I’m teaching quite a bit this summer, and one of the things that writers always talk about is their fears. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of self-revelation. Fear of your sister realizing that awful character is her. Free-floating fears, too, that morph into whatever shape currently needed to keep the writer from taking whatever plunge is required just now.
I am a person who has always been afraid. My six year old self was so afraid of wrecked cars that it seemed I could hear a chorus of screams whenever we passed a junkyard. This caused a lot of trouble in my family because we had to pass a junkyard on the way to picking my father up from work, and I would be hysterical about it before we ever arrived. My father finally decided to address it by taking me to the junkyard and showing me there was nothing to worry about. I clearly remember being carried into the area, all those cars smashed and wrecked, crumpled bumpers and shattered windows, and all that violence.
But once I stopped sobbing, I noticed—huh–they weren’t screaming. They were just lying there, quiet and spent. There was a dog in the junkyard. He was black and friendly and he let me pet him. A few weeks later, I was walking home from school and suddenly came upon a parked car with a big dent in it. I stopped, poised to freak out, but I just looked at it and it didn’t scream. It was fine.
This might sound like the beginnings of a schizophrenic break, but the truth is, I had accidentally wrecked my mother’s car a couple of years before. We had come home from the grocery store, and my mother carried my baby sister and two bags of groceries into the house, and told me and my other sister to sit still and she’d be right back. Seizing the day, I scooted over and said, “Let’s drive!” and pushed down the emergency brake. The car was on a little slope, and it started rolling down the driveway and smashed into the side of the house. There wasn’t much damage. I mean, I don’t think so. I remember pulling the brake, but nothing after that. Neither of us were hurt.
Physically. Obviously, my psyche suffered some damage.
That was just the start of a long, long line of fears and phobias. Heights and spiders. Ghosts, for some reason, and by extension, graveyards. My uncle tortured me with all these fears, and I hated the weakness, so I’d work through one. Then another. Unfortunately, as soon as one was dispatched, another would take its place, like ocean waves. Fear of flying, fear of driving, fear of black widows and rattlesnakes. A fear of public speaking nearly crippled my career early on—I was so terrible and shaky and dry mouthed it was an agony for all concerned. For a long time, I simply refused all offers. Then I was offered a gig I couldn’t refuse and realized it was time to figure out how to get through it. And like the junkyard, once I stood my ground and faced it, it got better ( a couple of years ago, I delivered a keynote to a room of 2000, and it was…fine). I was afraid of driving (that is what having a state patrolman for a father will do to you) but that ended when I fell in love with a man who lived 50 miles away from me. To get to him, I had to face my phobia.
Are you getting the idea? Terrified of everything.
Right now, it’s on my mind because my current terror is bears. I’ve been out in the woods a lot, by myself, and this is bear country. It is entirely possible I could run across a bear at any moment, and people do, all the time. Mostly, it is never a problem. Mostly, I never thought about it until I started walking so much by myself.
Which I LOVE doing, for the record. It empowers me. I love being outside and hiking for zillions of miles. I’m quite strong and don’t fear human predators or getting lost or even the idea of getting stranded out in the woods overnight or something. I have this perfect faith that I am well trained and would handle whatever was thrown at me.
It’s the bear angle that freaks me out. I’m not sure why, exactly. They’re big. They’re protective of their young. Whatever.
This push/pull has been going on for a couple of months. I’ll dare myself to try a new challenge, a hike in an area I’ve not visited, freak myself out completely the night before, get through the hike, NOT see a bear, and feel like Paul Bunyan and Rocky all rolled into one. Then I’ll be twice as fearful the next time. Last week, I hiked with joy through an area called Saylor Park, while Christopher Robin, my significant other, orienteered. It was a thrilling challenge–hiking by myself in back country, in deep quiet forest with dazzling views of Pikes Peak from the backside.
But you know, all I could think about was bears. And it’s cub season. And what would I do. And there is a velvety shadow and—eek! It was an enormous relief to get back to main roads and be able to stop thinking about bears, bears, bears.
I was supposed to go back and do this trail again on Sunday, but I tossed and turned in the night, thinking about how afraid I was. I am a writer, okay? I can imagine in excruciating detail what meeting a bear might be like. How his teeth might feel on my skull. When I awakened, I confessed to CR that I could not face it. So he, being the cheerful realist on our team, found another trail for me, nearby his area, at a reservoir that feeds Colorado Springs. Even though there is a boat restriction and no swimming, it’s a popular mountain biking place and I felt safer going to a place with people.
Until I actually started hiking the trail. And I was by myself in the woods. Again. Right by a river that looked like it might have juicy trout to feed hungry bears. There were more people around, but not that many, and by the time I made it to the lake, I had freaked myself out so much looking for bears that I decided to go off the path and walk right by the water, where all the humans and dogs were.
The problem was, it was hard work, and my legs were tired from hiking the day before, and I didn’t want to get super sunburned again. So I made a choice to go back to the path. Be brave. Deal with it. Be present. Not as brave as it sounds, because I was still tense.
But you know, I found a feather. Maybe an egret’s leaving. Maybe an angel’s. The minute I made the turn to go up the hill, there it was, and it was a big feather, which is always a present from God to me, and it made me feel reinforced. Like I would be okay. Tucking it into my pack, I remembered that Native Americans lived right alongside bears and if they could be in harmony with the natural world, I could, too. Deer and mooses just look at you and run away. Why not bears coexisting too?
When I first started trying to sell short stories and novels, I knew I couldn’t write for the newspaper and also produce fiction, so I made a measured choice to take a very menial job and spend my time writing fiction. This choice terrified my father–and for that matter, pretty much everyone in the blue collar world where I lived. They were afraid I would get my heart broken. They feared my big dreams, because the cost of failing would be so catastrophic. I had a nice life–why not take joy in that? Why put myself at risk like that? (It did not particularly make anyone feel safer when I began to sell my work, by they way.)
Last Sunday, when I finally forgot my fear, the astonishment of my surroundings finally sunk in. It was a stunning landscape. Stunning. The lake still and blue, surrounded by aspens and Ponderosa pines, red boulders edging the lake, showing beneath the still water. The meadows were filled with high grass and starred with wild iris. Wild strawberries had begun to bloom in the undergrowth, and huge groves of shivering aspens shook their pale green leaves. And I realized I’d been wasting the moment. Lots of moments. Bears are real, no question. It is entirely possible I will run into one on a hike someday. But if all I ever think about is a bear on a hike, there is absolutely no point to the hike at all.
I mean, really. There I was, walking on a trail in one of the most gloriously beautiful spots on earth and I couldn’t enjoy it because I was worried about shadows and bears? I am prepared. If I meet a bear, I know what to do. I also know that only two people have been killed by bears in Colorado since….wait for it….
1910. A hundred years.
Is it safer to hike in town? Yes. Would it have been safer for me to continue to write non-fiction and have a job with a pension? Yes. Is safer better? Not in the world I live in, where the income is always a rollercoaster and the vagaries of opinion and fashion influence so much of how books fare in the world, but the rewards are incredible.
I can choose to always be safe. Or I can take some measured risks and gain the rewards. You can keep your manuscript safely untested in your drawer, or you can risk the pain of rejection for the possible reward of a sale or a personal letter. You can color within the lines, trying to make sure you meet all the guidelines, or you can strike out into the backcountry and see what happens.
Writing is a lot of things, but safe is not one of them. Take a risk, face a fear, do it with a dry mouth and shaking hands, but do it.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Zen