“Your fear must not be allowed to make decisions about creativity, passion, inspiration, dreams. Your fear doesn’t understand these things, and so it makes the most boring possible decisions about them.”
~ Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. And I love how she so succinctly sums up the nature of fear:

Fear is boring, because fear only ever has one thing to say to us, and that thing is: “STOP!”

Such a killjoy, fear. But we can distract ourselves from our writerly fear and get some work done. I call it taking the side door.

Think of your mind as a little house where all the stories live. Until you sit down to write it, your story is just waiting for the day you’ll knock on the door. Fear hangs out in the hood and blocks the front entrance.

“Don’t come in,” it warns. “There’s no fun to be had here. Wouldn’t you rather Google meatball recipes or watch Grace and Frankie?”

Going in the side door simply means tricking yourself into doing a bit of writing so you can get to know your story’s potential. There are many ways to do this, but my favourite is to look at the unshaped piece as a puzzle to solve.

One part of the puzzle is the form your story will take — the structure that will help you tell the story. Working with a new form requires a mental shift away from thoughts like

“This is hard work. This is scary. I don’t like this feeling.”


“What if I try writing this as a prose poem? A prose poem often asks a question. What question would a prose poem about the day I quit my circus job likely ask?”

Turning your attention to the architecture of story is a sneaky way to sidle up to a piece that wants to be written.

To your surprise you might quickly find yourself immersed in the process of figuring out how your story will work with the form. It might start to feel like play.

You might find yourself having fun even if the story wasn’t 100% fun to live out. (I did when I decided to write about a lovelorn relationship in my 20s as a list essay).*

I love the more experimental structures of CNF because they force you to make early decisions about how to tell your story.

The hermit crab essay — a form that relies on a “found” structure, like a horoscope, Craiglist ad, or dictionary definition — distracts fear by posing a problem-solving challenge.

Take a look at how Nancy McCabe used a quiz format to write about her troubled marriage. Making the focus of your next piece less about what you write and more about how to write it may just help you find the side door.


PS I’ll be teaching the hermit crab essay in the next session of my CNF Outliers e-course which starts May 15. Sign up by midnight tonight for $10 off!

* Note: There was fear about writing it and fear about publishing it. None of my fears was founded.