Courage, humility, and writing

As I stated in the introduction to my website, the book that saved my grade school life was Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry. The young Mafatu’s journey gave me hope. He dug deep, found the courage to survive, and gained confidence. A little of that rubbed off on me when I needed it, and I have never forgotten Mafatu’s quiet bravery. 

But much later, when I thought I might want to try writing, fears haunted me with outstretched claws and howls of disbelief. As visual artist Melinda Harleman (in last week’s post) would agree, anything blank—a canvas, a musical script, or the writer’s page—is more than scary, it’s terrifying! 

Questions tortured me. Who did I think I was, and what could I possibly have to say? How could I gain the skills to write? Would I be any good or should I shut up now and save myself the embarrassment?

Doubts tormented me. I didn’t have the right degrees, people would laugh at me, or folks I love might imagine themselves in one of my poor, little offerings and turn away from me. I might start pieces of writing and never finished them, or I’d never really start at all. Perhaps I would write and write, but no one would want to read my poor scratchings. I’d be  a big-fat-failure.

Then, another book saved me, and happily it’s an acclaimed one. All writers love The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes. 

Ralph Keyes is the real deal: a writers’ writer who puts words on paper for a living. He became Oprah-famous with his Is There Life After High School?, and he has continued to produce thoughtful, nonfiction books, one of my favorite being The Post Truth-Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. 

The website, where you will find his books, is well worth perusing: 

How lucky I was that Keyes often taught/spoke at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. In the summers, my internal GPS turned toward Yellow Springs, Ohio, and I’d enjoy helpful readings, seminars, critiques, and talks. When I began writing short stories, I kept a copy of Ralph’s book beside me. Before fear had a chance to hold me back, I’d reread a paragraph or two of The Courage …, then jump into that day’s writing. My hands, racing around the computer’s keys, would attempt to out-sprint my terror. Because of Ralph Keyes, a legion of writers have done the same.

You can find many of Keyes quotes on the internet. Since I consider the book mine, though, I’ve included quotes below that have spoken to me personally. 

Ralph begins The Courage to Write by acknowledging the fear that does exist in writing. Such recognition allows his audience to relax in the realization that they are in capable hands. This writer gets it, he feels our pain.

Its psychic demands make writing an exercise in courage little different from climbing a sheer granite cliff or skiing down a steep slope. This often surprises new writers. No literary neophyte doubts that hard work lies ahead. Most realize that certain skills must be mastered to compose a coherent text. They hope their intellectual gifts will allow them to produce work of substance. The real shock is discovering how demanding writing is not just of their skill, talent, and work ethic but of their valor.” pg. 9

He pushes his quaking readers into the path of fear. “Trying to deny, avoid, numb, or eradicate the fear of writing is neither possible nor desirable. Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.” pg. 13

       A page in my marked up copy of Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write

Writers must deal with fear, but also, they must accept humility, and lots of it.

“Hardest of all is to accept that the world one has created won’t be as good as the world one dreamed of writing about. It never is. ‘Every book,’ said Iris Murduch, ‘is the wreck of a perfect idea.’ Once this is clear, it’s easy to panic, get blocked, or to give up writing altogether as an impossible dream. One thing that separates would-be writers from working writers is that the latter know their work will never match their dreams. Non-writers typically vow that if they can’t make the book on paper look as good as the one in their head, they just won’t write it. Working writers know this is a futile quest and settle for the closest facsimile. pg. 27

Take it from me: beating writers’ block takes lowering one’s standards for just one writing session and pushing through. The sad alternative can mean days-to-months of writing nothing, while talking at length about writing! 

There is another humble-ment that must be faced by the writer. When she rereads her offerings of the day before, she doesn’t know who wrote those nice paragraphs. She knows that she wrote the bad ones, but the good writing that flows, the characterizations that work, and the truly organic moments in the story seem to have been written not by the writer herself, but by some cosmic voice. In other words, even after editing a piece 75 times, the writer cannot take credit for the writing itself. The editing, yes, sure. The initial, inspired writing? Nope, never, nix, nay. Humility, indeed. 

Keyes recognizes writers’ servanthood to what he calls the ‘censors in chief:’ friends, colleagues, or family members. Writers imagine censors’ reactions to what they might write and censor themselves. Ralph gives examples of similar situations in famous writers’ works: Erica Jong never thought Fear of Flying would be published, and she considered pulling it from publication before it could come out. Gordon Lish “… said he bought back printer’s plates of an autobiographical first novel after it was set in type because he wasn’t prepared to accept the consequences of having his family read that novel.” pg. 48

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Most of the time, writers give the ‘censors in chief’ too much power, more than the ‘censors’ want—if they want censorial power at all. I myself can easily endure the critiques of colleagues, and I’ve been blessed with two great writing groups, but it is difficult to show our work to family and friends. We worry that we will offend or feel like traitors if we mention, even fictionally, anything close to the bone. I’ve been lucky to have generous folk surrounding me, but still I’ve worried about their reactions to the point of not writing anything at all.

