When Writing Scares Me

Since day one, writing has been an experience of constant vulnerability for me.  Since I started writing Pop Chassid in a way that was “true” to my experience, as opposed to focused on making others like what I wrote, I’ve felt exposed.

When I first started writing regularly, I was in almost constant pain.  I was in pain when I would see angry, vile comments.  I was in pain even when things were popular.  Even if people liked a post.  I would put something out there and immediately wonder: “What did I just do?  I didn’t say it right.  I need to fix it.”

But I had made a commitment to myself.  I was going to put things out there even if they weren’t perfect.  I would accept failure.

Those first few months were a wave of emotion.  I would post something and immediately call my wife and tell her how much pain I was experiencing, how scary it was, and talk myself down while she listened calmly.

But the more I wrote, the less that happened.  The more I opened my heart to the world, the more it became a normal thing to do.  The more I allowed myself to be vulnerable, the more that I felt fulfilled, the more that I felt I was committing to a life that was true to me.

Soon I could write a post without worrying about vulnerability.  I would just bust it out and let it out into the world.  And every now and then the fear would come up, but for the most part, I was feeling less and less worried, less and less afraid.

There would be entire months where I could write without that fear welling up.  Without caring if people wrote negatively.  I was on a roll, and so it didn’t matter what people said, it didn’t matter if I was exposing myself.  This was the way I was meant to live.

And then I just published an article in the Guardian about my pot use.  I haven’t revealed that part of my life, except for very oblique references, in any of my writing up until now.  I had always felt like it was a personal part of me, even more personal than things I had already exposed.  Something that didn’t necessarily need to be shared.

And so when that post went live, and the comments on it started pouring in (the very negative comments), I was back in a world I hadn’t experienced for a while.

That feeling of fear, that feeling of absolute panic.  It was back.  I felt an urgent desire to email my editor and say, “No it was all a mistake!  Please take it down.  Please, please.”

I hadn’t said things exactly the way I had wanted to.  I hadn’t been writing for a week or two, which wasn’t normal for me, and so I wasn’t “flowing”.

In my head, I imagined a million different ways I could have written it.  I thought about every flaw.  I thought about how the introduction had nothing to do with the conclusion.

And I thought I was a failure.  I thought to myself, “Okay, this is it, this is the end of your quality writing.  You’ll never be good again.”

It took me a while to calm down.  It took me longer than you’d think.  I had to sit there and talk to myself.  Remind myself that failure was inevitable, that maybe it wasn’t perfect, but that didn’t matter.  What mattered is that this was all a process, and that no piece could be perfect, just a part of the larger journey.

And suddenly, suddenly, I realized what was going on:  I was back to step one.  I was experiencing that exact same fear I had felt almost every day when I first started this blog.

I had exposed myself in a way I had never done when I wrote that piece.  I had revealed a part of myself I had been afraid to discuss for a long time.  And so those old fears were back.  The fear of failure, the fear that I had done something “wrong”, the fear that this was the sign that I would never write a “good” piece again.

But as I calmed myself, I realized something: when I look back on the early days of blogging, on the amount of pain and fear that went into it, I am gratified.  I am impressed.

I am gratified that I worked so hard to grow.  That it took me to where I am now.  And I’m impressed that I could deal with so much pain and fear for so long.  I’m amazed that I was so strong.

And I realized at this point, I realized, “Oh my G-d, that was a good time.  I was scared, but I was scared because I was pushing my limits, because I was working hard to make myself the best writer I could be, digging deep into my soul to bring out something great.”

And it was happening again.  The pain had returned.  The fear was back.

It was good.  This was good.  I was back.  I was exposed again.  I was pushing myself.

And suddenly, I was happy again.  Even while that pain was still aching in my heart,  felt this warm glow filling the rest of my body, realizing that I had been brave again, that I had done something worth meaning to me, even if it wasn’t perfect, even if it didn’t come out exactly the way I wanted it to.

Because perfection was never the point.  Writing “well” was never the point.  Writing so people will like me was never the point.

The point was to dig deep.  To expose the deepest parts of myself so others could gain something.

Which meant that imperfection was a part of the experience.  Which meant that failure was necessary.

