Purging Your Writing Fear

by Guest Blogger | 40 comments

This guest post is by Becca Puglisi. Becca is the author of the bestselling resource The Emotion Thesaurus. Her most recent books in this series, The Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus, which can be found here, focus on how to create unique, realistic, and intriguing characters through the integration of their flaws and positive attributes. She can be found online on her website Writers Helping Writers.

Writers experience a ridiculous range of emotions throughout the writing process: excitement when a new idea comes along; satisfaction and joy when a work-in-progress is completed; and fear at varying intervals between.

Sadly, for every person reading this post, fear is an issue that must be addressed. It stifles creativity, encourages negativity, and exponentially increases our chances of failure. It’s a toxin that poisons us on a basic, human level. And it’s death to the writing process.

I’ve struggled a bit with fear on a personal level—fighting and eventually overcoming a panic disorder after the birth of my first child. Being a slow learner, it took me years to realize that the techniques I had applied to address personal fears could also be used to manage the fears in my writing life.

Since this is something that all of us deal with, and because I love the idea of turning our demons into forces of good, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about managing fear when it comes to writing. When you find yourself getting stuck, avoiding a scene or project, or experiencing trepidation in regards to an area of writing, try these steps:

1. Examine the problematic area so you can identify and name the fear.

I took a long writing break when my kids were born. The itch to write never quite went away, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t get back into writing fiction. After some serious scrutiny, I realized that I was terrified to write a novel again after taking such a long break. And trying to do it with preschoolers? Oy. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Identifying exactly what was holding me back enabled me to look at the problem head-on and come up with a plan of attack.

2. If your fear is based on a lie (as many of them are), replace the lie with truth.

Once I named it, I could see that my fear—that I couldn’t write a novel with small children underfoot—was irrational. Writers do it all the time. Personal writer friends of mine were doing it at the exact time that I was struggling. But by subconsciously believing the lie and repeating it to myself whenever I considered starting a new fiction project, I was giving strength to it and further ingraining it into my brain. So I replaced the lie with truth. Instead of telling myself that I needed to wait, I claimed that I could write a novel right now, in this current stage of life. Pretty soon I started to believe it, and my fear diminished.

This isn’t to say that all of our fears are irrational. As our natural response to real or perceived threats, fear has a clear purpose and is oftentimes necessary. Examine your fear realistically to determine whether it should be heeded or reeducated.

3. Make a plan and take steps.

Fear is almost always tied to goals and failures. This story is too complicated for me to write; I can’t figure out this plot issue; I’ll never be a successful author. In essence, we want to accomplish something, but we’re afraid to fail. To combat this, identify the goal associated with your fear, then make it manageable. In my situation, I had to look at my life as a mother of preschoolers and figure out how much time I could realistically devote to writing. The plan I came up with was one that would take a lot longer than it used to, back when I didn’t have kids and worked part time. But it’s totally doable. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: a goal without a plan is just a wish. Turn your fear into a manageable goal. Look at it realistically, and you’ll most likely find that, with a little tweaking, success is attainable.

One caveat

Fear isn’t always the culprit. Many other thieves can steal our creativity and effectiveness: unforeseen circumstances, events that bring on strong and overwhelming emotions (grief, exhaustion, depression, etc.), and the busyness of life in general can all stymie productivity. Sometimes, we simply need to take a break from writing so we can deal with life. Sometimes we need to cry or smack a couple hundred softballs or take a really long drive. But if you’re stuck due to fear, give these tips a try. Hopefully, they’ll start you on the path to managing your fears and achieving your goals in the new year.

How do you deal with fear in the writing process?


Today, let's spend some time freewriting to uncover any fears you have as a writer.

  1. Examine yourself as a writer by freewriting answers to the following questions. In what area are you holding back? Is there an opportunity for growth (employing a new marketing strategy, writing in a different genre, exploring a difficult area of writing craft) that you’ve been avoiding or are too afraid to try?
  2. In your notebook or journal, name the fear. What fear is at the root of your avoidance? If your fear is based on a lie, summarize the lie in its most succinct form. (I don’t have time to write a book right now. I suck at characterization. I’ll never be able to reach my audience.)
  3. Replace the lie with a simple truth. (I can make time to write a book. I can improve at characterization. I will learn to reach my audience.) Write the truth in your journal.

