There is an Elizabeth Gilbert post making the rounds this week dismissing fear as boring. Which it is, in a way, and I get the point of the post, but it strikes me as something we need to talk about sometimes.
What are you afraid of? Some writers are afraid of not being good enough. Some are afraid of fading into obscurity. Some are afraid that people will judge them, that they will lose love when people see through the words to the person they are, deep inside. Some are afraid to be called a hack.
My first fear as a writer was very clear and direct: I was terrified that I would not find a way to get published, that I would not have the writing life I wanted more than an end to war and food for all the hungry in the world, small as that might make me sound. I burned to publish, achieve that stamp of legitimacy and honor, and be paid soundly for my work. I wanted it so much that I labored for five years in total poverty, trying one thing and another and another, burning sage and chanting over manuscripts before I mailed them to agents or editors out in the far away world. I burned with it, ached with it. Fear spurred me to work when I could barely see with my exhaustion.[pullquote]Articulating a fear can take it from being a monster in the closet to something you can wrestle down.[/pullquote]
If I examine that fear a little however, what was at the core of it? What would be the worst thing that would happen if I didn’t have a writing career? If I worked as a journalist or a social worker or a psychologist? I was afraid of being really ordinary, another mother raising another set of children, cooking meals, never daring anything. I was afraid I would not test myself enough, and my life would just add up to another invisible woman’s life in a small city in a mountain state.
My fear drove me in those days, but fear can also be debilitating. I spent the day with a tortured writer a couple of months ago. Writing takes her a long time, a long painful time of false starts and tossing things out and starting over again. Doubting every step, questioning every move. I know this is seen as an artistic mode of writing and I know many other writers, very successful writers, who employ this process. But it strikes me as incredibly painful, a process so rooted in doubt and fear that it cripples the creative process. Rather than stabbing fingers into her pain, I held my tongue, but I wanted to ask her to articulate her fear. What are you afraid of?
Articulating a fear can take it from being a monster in the closet to something you can wrestle down.
This writer is probably afraid of not being good enough. But not good enough for who?* Early on, I was in a critique group with a university-level literature instructor who loved books and reading (obviously) but couldn’t begin to contemplate being a literary writer. She had the talent. She had the understanding of the tools, but the canon stood between her and any attempt she might make. Her judges were the teachers of the future, and she was afraid of falling short, so she wrote other things.
The thing about fear is that it can be a positive or negative presence. My fear as a young aspiring writer ended up being positive. It made me work harder. I unconsciously used it to help me stick with what is sometimes a very long a difficult process. I have experienced other times of fear that were not so positive. When I was afraid to try something new and delayed doing it until the moment had passed. My mother was urging me to try my hand at YA novels about one year before Twilight exploded, but I was nervous about stepping outside my comfort zone. The judges I was wary of at that point were all the readers and reviewers who might already know me as a women’s fiction and romance writer. I was afraid they wouldn’t like my work in that realm.
Last year, I felt strongly both that I needed a breather from the women’s fiction work I’ve been doing for ten years, and that I wanted to try writing in a younger voice. I bit the bullet, took some time out of my regular schedule, and wrote three New Adult novels over the course of a year.
It was not easy. Oh, the judges, both in my head, and then in the real world, were sometimes very unkind. I dithered over whether I should reveal myself or keep my identity a secret, wondering which would lend the best results. I dithered over whether I really could pull it off, if I had the right voice, if…if…if…
It meant starting over in the community of writers doing this work, without dragging my credentials with me, those badges of honor I’ve worked so hard to accrue. They’d do me no favors in this world, where my compatriots would be suspicious of my ability to pull off anything even remotely right. I lurked and then started participating in an online group, learning, talking, connecting. Even when it was hard. Even when they sometimes ignored or dismissed me. Even when I wasn’t sure if I was not the right path. Even when yes, some reviewers were very underwhelmed by the work.
My fear was that I would fail in public, humiliatingly and noticeably. I had to swallow a lot of pride to make it work. But I was so driven by the desire to try this other thing artistically that I kept with it, even when it seemed like it might be true that I’d fall on my face, that the judges wouldn’t just laugh, but roll their eyes.
Sometimes, friends, they rolled their eyes.
Guess what? I lived through it.
One of the great things I’ve learned about fear and writing is that I have to see a thing through, even if I feel like I want to throw up. Even if I am sure I’m going to be humiliated. Even if I’m poor and could get a job at a newspaper. See it through.
I have seen my experiment with New Adult through to book three, Epic, and am now writing book four as Lark O’Neal. It was a long eight months at times. The books didn’t suddenly sell right out of the gate. They needed new covers. They needed a lot more eyes on them, which is not easy starting out. Some of the early readers were disdainful or didn’t get the books because—as ever—there’s my way of doing things and it’s not for all readers.
Opinions didn’t really start to turn until early August, with the promise of a fourth book in the series, some lucky breaks, and new covers. Suddenly, the series is doing well and have found their own readers and garnered great reviews, and funny, but the reviews are much like the reviews for my other work—readers like my characters and emotion and writing style.
What if the gamble had been a flop? What if the books never took off and I really didn’t write in that genre very well? What if I had muddied my brand?
Well, writing isn’t banking. I would just start again. I have left my Barbara O’Neal brand intact because I fully intend to keep writing foodie novels about women’s friendships, relationships, and dogs. In fact, taking a break to write as Lark has energized me creatively and I have a very juicy book ripening now, work that has the capacity to stretch me, take me another step into craft, storytelling, and into my own deepest voice and themes in a way that feels thrilling. Would it be arriving without this hiatus, this stretch of my writing muscles? Maybe. I suspect not.
Now of course, I’ll come up with other fears, but I hope they spur me upward rather than hold me back.
How about you? Can you name your fears? Who are your judges? Can you turn what could hold you back into something that spurs you forward?
*Going with the colloquial here
Flickr photo Fears by Elba Fernandez