“Comedians say the hardest audiences are those that include familiar faces. Their worst-case scenario is of having a relative watch them in person. For a parent to be present is an utter calamity. Writers plead their case before this court every day. Any time they publish, authors put their fate in the hands of a jury comprising not only anonymous readers but colleagues, spouses, parents, children, and their Aunt Emily in Springfield.” pgs. 45-46

Because I grew up with a non-Mennonite father in a series of Mennonite towns, I’ve worried about what Mennonites will think of my writing. It is only by reading the writers in The Mennonite magazine, Michael A. King of Kingsview & Co. blog, the MennoNerds blogs, the Anabaptist Collective, and Herald,  Cascadia and Good Books presses that I have gained a sense of our cultures’ (plural intended) abilities to accept and integrate disparate ideas. (This week it has been particularly helpful for me to read the archives of Dreamseeker magazine and Kingsview & Co.) I should have trusted. Even with all our arguments, Mennonites most certainly can walk and chew gum at the same time, and with each other. Our Anabaptist principles of justice and peace bind us together tighter than we can tear ourselves apart.


Logos above: Cascadia Publishing, Herald Press, MennoNerds, Kingsview & Co. blog

Keyes assures us.Over time, writers learn how to manipulate fear, bargain with it, harness its power. It’s important here to distinguish between toxic and nutritious anxiety. One blocks, the other arouses. Fortunately, inhibiting fear can be converted into energizing fear. To do this, however, one must engage anxiety and convert it into exhilaration.” pg. 123

He calls anxiety the ‘daffy old uncle in the attic who stomps about, rattles his chains, and makes a ruckus.’ Bring the uncle downstairs, he says, and make him earn his keep! Make a friend of fear and let it be the jumping off point for your writing. 

[Writing is] not Jane Fonda playing Lillian Hellman, emoting and smoking as she pounds out Great American Plays in the movie ‘Julia’ … Success as a writer is within the grasp of whoever can tell a story on paper that people want to hear, and is willing to persist, to put up with boredom, frustration, and anxiety.” pg. 199

If you write, you get that so well. As a creative artist of any kind, you understand. Just sitting down to write today nearly killed me—this overstatement was truly felt, but within ten minutes, it was gone. Ten minutes or less of discomfort is all it takes: to work at one’s creative tasks, to start our homework, to begin cutting up the salad ingredients, to pay bills, to write the email, to make that call.

Creativity demands more work than we imagine, but its rewards are deep. As Melinda Harleman did last week, Keyes recognizes ‘euphoria’ in the creative process.

The euphoria that writers experience is a reward for the risks they take. No matter how much they dread diving into the cold, white page, once there, writers usually find it exhilarating. Virginia Woolf talked of ‘the exalted sense of being above time and death which comes from being in a writing mood.’ Many authors enter a trancelike state as they write. Distractions disappear. Anxiety is put on hold. After what seem like minutes, writers glance at the clock and see that they’ve been working for hours…” pg. 189

It’s not a bad way to spend some time.

Photo by Al x on Unsplash


Note: A shout-out and shout-back to Frank:, subtitled ‘Thoughts of the Inner Mind,’  published weekdays. Interesting ideas from a dedicated blogger!


I welcome your comments:

{Thank you to my niece, Addie Liechty, for taking the picture above that is this blog’s featured image. Her blog is:}

Best wishes and have a good week.




Greta Holt


  1. Nicola/Nicky Mendenhall on July 19, 2018 at 9:25 am

    Greta – I needed this. I am writing and all you said has transpired for me and it feels so comforting to know that what is happening to me is “normal”! Thanks so much for writing and reminding me to pull out Keyes book when the uncle upstairs doesn’t want to come down!

    • Greta Holt on July 19, 2018 at 9:27 am

      Oh, Nicky, how true! That old uncle must dance.

  2. Susan Davenport on July 19, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Hi, Greta.

    Great blog post today. I sincerely enjoyed it. I have felt that fear. It is subtle sometimes, convincing me that I don’t have time to sit down and write, so I put it off. You’ve helped me recognize that delaying tactic for what it is – fear. I will knuckle down and defeat it.

    Thank you.


    • Greta Holt on July 19, 2018 at 9:30 am

      Susan, as you and I know, that fear never, ever goes away. Making a friend of it seems the only logical thing to do. Ralph Keyes helps us remember to take fear on the journey.

  3. A Frank Angle on July 19, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you for the plug. I invite your readers to visit my little corner of the world for an eclectic set of topics.

  4. Diane Gottlieb on July 21, 2018 at 11:56 am

    Greta! This writing thing is not for the faint of heart! Persistence in the face of fear–sounds like we’re on a version of the Hero’s Journey. We Resist the Call yet Cross the Threshold anyway (and encounter all sorts of trials along the way)! Thanks for the post!

    • Greta Holt on July 21, 2018 at 3:24 pm

      Gracious, it’s easy to resist the call! Dragging fear along seems the only way.

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