Is Fear of Breaking a Taboo Blocking Your Creativity?

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!

If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.

Supposing you had a secret. And supposing that secret carried a big social stigma, that could cost you your job if it were ever known. And supposing you were a writer, and that secret was at the heart of what you wanted to write. So writing your book meant exposing your secret to the world, and risking the consequences.

How would you feel about sitting down to write?

Not so easy, huh?

This is the situation described by a Lateral Action reader, who has asked to remain anonymous, in response to our invitation to tell us about your creative blocks.

Thank you for your thread re: creative blocks. It came at a perfect time for me as I am starting to feel the need to write in my heart – but making excuses not to. πŸ™‚

I am a [occupation] by day. I love it, and I am good at it. But my TRUE love is for writing. My minor in college was writing (with an emphasis on screenwriting), but I never felt like writing could “pay the bills.” It’s always been more of a hobby.

It is my desire to write a book, screenplay or compilation about a life-issue I deal with day to day. It, of course, is one of those things with a large stigma. And the point of the project would be to lessen the stigma by being honest about it. Here’s the problem: I don’t want to jeopardize my day-job by being TOO honest.

This is crazy thinking – for a few reasons:

  1. I can’t assume ANYONE would read my book. For the number of books that are written, only a small percentage gain widespread popularity.
  2. There is no rule that says that if I write it, I have to get it published. (At least until I am ready.)
  3. Really, it’s just hypocritical, isn’t it?

Do you have any thoughts about my block?

‘Alex’ (not real name)

Firstly, I’d like to point out that I don’t know what issue Alex is referring to when s/he talks about “one of those things with a large stigma”. Alex didn’t tell me, and I haven’t asked. For the purposes of this article, it’s actually better that I don’t know what it is – otherwise it would become a distraction from the central question of being afraid to express a taboo subject. We may not all be wrestling with an issue that carries a large stigma, but we all have secrets (NSFW), and most creators can probably recognise the feeling of being afraid to reveal too much about themselves in their work.

Now to reply to Alex:

No, it doesn’t sound hypocritical to me. In an ideal world, we would all be free to be ourselves and tell the truth about ourselves. No-one would lose their job over an issue that had nothing to do with their work. But this isn’t an ideal world. People make judgments, and sometimes the consequences can feel very harsh. So it sounds perfectly natural for you to be cautious about revealing your secret.

On the one hand, it sounds like part of you is pushing for total honesty of expression, and it would be a big relief to get the issue off your chest. But on the other, you need to earn a living, and honesty alone doesn’t pay the bills. It must be very painful to be caught between the two.

There are no easy answers to your dilemma, but here are a few suggestions to help you find a way forward.

1. Don’t Assume Anything

You say “I can’t assume ANYONE would read my book”, which is true. I’d push this further and say that even YOU can’t assume you know how this book is going to turn out. As we saw a couple of weeks ago in this series, part of the magic of writing is that you can never predict exactly what you’re going to say. Once you start writing, the words can surprise you by taking you an entirely different direction.

It’s quite possible that the life issue you mention will indeed be the main subject of your book. But it’s also possible that this issue could turn out to be just one theme among several. You may even find yourself writing a completely different book from the one you imagined at the outset.

A couple of weeks ago, Gordon felt he was blocked because he didn’t know what he wanted to say – it sounds like you have the opposite problem: “I know what I want to say and I think people will disapprove of it”. As a first step, I’d suggest you put this thought to one side, and don’t assume it’s true.

It sounds as though this is your first book. I’ve met a lot of writers, some of whom have ‘hit the jackpot’ at the first attempt – but most of us have several attempts before we produce something we are happy with, and that is of a publishable standard. I don’t want to discourage you, far from it, but to encourage you to look at writing as an ongoing process, rather than investing too much in any one book or project.

Finally, writing a book usually takes a long time. Who knows what will happen in the meanwhile? You could change your job or career, find a completely new way to earn a living. Don’t assume you’ll be facing the same circumstances when it comes to deciding whether to publish.

2. Draw a Magic Circle Around Your Writing

There is no rule that says that if I write it, I have to get it published. (At least until I am ready.)

Nail on head. Writing and publishing are two different activities, requiring different mindsets – and involving different decisions. In fact, it’s impossible to decide whether it’s a good idea to publish your book until you’ve written it and know exactly what it contains.

Before you start work, draw a ‘magic circle’ round your writing, by promising yourself that you won’t show it to anyone else until you’ve (a) finished the first draft and (b) given careful consideration to the consequences.

So when you sit down to write, you’re free to write anything you like, knowing that the words are for your eyes only. Enjoy the freedom. Let the words out. See where they lead you.

Actually, this is good advice for any writer, taboo or no taboo. Most writers say it’s a bad idea to talk about the book before you’ve written it, otherwise the energy goes into the talking, not the writing.

Obviously, you need to take sensible precautions to keep your draft secret. Writing it on a shared computer is a no-no. If you’re going to be super careful, you might want to use a notebook (paper) instead of a notebook (laptop). The main thing is that you feel your words are safe enough from public scrutiny for you to be able to write in peace.

3. Talk to Someone You Can Trust

Once you’ve written the draft, choose a good friend or mentor, and tell them about the book, and your dilemma. Make sure it’s someone you trust, who knows you as a person, and who understands your professional circumstances. When you’re ready, show them the draft.

Ask them three things:

  1. What they think of the book itself
  2. What would be the likely consequences of publishing?
  3. How they think you would handle the consequences

You may want to do this with several different people before coming to a decision. If you can get an agent, they should be in a position to give you good advice. And if you go with an established publisher, you should at the very least have an editor who is sensitive to the issues and can advise you of your options.

