(Henry Holt & Company, 1995)

Will this idea work? How can I grab the readers? How do I start?  These are just some of the fears a writer experiences that are eloquently expressed in this book when confronting the inevitable blank page. Mr. Keyes refers to this concept as “page fright, the literary counterpart of stage fright.” The author clearly communicates the theme of his message. He explains that the book is intended to deal with the fears associated with writing because these fears so often go unacknowledged, leaving writers feeling alone in their struggle. Keyes further illuminates his point by telling the reader, “Working writers aren’t those who have eliminated their anxiety, they are the ones who keep scribbling while their heart races and their stomach churns, and who mail manuscripts with trembling fingers.”

At first glance this book appears to be intended only for writers. However, its message transcends writing and applies to almost any endeavor. For anyone who has wrestled in the dark with their deepest anxieties (and who hasn’t?) there is much to be gleaned within the pages of this work. For example, Keyes mentions the notable Rollo May who stated that “existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre all concurred that courage didn’t mean the absence of despair; rather it meant the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.” The message of moving ahead despite feelings of despair is almost a universal one in contemporary self-help books such as the classic Feel the Fear . . . And Do It Anyway (Jeffers, 2006) and others like it.  Fear is a common issue that people struggle with, which is why this book might appeal to a wide audience of readers.

Keyes himself demonstrates courage by revealing his own experiences of pain and exhilaration during the process of writing; these add further depth to other anecdotal examples about this common plight shared by famous writers.  Mr. Keyes weaves a tapestry of salient messages sewn together with imagery and captivating personal stories about how prolific writers throughout history have effectively dealt with their fears. One dramatic example was the trauma experienced by the author E. B. White. Though he was honored at Dartmouth College for “literary bravery” and received an honorary degree as the country’s  “favorite essayist,” he was also plagued by deep-seated childhood fears of public speaking, school bathrooms, and being in the dark; he was also terrorized by thoughts of the future. He ultimately came to terms with his fears by writing books for children that contained characters who also suffered from tremendous anxiety.

The book also deals with the various types of fears that may concern different types of writers. Those that share their personal stories or write memoirs experience a unique set of fears.  In a chapter entitled “Will Everyone See Through Me?” Keyes provides poignant stories from the lives of famous writers in which they were rejected by family or close friends because they exposed their family secrets in their books that embarrassed those closest to them. These painful experiences led to a fear of scrutiny and an experience of feeling naked when others read their words. A particularly pertinent example was that of Pat Conroy who, after publishing The Great Santini was totally rejected by his parents and other relatives. Horrified by his exposing the family skeletons, they never spoke to him again. This traumatic experience led Conroy into therapy.

Though the average person’s words may not be laid bare for thousands of readers, the crippling anxiety that many people experience when confronting their personal family secrets is very similar to that of the famous writers conveyed throughout Keyes’ research. By making this point effectively in the book, the author promotes an idea that transcends writing and applies to most of us.

This book is a rare gem for people on the cusp of writing and seasoned writers, as well as anyone who is struggling with fear they can’t seem to resolve. It is a tribute to those few who have mastered their fears and a map for the many who are still searching for an answer to overcoming them.