Take five minutes for each step of the exercise. Share your fear and your simple truth in the comments section to get encouragement from the community.

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  1. R.w. Foster

    Thanks for writing this, Becca. I’m a huge fan of both you and Angela (as I’m sure you already know). This is an informative article that I’ll be linking some of my friends to.

    • becca puglisi

      Thanks, Robert! And best of luck in the ABNA contest :).

    • R.w. Foster

      You’re welcome & thank you for the luck wish. 😀

  2. writerrobynlarue

    Oh, the fear of not being any good, or my books not finding readers to read them. Fear is a wicked little devil.

    • becca puglisi

      I hate the fear of not being any good! It’s subjective, and the more I say it to myself, the more I believe it. I refute this one by telling myself that I’m better than I used to be. That’s true, and it’s encouraging rather than defeating. Thanks for sharing!

    • Eliese

      So true

  3. Dawn Atkin

    When I move from ‘writing because I love it’ to ‘writing to produce a piece’, I lose the flow. The passion sinks and prose become prozac. Having a deeper look at this I can see that writing to impress another ( i.e. Reader) takes me away from my authentic voice into a ‘trying to fit-in, prove myself’ voice. It seems I’m already judging myself and the natural flow is interrupted.

    When I decide to join in on sites such as this one I begin to feel inadequate as I don’t have a creative writing background. Even the questions ‘what genre?’ ‘Who is your audience?’ are stumbling blocks for me. I simply do not know!

    I do know I love to write. I love the excitement in the pit of my stomach when something juicy is gurgling it’s way up. I love the train of obsessive thoughts, interesting metaphors and ideas that orbit so furiously around my head I absolutely must get a pen and write them down.

    Yet sharing petrifies me. Exploring and pursuing publishing options takes me on a journey of two peaks. Peak One – sheer fantasy. Includes sales. Peak Two – complete withdrawal from the idea. Includes sheer overwhelm from the not knowing what path to follow or where to start.

    And those questions pop up again. ‘What genre do you write?’ ‘Who is your target audience?’

    I don’t know. And I wonder does it really matter?

    • becca puglisi

      Dawn, I would like to share the idea that writing can be fulfilling and exhilarating and empowering apart from publication. If the idea of publishing and showing your work to others freaks you out while the simple act of writing is freeing, then you have to ask yourself why you want to pursue publication. Is it important to you, and why? If it is important, I would suggest you give yourself ample time to figure it all out. I had the same problem when my co-author and I started considering self-publishing. Researching the publishing industry can be incredibly overwhelming. In the beginning, you’ve got so many questions, and the act of trying to figure it all out just leads to more and more questions. If you really do want to pursue publication, then start with a list of things you want to know. Choose the questions you’ll research first. When new questions pop up, add them to your list, and systematically make your way through it. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to figure this out right now. Give yourself time to gather the information you need and make an informed decision. Eventually, it becomes less freaky and it all starts to make sense, I promise :).

    • Dawn Atkin

      Thanks Becca.

  4. Elizabeth

    I face the fear of not having anymore ideas to write about. Sometimes I seem to have gone dry.

    • becca puglisi

      That can be a scary one for a lot of writers. But I think that fear isn’t based in truth. There are an infinite number of story ideas out there; we just have to find them. So instead of worrying over not being able to come up with ideas, maybe try telling yourself that the ideas are out there and you will find them. Look for what inspires you, what ideas/characters/premises/What If scenarios get you excited, and see where you go from there. I know I’m often getting new ideas while I’m working on something else, which is frustrating since I’m not the kind of person who can take on two ideas at once. So I keep a running list of these writing ideas; that lets me focus on the current project, and I know when I’m done that I’ve got a few possibilities for new projects already tucked away. Best of luck, Elizabeth!

  5. Ash

    I have the fear of starting. I get overly technical about how to properly start and then never start anything.

    • becca puglisi

      Oh my gosh, starting is the worst. I have this problem to a certain degree with each new scene. It takes me forever to get going. Dean Wesley Smith says that our fear of starting is usually based in our fear of doing it wrong. That sounds like what you’re struggling with, and I know it’s true for me. So on my last novel, I adopted (stole) one of his sayings: Dare To Be Bad. It took some time to accept that, but it eventually was incredibly freeing to know that it was okay if what I wrote sounded awful (whether it truly was or not), that getting the words down on paper was the most important part. Then you can make it pretty during the revision stage ;).

