Thursday, April 10, 2014

Alumni Voices: Daniel Bernstrom


I asked myself, why am I afraid to write? I came up with three reasons.

Fear of Rejection
Being rejected feels as if I’m sitting in front of that principal with his perfectly pressed suit and bleached white teeth, listening to him tell me that my child has “special challenges,” and that it would be in my best interest if, tomorrow, I started looking into other “special options.” Then, for days later, I can’t write. In my wounds, I’m afraid. I don’t want to birth another ugly, misfit, underachieving story. 

Sometimes even the thought of rejection, makes me obsess over every word. Makes me want every page to be perfect. Problem is, I can’t make everything perfect. And because it is not perfect enough, I stop, turn my heart and eyes away from my useless words, and close my computer.

Fear of Confession
My writing teacher, Jane ReshThomas, once had me read a book by Thomas Cottle entitled Children’s Secrets. I read of children very much like me that had unspeakable secrets: finding mother naked with two mechanics, believing father’s promise that being touched is just a little game he likes to play, hiding from drunk father who is turning the house inside out. 

Jane had me write personal essays. I had to write one every day. There were days when my hands would shake over the keyboard. Unwilling to write what I had buried back in childhood, I ran away. I wouldn’t write for days. This fear carried over into my fiction. Whenever I was close to a sin or secret, I would dance around it, telling those all too comfortable lies that came from decades of practice.

Then when others would read my work, they would say things like, “I don’t feel close to your main character.” 

I didn’t want people to be close to my protagonist… I couldn’t let them. For I as the writer was unwilling to face those monsters hiding in the dark places of my heart.

Fear of confession stopped my writing, or, if I did write, it would be safe, thereby stripping my writing of truth and conflict.

Fear of Time Wasted
Many times when I write a book, I know that I’m going to have to rewrite it. 

I can’t even approach my book. I actually keep it stuffed in a drawer. I say that it is marinating, when in fact it might be rotting. I make excuses about my neglected book because I’m afraid of killing a darling, eliminating a precious character, or rewriting the beginning.

I don’t write because it will take too much time.

So, How Do I Fight Fear?
For me it is more than super gluing my butt to the chair. 

I think it’s a matter of:

Mustering up that unflappable child hero inside to accept the fact that there will always be editors or agents or peers or children who will not “love” my work.

Resisting the urge to hide my darkest sins, my deepest longings, and those good and terrible things I have promised never to tell a living soul.

Loving my story enough to rewrite it as many times as I need in order for the right story to come into the world. Even if that means cutting beloved scenes, killing my darlings, or – if I do not have the heart – placing my beloved words into a scene orphanage.

I do keep a journal. I write at four ante meridiem. I go on long walks. I take long showers. I talk over my stories with my wife. But all these serve as mere pain pills to help me bit by bit… day by day… bird by bird… word by word… face my fear and keep writing. 

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.” 
                                   Madeleine L'Engle

Daniel Bernstrom is a July 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. He lives and writes in Red Wing, Minnesota. For more about Daniel and his work, visit his website.


Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra, 1993. Print. 
Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1992. Print. 
Cottle, Thomas J. Children's Secrets. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1980. Print. 
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor, 1995. Print. 
Maass, Donald. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest, 2009. Print. 
Maass, Donald. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High-impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest, 2012. Print. 
"Madeleine L'Engle Quotes." Madeleine L'Engle Quotes (Author of A Wrinkle in Time). N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. 


  1. Daniel, I wish I didn't understand a word of this essay, but of course, it strikes very close to home. I just took a wonderful class about fear and writing at the Loft Literary Center, and one of the things we discussed is the possibility of befriending your fears, of gradually coming to regard fear as a very helpful gatekeeper, guarding the deepest and best parts of the story you're writing. Your deepest fears and your deepest desires may turn out to be so closely interwoven that you can't get to one without the other. It might even be the same for your characters. I know it sounds a) impossible to make friends with fear, and b) slightly crazy even to try, but we are all much, much braver thank we think we are. I hope you don't give up, Daniel. I remember your writing, and I believe in you completely.

  2. "A scene orphanage"--what a fabulous concept! Daniel: thanks so much for this very brave and helpful post. It has helped to get me back into a piece of personal writing that has been tough to write.

  3. Daniel, this is so perceptive and takes us deeper than just BIC, as you mention. How we face fear in all parts of our lives can tell us much about ourselves and how we need to grow. Thanks for these insights. You should consider writing an article on this.

  4. Beautiful, Daniel. Your words will resonate with writers everywhere. Thanks for sharing.