For many people, just the thought of sitting down in front of a blank screen with the expectation of producing sentences that deliver a message or tell a story produces tremendous anxiety. It's a feeling I've experienced far more often than I'd care to admit throughout the two decades I've worked as a professional writer and editor.
It's not just about figuring out how to get started, either. It's also very much about having the guts to hit publish and share your work with the wider world, to expose the innermost workings of your soul to the harsh winds of scrutiny.
One writer who managed to overcome her fear of publishing is Nicole Chung, the editor in chief of Catapult, a literary magazine. Chung recently published her first book, All You Can Ever Know, a memoir about her quest as an adopted child to track down her biological parents.
In a recent article in The Atlantic's "By Heart" series on writing, Chung describes how an essay about sailing by E.B. White has served as the perfect metaphor for the very gradual process she has undergone during her journey as a writer. In his essay, White describes how he progressed from smaller, more manageable boats to bigger boats and more challenging voyages.
"For me, it's hard to read [his] essay without thinking about my own relationship to writing...I think that's what writers do, too. Like White and his boats, I started small. I began writing mostly for myself, not really trying to publish during the entirety of my 20s, despite writing almost every day. I told myself there was no way I could ever make a living as a writer, so I would just claim writing as a hobby."
Outside of a daily diary she had kept since kindergarten, Chung didn't take a serious interest in writing until she was in her mid-20s, when she joined a nonfiction writing group.
"When I found that I really liked writing essays, it was kind of a shock," Chung tells The Atlantic. I kept writing and sharing with a few people at a time, but I would never have thought to publish those pieces. I've still never published them. Getting your sea legs is not a bad metaphor for what I was doing at that time. I was standing there, dipping my toes in the water, not really sure if I wanted to jump in. I didn't pitch or publish my first piece online until I was 30 or 31."
In my case, I started even later than Chung. I had been writing and editing content for other people for 15 years before I started to write short essays on LinkedIn that I published under my own name. And, while I have yet to publish my first book like her (I'm working on it!), I have maintained a weekly routine of writing and publishing at least one new article. It's a hobby, yes, but also a habit that has helped me hone my ability to articulate my thoughts around a particular topic.
I remember, though, before hitting publish on my first article on LinkedIn, spending at least a year, probably two if I'm more honest, just chewing on ideas and thinking about what I should write. My advice to aspiring writers would be to not do what I did, and instead do what Nicole Chung did: Start writing just for yourself, don't obsess about what others think, keep writing, and then either hit publish somewhere?--LinkedIn, Medium, your own blog?--?or just file it away indefinitely in your drafts folder.
"I think it's useful for everyone," Chung advises, "no matter what stage of their career they're at, to know it's okay to write for yourself first?--?sometimes only for yourself. There are going to be things that you might need to work out on the page, alone, before you're ready to share them more widely. I don't think there's always a rush. It's okay to take the longer voyage."