    • Dawn Atkin

      Great advice. I’ve been procrastinating about getting the last two of chapters of my first novel down. I want a particular event to happen believably and to be very compelling and therefore I want it to be good. I really could just ‘dare to be bad’ and write, let the words out. Thanks for the advice. Some how this morning it has prompted me to have a go. I’m off now. I’m going to ‘be bad’ for at least an hour. Thanks.

    • becca puglisi

      Awesome! Good luck!

  6. Eliese

    Ok here is my biggest fear while writing. I am afraid that I am stupid to think that I can write something when I don’t have any sort of degree for it. Sometimes I think I am crazy for even practicing on this site but then I remind myself that I do it because I like it. I guess that’s my positive.

    Thanks for this amazing post. It is exactly what I go through all the time.

    • becca puglisi

      Wow, this is a big one—that feeling of not being good enough because you don’t have the right kind of resumé. It helps me to remember that many of our best storytellers didn’t have degrees or formal training: Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens, etc. They became experts by practicing and by studying the great authors and great stories that came before them. We’ve all got access to that kind of education. If you’re feeling insecure about yourself as a writer, I would narrow it down: in which area of writing craft do you need to improve? Make the decision to focus on that area of craft for awhile: study, learn, practice. When you feel you’ve made good progress in that area, move on to something else. That’s the way we become good at what we do 🙂

    • Eliese

      Wow. Thank you so much. Great helpful feedback. 🙂

    • TrepTiger

      Writing is a GREAT BIG fear for all of us, I think. That is because a great writer is opening themselves up, being truly vulnerable and laid bare before the world. To all of us newbies, that is terrifying. Eliese, it scares me, too. We each have a story to tell and our own way to tell it with our own unique voice. Do not deprive the universe of yours.

    • Eliese

      Thank you. I really needed to hear this today.

    • TrepTiger

      You’re welcome. Honestly, I needed to hear that, too, but, please don’t tell anyone, alright?

    • Eliese

      Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me! 😛

    • TrepTiger


  7. Lucy Crabtree

    I lack confidence in myself and am afraid I’m not a good/original storyteller. I like the advice from Becca below — telling yourself you’re better than you used to be. I also sometimes tell myself I don’t have to be the best at anything yet, and that there will always be something to learn. That frees me to be comfortable trying new things — even if the result isn’t spectacular, I can still learn from it and improve.

    • becca puglisi

      Those are great truths to embrace, Lucy. My writing itself has always been strong, but I, too, struggle with the storytelling aspect of writing. Last year, I decided I would focus my efforts on learning that part of the craft, and I feel much better about it now. Three books that really helped me: Structuring your Novel (Weiland), Save the Cat (Snyder), and Writing Screenplays that Sell (Hauge). The last two are written by screenwriters, but what they have to say about story applies to all genres. Best of luck!

    • Lucy Crabtree

      Thanks so much! I’ll look into those!

  8. TrepTiger

    Fears … I have them, in spades. My biggest fear is not being able to handle the pressure of being a professional writer, not cutting it. Not being able to pay the bills and take care of my responsibilities is the beast gnawing at me. That fear is what I wrote about in this installment with Mike. Granted, it took me more than 15 to 30 minutes to write it …


    “Mike, what is your greatest fear?”
    Mike hated psychiatrists. The questions always seemed so simple, but
    the answers never were. It was as if these doctors were pulling
    threads of barbed wire from a tangled, fleshy ball to make something
    soft, warm, and comfortable. Only thing was, Mike never seemed to get
    to the comfortable part. No matter how he answered, Mike knew it was
    going to be dissected, turned into a rabbit hole that the doctor
    would lead him down as if Mike were really Alice.

    “Failure. I am scared to death of
    failure.” For years it had been drilled into Mike that failure was
    not an option. Failure meant death or, at the very least, some sort
    of mortal danger for people that did not need to be in whatever
    position they were stuck in at the point of someones, Mike’s,
    failure. His platoon, his squad, his team, or maybe other people who
    had been depending upon Mike’s information would be in a position of
    certain death. “Lives depended on my not failing.”