4. Consider a Pseudonym

Lots of writers have adopted pseudonyms, for creative for practical reasons. If you’re really concerned about losing your job, then publishing under a different name would give you both freedom of expression and an extra layer of protection.

A pseudonym doesn’t guarantee anonymity of course, as several writers have discovered to their cost …

5. What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

One of my favourite stories about social stigma concerns a man who ran into financial difficulties and was unable to keep up the payments on a three-piece suite. He received a letter from the furniture company beginning “Dear Mr Smith, what would your neighbours think if they saw the van coming to collect the furniture from your home because you had failed to keep up with your payments …?”. He wrote back to them and said “I’ve asked my neighbours what they would think, and they said ‘What a horrible furniture company, I must make a note never to buy anything from them!'”.

So sometimes the demons in our mind are more scary than the reality. By taking a positive attitude and showing we won’t be intimidated, we can get people around us on our side.

Sometimes, however, the consequences of revealing all can be horrendous.

The blog Girl with a One Track Mind (NSFW) details the sex life of ‘Abby Lee’, the pseudonym of a young woman living in London. Over the past six years it has attracted over 7 million readers. In 2005, the blog’s popularity led to a book deal – which in turn attracted the attention of the “gutter press” who couldn’t resist revealing Abby’s true identity:

A few days after my book appeared in the shops, a newspaper decided to ‘out’ me and rid me of my anonymity.

What followed after that was somewhat of a fiasco, with photographers sat outside my house trying to get a picture of me and my hiding out, trying to avoid them. Thrust into the limelight, with my real identity known, my life suddenly became ‘news’. With my privacy being invaded along with my friends and family, I had no option but to face the media, and opted to do an interview with the Guardian newspaper, as well as writing an article for the Independent on Sunday, to try to ensure that ‘my story’ was represented accurately (not like this).

Since then, my life has adjusted somewhat. Going from complete obscurity to semi-notoriety overnight was very odd; I spent many months dealing with the consequences of being thrust into the public eye.

(Zoe Margolis)

These days, Zoe Margolis is a successful author, journalist and speaker who continues to blog at Girl with a One Track Mind, and is about to publish her second book. You could argue that her story has a happy ending, and she has clearly shown a lot of courage in standing up for their principles and continuing to speak out on behalf of women’s right to express their sexuality. But she’s had to put up with an intolerable level of abuse and intimidation along the way; enough to give anyone pause for thought before speaking up on a taboo subject.

The inspiring thing about Zoe’s story is that it shows that even when the worst happens, it’s possible to face it down and come out the other side with your head held high. Usually, it won’t be the end of the world, even if it feels like it. You’ll pick yourself up and carry on somehow.

So where does all this leave you? Assuming you get to the point of having written something you’re a intrinsically happy with, I suggest you consider the following questions carefully, before deciding whether to publish:

Supposing you keep it to yourself – what’s the worst that could happen? Could you live with that? What would you do next?

Supposing you publish – what’s the worst that could happen? Could you live with that? What would you do next?

Over to You

Have you ever been afraid to reveal something about yourself in your work? How did you deal with it?

Can you think of examples of artists who dared to express taboo subjects in their work? What conclusions do you draw from their experience?

Any words of advice for Alex?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

Table of Contents for Break Through Your Creative Blocks

  1. Tell Us Your Creative Blocks – and We’ll Help You Smash Through Them!

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

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  1. I think point #2 is very important. Just focus on getting it all out before you try to decide what’s safe to include and what isn’t.

    There’s always time for editing. My favorite writing related quote:

    “Write drunk, edit sober.”

    – Hemingway

    I think that applies here too.

  2. You mention pseudonyms here, Mark, but there’s something related I’d like to add. *Alex* didn’t mention whether his intended project is to be fiction or nonfiction. If he’s writing about his taboo in a nonfiction book, sure, the people who read it are going to know it’s about him. If he writes about it in a fictional novel, people may suspect the taboo subject is about him, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Fiction writers write about topics they haven’t personally experienced all the time. Case in point: How many mystery writers have murdered people?

  3. @ Nathan – That’s one of my favourite quotes too! πŸ™‚

    @ Mary – Good point about fiction/nonfiction. As long as Alex doesn’t write it in verse – everyone tends to assume poets are writing about themselves, whatever they write about!

  4. I have such a project in the works as well and for several months after I realized *I was writing it* (it creeps up on you, because it comes from an urge inside and is actually connected to something larger than just you, and then you’re carried away) the things I generated were all about how I didn’t want to associated with the topic. Who needs the trouble? The stigma! The misunderstandings! The shunning. The law suits. Not me.

    I’d also add that this juncture comes after more than 15 years of professional writing. Which is key. It took me that long to 1) get to this high-impact topic 2) get to the point of being able to write about it even though I wish I didn’t have to. That’s progress — and I believe it’s better writing. More emotionally honest, about something that matters very much.

    So, I’d say that if Alex really wants to write, having the urge to write the toughest stuff is a good sign for his writing at least. It still has to be done well (if for publication), and he has to be prepared for it not to be a huge hit (I hear way too much warning about ‘misery memoirs’, and all the reviewers and literary judges are groaning about doom and gloom).

    However, if he does it and does it well, I think it has the potential to be the best thing he’s ever done.

  5. Yeah. Apart from the inner critic thing, this is the one I have. I guess as you say, and as Dale Carnegie says, “Accept the worse that could happen” and get along with it. Let’s just do it, people.