The cowards never really got started. The weak quit along the way. That leaves us.
— Phil Knight
The Munchkins were content living fearfully in Munchkinland, ruled over by the Wicked Witch. Perhaps they didn’t know a better life was possible, or maybe they were simply too terrified to try to find out. Instead, they remained frozen in place, heads down, just trying to get by.
The Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow resided halfway between Munchkinland and the Emerald City. They knew a better life was there for the taking, so tantalizingly close, yet always shamefully out of reach. They were all too aware of their shortcomings preventing them from achieving their dreams, so they chose to remain hidden in the shadows of the deep woods, hoping nobody would notice them and their all too obvious failures.
Then a 12-year-old girl showed up with her dog and set the world ablaze with possibilities.
I have taught writing at UCLA, and in workshops around the world, for the past 15 years. After getting to know thousands of writers, I have come to realize many of them are unwittingly playing out their own version of this movie, and that is why some succeed, and some do not.
Dorothy desperately wants to go home but isn’t sure how to do that.
Her plan is to find the Wizard, hoping he has the power to help her, while also doing everything she can to avoid the witch who wants to kill her and Toto.
Most of the folks who take writing classes want to improve their writing but aren’t entirely sure how to do it. They hope the teacher will have the power to help them. Like Dorothy, these writers are also trying to avoid their personal witches. Can you blame them?
While everyone must, even non-writers, contend with self-critical judgments, self-loathing thoughts, and times of crushing despair, there’s something about sitting alone in a room, staring at a blank page, that makes those voices so much louder, and more difficult to ignore.
Nor does it help that writers often pour heart and soul into work that is far too often rejected. Writers know they shouldn’t take that personally. Nobody’s judging and repudiating you, just your writing. And your writing isn’t you. But it sure feels like it is. Even if it isn’t. But it is.
The Wizard tells Dorothy he can help her, but only after she brings him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy protests. The only way she could do that would be to kill the witch.
The secret to success in writing, as well as life, is to stop running from that which terrifies us the most, and instead, run ferociously straight at it.
Because the more we flee our inner demons, the stronger and more dangerous they become.
At the end of the movie, Dorothy is told that what she was seeking was inside her the entire time. That is true. All she had to do was click her ruby slippers. That is the cruelest of lies.
There are no magic shortcuts. The well-marketed yellow brick roads lead only to failure.
You want to live the life you most dream about; you have to earn it.
Which starts with the courage to stop fleeing the wounding, slashing witches that have been chasing you your whole life. Instead, turn and fully embrace them. Because trying to reach your full potential as a writer without facing down your inner enemies--the voices seeking to thwart, inhibit, and destroy you--is like trying to see truth without understanding falsehood. To quote Frank Herbert, “It is an attempt to see the light without knowing darkness. It cannot be.”
No amount of success will ever change that.
I have trained writers who have gone on to great achievements, including winning Emmys, BAFTAs, and Academy Awards, and each one of them will tell you that no amount of accolades will ever quiet the terrors that you carry around inside you, and for that, you should be grateful.
Because it is your endless struggle against your demons that shapes and gives meaning to your writing. This inner war births and sharpens your authentic voice, and without that, there’d be no good reason to keep gracefully bleeding words onto paper.