    “Is that so?” What the doctor
    really meant was had Mike been exaggerating in that answer.

    “Yeah, that is so.” The doctor sat
    there with a blank look on his face. He did not buy that as an answer
    and that really rankled Mike. “I don’t like being called a liar,
    but I am afraid of failing, not being good enough.”

    “We all are afraid of failure,
    Michael.” The doctor looked at Mike. “Tell me about a time when
    you were afraid of failure but did not fail.”

    Mike was quiet for several moments as
    he considered several and times that he was facing failure, but did
    not fail. As he thought about it, the times he actually failed were
    few and far between. “Bosnia.” The doctor was quiet, the silence
    urged Mike to continue. “I had no idea what I was asking for when I
    saw the slot open up, but I asked for orders since I needed the work.
    When the approval came back I got nervous about it since I had no
    clue what the job of ‘field operator’ was for Naval Intelligence.”

    “I see, and did you ask anyone about
    what that job might entail?”

    Mike chortled in response, “Hell,
    yeah,” shaking his head and looking down Mike continued, “all
    that anyone would tell me is that it sounded like I would be
    operating in a field environment. Then, they’d laugh quietly and walk

    “Who was it that you were asking?”

    “My leadership.” Mike continued,
    “All I knew was that I was going into Bosnia, the war was still
    technically going on, I was going to be working in the field and not
    on base, and those that knew were having fun with me.” Mike paused
    and looked at the doctor. “I hated not knowing anything about what
    I had gotten myself into. I hated it because it scared me, it was the
    unknown, and I can’t plan for the unknown. I was so scared of failing
    and I didn’t even know what I was in for.”

    “And, what were you in for?”

    Mike told him the story. I was flown to
    Pensacola, Florida to be processed onto Active Duty and into the
    system for this task. I arrived late and there was no on to pick him
    up. After getting my bags, I found the USO/Military Support Office.
    Of course, they were closed. They closed two hours before my plane
    landed. “Friggin’ great, 10:30 at night. The USO is closed, I’m
    basically stranded, and this gig has only just started.” I sighed

    There was a small sign on the floor
    that caught my attention. I picked it up and saw that it had fallen
    off the USO door as it had the Duty Officer’s phone number at
    Pensacola. “Sweet.” With the number in my phone, a renewed sense
    of comfort which quickly turned into a late night cockiness, I strode
    out into the muggy February night.

    Once I called the Duty Desk and the
    sailor on watch had assured me that a cab was dispatched to pick me,
    and that the fare was going to be refunded through the travel office,
    I lit a cigarette and relaxed a little. “Maybe things won’t be so
    bad.” I said it, but had no reason to believe it. Somewhere in my
    mind I was already hearing that NCO voice taunting me, “Oh, you,
    called the Duty Officer. Very nice! You want a medal for that? You
    got a loooong way to go before this mission is even started, Sailor!”

    I found out very quickly that, while
    there were other groups going through the same process as I was, that
    I had to go it alone while at the Naval Station. I was a group of 1.
    I was the single point of failure or success on this stage. So, with
    all the determination I finished my 4 day check list in less than 2
    days. The Personnel office also gave me another day off so they could
    finish the travel arrangements.

    I had to stop in Naples. Italy for a
    few days to get my weapon, a 9mm pistol, and my field gear. There was
    a little more information regarding my coming tasks, but, still not
    enough. I was scared, terrified about the unknown and my pending

    I hitched a ride from Sarajevo Airport
    to Camp Butmir as, again, there was no one there to get me. Every
    night I was haunted by the question of what had I gotten myself into.
    I still did not know and, here I was, in Sarajevo, checking in like I
    knew what the hell was going on. I just kept telling myself to fake
    it until ya make it.

    I spent a little more than a month
    there in Sarajevo learning about the job and the bare bones basics of
    what I was going to be doing. Well, me and almost 30 other new guys,
    that is. The month went fast and we got sent to 4 different places
    around the country. Some stayed right there at Butmir, the rest of us
    to one of 3 Company Headquarters. I went to Banja Luka.

