• Gerard Donley

Writing from the Heart

Updated: May 21

How Much Should I Reveal?

I used to think writing was easy. Where did I ever get that idea?

Writing is hard. Damn hard.

Early Promise

When I was in college, I grew confident in my writing because my professors regularly complimented me. Then, an awful thing happened. My writing professor effusively praised an assignment I submitted. He graded it AAA+++. Then he told the other students how wonderful the piece was.

I felt great, until I began to work on the next assignment. I was frozen. Dry. I could write nothing. It was writer’s block, a block so big I was unable to overcome it for years. Sure, I could write a legal brief or an op-ed about some contemporary controversy. But I couldn’t write anything that meant something to me.

Overcoming Fear

Only after years of reflection did I understand that I wasn’t frozen at all. I wasn’t blocked. I was simply afraid. What was keeping me from writing was my fear of failure. I was afraid the quality of my writing would not live up to the promise others found in me when I was younger.

I learned the only way to avoid failing is not to try.

Once I realized that I was the only obstacle to my own progress, I felt like I was unshackled. I wondered how many other writers were suffering through the same paralysis I lived with. Maybe my experience will let others loosen up too. So, if you know someone who’s in a creative slump, or just frozen with fear, here are some techniques that might ease them out of their constraints.

Pick Your Process

The writing process can be intimidating if you overthink it. We may all entertain fantasies of million-dollar book deals and Pulitzer prizes, but let’s put those aside until the keyboard feels welcoming again.

First, conceive the theme. No, it doesn’t need to be the holy grail of wisdom. It need only be a clear goal, a purpose. For those who are still fearful of opening up to the reader, pick a theme that’s a bit safer. It shouldn’t be trite, but it needn’t be soul-baring either. If you think your theme is worthy of writing about, then do it. How it may be received, or whether you publish it at all is secondary. Write it.


The real core of good writing is honesty. That’s what can be so challenging. Honesty is risky. What if you offend someone? What if someone you know reads that you don’t share the same values they thought you did? That kind of thinking is what haunted me into silence for so long. Yes, writing honestly about meaningful subjects will expose you to your readers’ judgments.

If you are writing in your own voice, writing truthfully, all you’re doing is being yourself. And being yourself is never a flaw. Those who thought they knew you will learn to know you better. Others will come to know you through your writing.


The next decision is to identify a structure. What form will you use? Is it a blog post, a short story, or a long narrative? Once the structure is decided, use that form as a scaffold onto which you place your ideas. It serves as the counterpart to your outline. Putting the words into the structure can relieve you of some of the anxiety that arises when the thought of being blocked begins to creep back into your consciousness.

Remember, creating the first draft of a piece is like blasting a hole through the wall that’s blocking you. It’s going to be edited, tightened, even given some flair before anyone reads what you’ve written. So, relax. Just get those keys clicking on your laptop.

Those who are wary of jumping right into the deep water can choose a formulaic structure. Find a comfortable form, a friendly equation that exercises your writing muscles without danger of taking too much out of you. It’s alright to conform to a familiar structure if it gets you writing.

Getting control over my fear was a progressive experience. I began with a few hesitant steps toward what I had avoided doing, looking at a blank page. As I built the first few sentences, I realized that no catastrophe occurred. Soon, my trickle of writing started streaming. The hurdles that stopped me from writing were of my own construction.

Trusting the Reader

When I confronted my fear, I needed to dissect it before I understood what it was made of.

I knew part of what I feared was being exposed as a poor writer. Looking deeper, I saw that I was afraid of the reader. Despite my gregarious social personality, I lacked the confidence that anyone would want to read what I had to say.

I did not trust the reader.

Why not? I was unlikely to ever hear from them. I would probably meet only a handful in my life. Why was I so concerned with what strangers thought of me? It was foolish of me to avoid writing only to be spared the disapproval of strangers. If some of my readers appreciated what I wrote, why focus on those who didn’t?

Stories to Tell

Now, I write in one form or another every day. I write and edit legal material for a Boston publishing company, and I provide case analyses for law firms in several states. I write content for Cloudy Tea, including the piece you’re reading. I’ve nearly completed a screenplay about an episode from my adolescence that I’d forgotten until it returned to me as a recovered memory. (Pretty freaky.)

I have files full of ideas for new pieces that I think would read well. I started to keep notes of my ideas only after I broke through the barrier of fear that blocked my writing for years.

My comfort with writing allows me to share stories I’ve wanted to tell for years but couldn’t. My youth in a troubled family and my professional life as a criminal defense lawyer led me to experience intensely painful relationships and to observe people struggling through desperately threatening circumstances.

I’ve witnessed extraordinary cruelty and invested my entire self into fruitless campaigns for justice reform. I worked under stress I thought would break me. After decades of trench warfare in American courts, I ultimately did break.

Thousands of clients, witnesses, jurors, prosecutors and judges all contributed chapters to my book of stories. Can they ever all be told? Should they be? Whether, in the end, their tales are told will depend on me, not on my fears.

What’s the secret to writing?

Just start writing!

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