I hope I experience that pain again.  I hope I stop being afraid of my fear.  I hope that I keep remembering to be that pioneer that I was when I started.  I hope that I can continue to remember who I am and what I’m here for.

  • Rebecca K.

    I’m so glad you braced yourself and didn’t take down the Guardian piece. I just got a look-see and it’s very, very good. IMH (but professional) O.

  • I also thought it was a very good piece. Newspaper columns attract trolls and The Guardian’s Comment is Free is particularly notorious in its vocal opposition to much that a frum Jew probably holds dear. I could have guessed the reaction to your post in advance and the quality of the writing wouldn’t make any difference to the response it got.

    I greatly admire your openness and honesty. I tried that and eventually gave up, moved to poetry as a safer form of self-expression than blogging – and largely keeping my poems to myself to be doubly sure. What you do takes guts. Keep going.

  • Hymie

    As an aspiring journalist, it’s good to know that other people (incl. good writers like yourself) have those fearful and negative thoughts about their work… just like I do… and are able to overcome them. Thanks for the honesty.

    • I think more people than you can imagine feel that way. And often, they tend to be the better writers.

  • Shoshannah

    I have not read it yet, nor will I until after this reply because the content of the article is not the topic of your post here. We’re here in this life to create a self, and self is a totality of experience existing and perceiving the present. As such, our selves are constantly evolving but there’s also an observer self. That’s the self that never changes; it gives us the ability to step back and analyze our other self’s perception of a various situation in the present. So you will never perceive comments the way anyone else does because no one but you has your experience. And there will always be negatives because no one else has the experience behind that person commenting. This is where the “Theory of Mind” becomes handy. When we literally put ourselves in that person’s shoes, and understand why the perception is what it is (rude or nice) we come to the realization that it is not personal to us at all – it’s their issue. In addition, we gain the experience of their perceptions and if filtered properly actually makes us more tolerant, loving human beings. All of that said, we’re Jews. We’ve been taught for two thousand years (at least) to hide – to not give more information than needed, and to essentially live Torah but not so obviously depending on our location. Sometimes that was the right thing to do because it saved our lives. Other times it was the wrong thing to do because it nurtured self harming fear. This is why diaspora is beautiful or ugly – it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. We only become what we make of ourselves – not of others. Affecting others happens through, as someone put here once, osmosis 🙂 Baruch HaShem.

  • Katrina Bascom

    I thought both this piece and your article were excellent. The emphasis isn’t on what you’ve done, it’s on what you learned from it. And you’re sharing what you learned– and it’s important! Thank you for allowing yourself to become vulnerable in order to lift others. I think it’s a noble sacrifice.

    And I’ve been thinking a lot about pain lately, too. I recently realized that the pain didn’t mean I’d screwed up, it meant I was doing something right, and was given an(other) opportunity for growth.

    Thanks, again, for sharing!!

  • linmalki

    I ran across that piece when I was thrashing around trying to put together my own latest blog, and it said some things that were what I needed to say (yes, I attributed a short quotation). Hit a nail on the head! I also find myself realizing how much I reveal of myself as well. Mine is Christian blog, but I do read and admire a number of Jewish writers and you are definitely going on that list.

  • Noah Fields

    Wow – I really liked this post and your article in The Guardian. I think a lot of the responses you got accurately reflected your concern. And unfortunately, there’s not too much we can do about the lives of other people other than hope to touch them. For myself, when reading the Guardian article, I kind of felt like I was looking into a mirror. Granted, I myself have not done marijuana or gambled like that, but I feel as if that I would have a similar experience.

    I appreciate your continued honesty and openness. For some of us it is not only touching, but also inspirational.

  • Altie

    Sometimes I let the fear stop me. And then I stop writing altogether. I admire your bravery in exposing yourself.

  • Lina Hazem

    Man :'( *bursts out crying*
    I’ve been very afraid to fail, I never hated that fear, I hated the fear that stopped me from proceeding. This writing reminds me of when I made choices to put myself in harder situations that will make me bloom, man I was happy, it gave me great confidence and purpose, breaking that fear! Recently I’ve lost that driving fear out of fear of realizing I’m horrible when it comes to subjective (courses)… I really thought it was just laziness. I used to think there ain’t no such thing as laziness, why is the motivation inhibited? You wanna do something but you don’t, there must be a reason.

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