    From there, and the field offices that
    I would run, I was going to chase down leads, identify, recruit, and
    develop sources, maintain connections with old sources, and keep
    everyone safe while doing it. It would be me, a partner, and an
    interpreter. We had ourselves, 2 pistols, and nothing else if
    everything went to hell.

    I would find out that, one night, one
    of my sources had part of their house blown up. At the time, I was
    convinced that I had put him and his family at risk. Never mind the
    fact that he had been meeting with our Operators for years. The
    attack happened on my watch, so it was my fault and my

    That night, after the ass chewing from
    my commander, everyone got the same email from said commander. He was
    asking about our sources that were reporters or otherwise involved in
    the news cycle. He wanted to know how many we had and what sort of
    access they potentially had.

    “Nina? You think you could set up a
    meet with some Gebrijela Ivancic, Teha Crnic, Ilija Kovacic, or
    Davorka Bacic for tomorrow?” After reading that email, there must
    be something hot that the commander or the heads at Sarajevo were
    deeply interested in. There was nothing directly pointed at in the
    email, but at the last meeting the boss, that is, the commander, was
    pushing hard for information on smuggling networks and persons

    Nina set up the last minute meetings
    for the next day as I had asked. It was really nice of her to do
    that, and really great of the sources to bend their schedules to
    accommodate us, or so I thought.

    The next day, after the meetings, and
    the hours of paperwork, transmitting the paperwork, and filing the
    plans for the next day’s meetings, I took a few moments to sit back
    and relax. I felt good, really good. Here I was, taking the
    initiative, running with it, and doing damn good work. The boss, even
    as negative as he was, had to say something positive about this. That
    was about when the secure phone rang.

    “Petty Officer Thompson spea …” I
    didn’t get to say anything else but “Yes, Sir.” The commander was
    pissed. I swear that I could feel the spittle spraying out of his
    mouth as he screamed into the other end of the phone.

    “What the fucking hell is wrong with
    you?! All of you out there? Huh? What are you idiots thinking?”

    “Sir? I don’t understand.”

    “I sent you all an email saying that
    you are to avoid all media
    not go out and meet with as many as you can! The very next fucking
    day each and every goddamn one of you are out there having meetings
    with them! Letting them collect against us based on what you’re
    asking them!”

    your pardon, Sir, but I didn’t get any email like that.”

    I sent out the batch email yesterday just as everyone was sending in
    their reports so I KNOW that EVERYONE GOT THE GODDAMN EMAIL!”

    was silent, trying to recall any email like that. “Sir. I am
    looking through the emails from yesterday and there isn’t … “

    YOU’RE FIRED! I am taking you off of that post, out of this country,
    sending your ass back! Your source’s house was blown up the other
    night! Today you went and violated a direct order from the GENERAL!”
    With that, he slammed the phone down.

    you get fired?” The doctor’s question rather snapped me back into
    the room.

    No, actually, nobody got into any trouble.” I thought about it,
    “Maybe he did, because, after all the emails were checked, it was
    shown that he did not, in fact tell us to avoid anyone.”

    did all that make you feel?”

    I was low. Real low. I sat there in that little office, my ears still
    ringing from the ass chewing. The house that got blown up. Now this.
    I couldn’t handle it. I was as shattered as I had ever been in my
    life.” The doctor’s office went as silent as a mortuary, it was
    deathly quiet. “I picked up my pistol, chambered a round,” Mike
    heaved a deep sigh, “I put that damn pistol into my mouth.”
    Nothing, the room stayed quiet. Mike looked up to see if the doctor
    hadn’t been teleported out or something like that. “I was ready to
    kill myself over that failure.”

    it wasn’t your failure.”

    figured, if I was going to pull the trigger, I was going to do so
    after sending back the last email I got from that jack-ass.”

    did your time in Bosnia turn out after all?”

    was a great time, actually. I lead my team in bringing in a1 person
    indicted for a war crime, had several officials who were impeding the
    peace process removed from office, slowed some human trafficking, and
    did a few other general good deeds along the way.” Mike sat back,
    breathed a little, and said, “That monumental task, which I knew
    nothing about before jumping in with both feet, was more than
    manageable, it was a point of major success for me.”

    can you learn from that? From what you just said?”

