Today, let’s talk about fear.

It’s a subject that we find hard to talk about, like death and defecation.

We Brits – and as of today we are thankfully still Britain – are taught to keep a stiff upper lip. Although no-one said that we couldn’t have also have a quivering lower lip just slightly south of its more courageous neighbour.

As a writer, fear is part of your life. When you start to write a book you are frightened that you won’t be able to finish it.

As you are writing, you are scared that it won’t be “any good”.

When you have written it, you worry that no-one will buy it.

After you have sold (or given away!) some copies, you are afraid that people won’t like it.

We worry about negative reviews, whether we have included enough sex, too much sex, too much or not enough swearing, copyright, how to pay the mortgage…

A couple of days ago, I started a five day free promotion of “Love, Death and Tea”. When I started it I was afraid that no-one would be interested. Zombie stories are played out. It will be a flop.

So far I have been very pleasantly surprised. On day one, I gave away 99 copies. Day two hasn’t finished yet in some parts of the world, but so far that’s another 62 copies. Far more than I was expecting.

Am I less afraid? Not really. Fear is a slippery little so-and-so. Just when you think you’ve pinned him down he wriggles free and finds another way to attack you. So now I’m worrying about how many reviews I will get, and whether there will be any bad reviews.

I hang around one of the writing forums – Absolute Write. And one of the common themes is fear, especially from new writers. Of course, they often don’t come out and use the word “fear”. But that is what is hiding behind many of the comments.

There is one idea which crops us time and time again. People who would like to be writers say something like “I don’t know if I can write.”

This phrase annoys me, because it seems to suggest that writing is an either/or thing. You either can write or you can’t. You are either in the club or you are standing outside in the queue and the bouncer is looking you up and down critically and saying “I don’t care if you do know someone in the band, you’re not getting in.”

I don’t think it works that way. Writing is a skill. Like any skill it can be learned and improved by just about anyone.

There is a useful concept that I came across while wearing a suit. Much cleverer folk than me came up with the idea of “conscious competence”. It describes how we learn a new skill. In part they are also talking about fear.

First comes conscious incompetence. This is when you’ve started to learn the new skill. You are rubbish at it, and you know you are. Your errors stand out like a wart on a supermodel’s nose. Spelling mistaiks. Sentences without verbs. The most purple prose in technicolour shades of iridescent violet shimmering like a newly hatched dragonfly’s crystalline wings.

And heaps of fear. Fear that you will never get the hang of this thing. The bouncer will never let you in the club. But stick at it, persevere, be braver than you thought possible. Because after conscious incompetence comes …

Unconscious incompetence. Hey, this is not as difficult as you thought. You’ve learned some skills. Things that were utterly baffling before are now a lot clearer. You know the difference between first person POV and third omni. You can spot your metaphors from your similes, although you probably still need to use Google to spell onomatopoeia.

You are still making mistakes at this stage – this is still a stage of incompetence. But you don’t realise that you are making those mistakes. You don’t know enough about the skills to realise the bits you getting wrong.

You might not be afraid at this stage but you probably ought to be. This is the point when Donald Rumsfeld was criticised for saying something very profound which simultaneously sounded quite silly:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Unconscious incompetence is all about those unknown unknowns. We don’t know what we are doing wrong. We can’t see the things that we should be afraid of.

As before, the only way through this stage is to keep on learning. Develop those skills. Don’t get complacent that you know everything there is to know. Because then you reach the hallowed ground of …

Conscious competence. Whew! We made it. Just dropping that little prefix “in” means that we are inside the club. We are now officially competent at this skill. We might like to make up a little badge. Nothing too grand. It might say “wordsmith” or “people’s poet” or …

Okay, maybe not.

The not so good news is that our skill still needs a lot of effort. We can do it, but we have to think about it a lot. That’s the “conscious” part of conscious competence.

It’s a bit like the fabled warship commander who allegedly had the word “port” tattooed on his left wrist and “starboard” tattooed on his right. I have this lovely mental image of him at the tattoo parlor checking and rechecking before letting the guy with the needle do his thing,

It gets better.

After conscious competence, comes unconscious competence. You can do the skill without needing to think about it. It is second nature. Curiously, highly skilled people who are at this level can be poor teachers. They find it hard to explain how to do something because they do it without conscious thought.

So there you have it – a happy trail from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence. And all we need to do is work hard and study. That’s it, right?

Not quite. There is a sting in the tail. I am having an email conversation at the moment with a fellow author about how to avoid making stupid mistakes. One of the issues we are talking about is the danger of unconscious competence.

If we stop thinking about what we are doing we can become complacent. And that means that we can miss the danger signals. We can very easily do something utterly stoopid because we aren’t thinking about the risks. We are on autopilot, trusting to our banked knowledge and conscious competence skills.

There is a line from the sunscreen song that has stuck in my memory:

“Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.”

And maybe that is the point about fear:

Good fear cautions us to watch out for risks and to keep on developing. To go, but go with a modicum of carefulness. Which would make for a passable alternative Star Trek opening, if not very dramatic: “To carefully go to places where we think we’ll be safe.”

Bad fear stops us from doing anything. It tells us that we will never get in the club. That we “can’t write”. That it won’t work. Bad fear also keeps very quiet when we are about to slip on a banana skin.

Now, if you’ll forgive me, I need to go and worry about something…


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