggles! We’re going to see Wicked soon, and the song ‘Defying Gravity’ from the show keeps running through my brain. Guess it’s time ‘close my eyes and leap!’

    • Dani


  • That’s so funny to see this post because I just wrote my 1st post on my new non-family oriented blog about my fear of failure in writing and how I’ve decided I must have courage … http://andreamiles.com/2012/05/30/the-courage-to-be-fearless/  

    Thanks for your post – it bolsters my nerves and reminds me to not play it safe.

    • Dani

       I’m so glad! 

  • Meaghan Clark

    I’m still in my yoga pants, too. 

    I’m scared that I’ve lost the energy to take the risks; at once inspired, now I’m just willing to settle. 

    • Dani

       If you can write what you just did, then that’s probably not the case!

  • Leonard Felson

    So that explains why I felt so tired today, and why I kept telling myself that if I weren’t so tired I could more easily write the essay I’m working on.

    • Dani

       Yes, it’s only recently that I’ve become aware of  tiredness as defense.

  • I’ve been working to do stuff that scares me all week and needed to read this today to keep up the motivation! 

    • Dani

       I’m so glad it was helpful.

  • I so agree and struggle every day, having been taught that the world is a dangerous place–of course, sometimes it is. Once I read a story called “Life is an Adventure with Risks.” But thus far I have lived as if life is a risky adventure.  But I’m working on it! Thanks so much for writing as you did.

    • Dani

       Thanks, Julia!  Glad to see you here.

  • I love the distinction you make between confidence & courage. In my life, yoga clothes are just one step away from baggy food-stained T-shirt & sweatpants! Thanks again for a thoughtful, inspiring essay that helps me return to the terrifying blank page

    • Dani

       Thanks, Laura!  And yoga clothes are a pretty big step away from baggy food-stained tee shirt etc but I know what you mean. 

  • Carolynroybornstein

    I have to admit that I’ve never understood; I mean really understood in a real “Oh I get it” kind of way what it means to take risks as a writer. (And this from someone with a soon-to-be-published memoir and over two dozen published stories and essays.) I put myself out there emotionally. I tell the truth as best I can. I expose my flaws. Is that what it means to dare? Or are people talking about playing with form or breaking rules? Or is it all of that? Are there examples of daring writing and writers and timid play-it-safe writing and writers that would be helpful to look at to try to understand this concept I hear so much about? Thanks.

    • Dani

       Great questions.  When I talk about courage, I’m not talking about the part that has to do with exposing flaws, with exposure, with that kind of risk — which never feels like risk to me, either.  I think it takes courage to attempt to fully express oneself with one’s whole self.  Updike once called the writing of fiction “nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that mankind has invented.”  This grappling with the self on the page — the degree to which every thought, every sentence, every paragraph, is so deeply personal, is what I mean by courage. 

      • I believe that I have done this once or twice–grappled with the self on the page–but I find that there is a place I must be in my heart and mind when these moments come. I’m either deeply connected or utterly disconnected from something when I write like that. So the problem becomes, unless I want to lose my mind, how do I write like that daily? How do I access the core of my emotions w/o letting the weight of all spill over into my daily life? Or maybe I just illustrated why so many great authors suffer so?

  • So good-right on…I’m a single mom musician/teaching artist. Life is all about risk, and learning to trust/believe.

    • Dani

       Precisely!  Thanks.  I’m glad you stopped by.

  • Raymond Cothern

    If we had to say what
    writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.
    —Cynthia Ozick

    Once we are aware of
    our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think.
    Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder; they
    both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner.
    If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly.
    —Lawrence Block

    • Dani

       These are wonderful quotes.  Ozick, generally, is so incredibly quotable, so full of eloquent, plain wisdom.  Thanks.

  • Dani, you’ve written exactly what I needed to hear this evening. I’m digging back into revisions on my memoir after letting it sit for a while. And just digging back in again was terrifying. Why? Because of exactly what you wrote. I needed something to get me in the mood so to speak for tomorrow – when I have a day to write uninterrupted. Thank you.

    • Dani

       Thanks, Linda.  Glad it resonated.

  • Nadinekijner

    Thank you, thank you – completely understand and you made me laugh!  On-line shopping, and wearing the yoga clothes without having done yoga yet!  Beautiful distinctions.

