Ralph Keyes book The Courage to Write may not be as widely read as On Writing Well by William Zinsser or Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, but it’s useful tonic for anyone who writes. Keyes is a writing teacher and author himself, and like Lamott and Zinsser, his book The Courage to Write is an honest, bracing look at writing.
He’s at his best when he talks about fear, anxiety, confidence, and overcoming the mental hurdles that writers face. The book itself should be on any writer’s bedside, and we’ve distilled seven lessons from it—though it is packed with dozens more!
Keyes, like other aspiring writers, discusses how he slips into a “black trough of despair” after mailing in his first manuscript. He didn’t think it would go that way. He figured he’d have joy, ample time, and “all the fun times I’d promised myself—weekends off, trips to town, lunch with friends.”
He tried many ways to cope, but what he found to be best was “to make sure I had a new project to tackle after no more than a weekend’s respite; preferably a new book.”
In a moving series of reflections, Keyes talks about the pain that writers feel when the words on the page don’t match the perfect image in their minds. He quotes Iris Murdoch, who observed, “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” In the end, the thing to do when working on any writing project is to accept that what appears on the page will be “the closest facsimile” to what you have in your mind’s eye. Good work “is never completed, only abandoned.” Once you accept that, Keyes writes, writers are left with a “cruel choice: shall they leave their premature baby in a basket on some publisher’s doorstep, or shall they hide that poor child in the basement and turn away from writing as an impossible dream?”
Keyes begins his book on a simple foundation: that anxiety is part of the process. Or, as he puts it, “They’re what make writing so challenging and satisfying.” In fact, he’s able as a teacher to identify the student who is scared, and so single them out as someone who is in the right frame of mind for serious writing. “If they can then use that anxiety to fertilize their work,” he writes, “writing may be in their future. A willingness to confront the fear of putting words on paper is an excellent basis for becoming a writer.” Given how many other books try to brute-force us through our writing fears, Keyes’s volume is a refreshing reminder to make fear our companion, to accept it as something that is along for the ride. Or, as Margaret Atwood put it, “Blank pages inspire me with terror.”
“Writing fears are nearly universal,” Keyes concludes. From the greats to the amateurs, everyone is afraid to commit pen to paper. In fact, part of his reason for writing the book was that most material he found out there “only strike fear a glancing blow. They rarely address the crippling inhibitions that keep even gifted writers from getting material out of their head, onto paper, and into the mail.” But both as a student of writing and as a teacher of it, Keyes found that time and again, talented writers stood terrified before the page. So if you’re afraid, fret not: You’re in good company. “The trail of literary history is littered with those who fell along the way because the anxiety of trying to write paralyzed their hand.”
Keyes got invited to a high school reunion—and grew so anxious at the prospect of going back that it turned into the subject of a whole book, Is There Life After High School?. When you’re thinking about what to write, your mind will search for what’s personal. Or as Keyes put it, “like a tongue searching out cracked fillings, an inner scan for writing ideas makes a beeline for tender parts of our psyche.”
Give in to those feelings. Embrace the discomfort. Keyes faced embarrassment in writing his book about high school, but it led to a piece of writing that remains one of his favorites. “That’s the bind writers face,” he concludes, “their best ideas are personal, candid, and deeply felt. Yet such ideas make them feel sunbaked before the world.”
Better than anyone, Keyes understands one of the writer’s chief fears:
Anxiety about reactions by others can cripple a writer. When expressed at all, this fear is usually articulated as, ‘What will people think of me when they read what I’ve written?’ But it’s not “people” we’re most scared of. It’s specific individuals. The opinion of fuzzy thousands (or millions) of readers isn’t what inhibits us most as we ponder our choice of words. Rather it’s the grown on a few faces that come clearly into focus: the typist, the guys at work, our mate, our kids.
Keyes advice to his students? Picture the person “whose response…concerns them the most.” Picturing that one person can dampen the fear. “Imagining how we’ll deal with him helps. Simply identifying our censor in chief can be a revelation.”
“For public consumption,” Keyes observers, “writers like to claim that they work in the service of art, creativity, and the public good. No writer who’s given the matter serious consideration believes any such thing.” To the question of Why you write? Keyes is refreshingly unsentimental about the answer: don’t worry about it. Everyone has “a mixed bag of motives.” He quotes William Gass, “Writing a book is such a complicated, long-term, difficult process that all of the possible motives that can funnel in will, and a great many of those motives will be base.”