    I can handle huge things. That great challenges bring great rewards.”

    are true, but I want you to remember the one on handling huge things.
    You can handle huge things. You did in Kosovo, and you did in Bosnia,
    too, only with you, one partner, and an interpreter, right?”

    nodded, “Yeah, I did, didn’t I.” He smiled at the realization.

    • becca puglisi

      This is a big one. As a stay-at-home mom, I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to face this pressure. If I make it as a professional writer, awesome. If I don’t, it’s disappointing, but it’s not going to adversely affect anyone else. I have so much respect for you and other writers who are in this boat. But from your writing sample, it sounds like you’re finding your way through it. Best of luck!

    • TrepTiger

      You’re too sweet, Becca, thank you.

  9. Ryann

    Fears upon fears seem to pile up for writers. I find it helpful to remember in those moments where the fears seen too great to remember why you write in the first place. I wrote an article about writers’ facing the fears that come
    with the publishing process. Here it is for anyone interested:

    • becca puglisi

      I love this, Ryann. That realization about the 10,000 hours is key. To put it another way, I’ve also heard that it takes roughly a million words to get to the point where you’re excelling at your craft. Those are just numbers; it’s different for everyone. But the principle is true: you have to write to get better. Period. It’s a funny paradox that we’re afraid to write because we think we’re not any good, but the only thing that will make us good writers is to write. This is definitely something to keep in mind when the fear threatens to overwhelm.

    • Ryann

      Very well said, Becca!

  10. Joanna Aislinn

    LOVED this post. Yes, fear is in my way re: getting that next novel written. I’ve completed two (part of a series), had the first trad-pubbed and have a polished first draft of a third done to be used as a spinoff. Part three of the series has so messed with me and continues to do so.

    BUT, life has gotten in the way and forced me to take that step back from the fiction writing. I’m okay with that and am letting problem story gel in my head, jotting down info all the time and believing I WILL get it all down one day.

    In the meantime, I am making steady progress on a totally separate project about which I am VERY enthusiastic. Yep, some fear looms here too, but I keep putting feet forward as I move thrust my RECENTLY OUTLINED STEPS to get me where I want to be.

    I have also written my goals as affirmations, and I so thank you for that reminder!

    • becca puglisi

      Joanna, it sounds like you’re moving in the right direction. I’m the first to admit that the affirmation thing sounds hokey, but I’ve found them to be really helpful in replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones. Good for you.

    • Joanna Aislinn

      Thnx, Becca. I’ve been consciously using terms like “when” vs. “if”. Makes a big difference over time 🙂

  11. richashaily

    Loved this post… My biggest fear is not being up to the mark. I fear that people will not like what I have written and will criticise me, which is often true. I think I am good at story telling but my job compels me to write professional, Project Management sort of articles, which I often feel lack in human touch. I am expected to write not much enthusiastic articles..straight to the point..catering to the community and that is it!

    • becca puglisi

      Wow. That’s tough. It must be hard to want to write from the heart but be required to write technically the majority of the day. As for your personal writing, are you involved in a critique group? They’re great for letting you know what you’re doing RIGHT, as well as what needs improvement. We can’t improve our writing until we know what needs work, so the right critique group is hugely important, imo.

    • richashaily

      Thanks for the suggestion. I am not a member of such groups till date, but will soon join them. I would love to improve my writing and emerge as a better writer.

  12. Laurel Rogers

    Writing is impossible to ignore. It is hard wired into my subconsciousness. Yet all I seem to do with this obsession is run in proverbial circles and end up with nothing. I believe I fear success. Perhaps this fear is a lie, yet its hold is tight and suffocating. I haven’t put anything on paper-or the Internet-in months. I am exhausted with this lack of expression yet have no idea how to escape.

  13. Julie Musil

    I experience fear ALL the time. I force myself to move past it, otherwise I’d be paralyzed by it. Thanks, Becca!



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  9. SEO and content writing tips: Week ending Feb. 18, 2014 » SEO Copywriting - […] Puglisi writes Purging Your Writing Fear for The Write […]
  10. Purging Your Writing Fear | Journal Writing | ... - […] Writers experience a ridiculous range of emotions throughout the writing process: excitement when a new idea comes along; satisfaction…
  11. Confession: I Fear Sharing My Stories | Jen's Pen Den - […] Purging Your Writing Fear […]

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