    • Dani

       Thanks.  Once again I’m in my yoga clothes (2pm) and once again haven’t done yoga yet, but I’m hopeful today…

  • It’s not just writing for me: it’s making my art, and, some days, just living through the grief of losing my soulmate. 

    If you can’t do something that scares the bejeezus out of you at least once a day, you’re not trying hard enough…..

    • Dani

       Exactly.  And thanks for writing.

  • Paul Wren

    This applies to so much more than writing. I like to develop software but todays computing environments fill me with fear every day! If you’re not scared about standing still you don’t understand how fast it’s changing.

    I recognise(sic) a lot in your post; the procrastination the distraction (the internet shopping) and the despair that you feel you will never understand this plethora of technologies and protocols and languages. 

    Great post.

    • Dani

       Thanks, Paul.  I like that as a developer of software you related to this post!

  • Anonymous

    This is exactly what I needed to read this morning.  I am a new writer and those voices in my head were getting to me.  “You are not a writer you are an accountant”,  “Maybe you wrote a few good blogs but that was luck”.  “Spend time on the other part of your business, where you know what you are doing”.  I now see it is just fear and that is something that is worth writing through.  Thanks so much Dani.

  • When I actually allow myself to fall on my face it sucks at the time. But it usually jars some other perspective or train of thought that propels me forward once again. xo

  • Dani, thanks for a wonderful post. I ‘d love to hear your thoughts on step 2: what happens when you do fail, when you fall flat on your face? Just pondering … as I recently had a big fall-on-my-face moment after taking a risk. 

    • Dani

      Camille, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately – the true meaning of the word risk — which doesn’t involve a safety net.  Risk really does mean risk.  As in, there exists the very real possibility of failure.  So…. congratulations on taking a true risk.  Now you have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and get back to work.  It’s all, ultimately, about endurability. 

  • Steve Marchand

    That is a great point. Fear is a short word that can be heavy because its so many meanings. Hell, I was afraid to post an answer right now! 

    My fear was to appear weak since my writing project deals with a lot of emotions. As a man, the word “emotion” is like kryptonite. I saw writing about love, loss and pain as a sign of weakness. I decided that if I was going to do this, I would do it without compromise, with honesty, out of respect for those who would perhaps end up reading my words, but also respect for myself.  

    The more I write, the more I’m changing “fear”. 
    Its “r” is slowly becoming a “t”.

  • There is this lunatic woman in my brain who tells me it would be a hundred times better to reorganize my spice drawer  instead of write and every time I am able ignore her and write anyway— I award myself a gold medal.

  • You’ve called me out. I’ve been dragging my feet on a big revision and on submitting a controversial short story I’ve written—afraid of causing offense. Thanks for both this reassurance, and the kick in the pants.

  • Maureen Dunphy

    Thank you for this posting, Dani; I’m starting a new project, and I so needed this.  Annie Dillard has an interesting take on writing courage in her “Notes for Young Writers,” an introduction to “In Fact:  The Best of Creative Nonfiction” (edited by Lee Gutkind, 2005):  “Usually you will have to rewrite the beginning–the first quarter or third of whatever it is.  Don’t waste much time polishing this; you’ll just have to take a deep breath and throw it away anyway, once you finish the work and have a clearer sense of what it is about.  Tear up the runway; it helped you take off, and you don’t need it now.  This is why some writers say it takes “courage” to write.  It does.  Over and over you must choose the book over your own wishes and feelings.”

  • sarah corbett morgan

    Hear! Hear! This is exactly what I needed to hear today. Spot on! 

    • Dani

      Thanks, Sarah!

  • Kathy

    I would like to say I came across this blog quite by accident, but there are no accidents in life, just what is meant to be.  I need to hear this today.  Thank you.

    Just a few weeks ago I came across this thought by Brene Brown and I it spoke to me on many fronts.

     “Courage originally meant ” To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line.”….Brene Brown… “The Gifts of Imperfection”

     Seems like many of us are questioning courage….

  • My weekly date with fear is coming up — column deadline is tomorrow. And while I may be willing to fall flat on my face, my employer and syndicate seem to feel differently. 

  • Kathryn

    So true about taking the leap, stepping into the uncomfortable, the unknown, is really the whole reason anyone writes. the desire to make sense of our experience is so overwhelming but not easy to do. So we do what we can or are willing to at the time. And then we go back to the drawing board or the “waiting room” be it a 9-5 job or online shopping.

  • Tinabustamante

    I appreciate this push to be courageous. Thanks!

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