Intellectually, we know how fear does a grand job of holding us back. Emotionally, however, fear doesn’t give a big old rat’s ass—fear has no fear. It surges to us laughing at our tiny fists of fury as we try to beat it back. We close all the metaphorical windows, but fear finds tiny cracks to slip into, or screechy-scratches with its creepy mean fingernails.
Fear can take the disguise of other emotions—anger, or depression, or timidity, or it hides itself as other maladies that make us feel less than who we really are, or even physically ill as we seep into negativity, anxiety, or panic that alters how we care for ourselves. Fear can grow into a snarling drooling stomping all-consuming monster even if it’s only a figment of our over-active desire to make sure we don’t Mess Up.
How to handle the fear monster? Hide in bed with our head under the covers, live in a glass bubble, never take chances, or hope to lead a very charmed (and highly unlikely) life? That ain’t livin’ y’all.
Recently, bored and restless and flipping through numerous TV channels (instead of, um, writing), I settled on a biography of long-ago actor Don Knotts. He was most notable as the inept but still hopeful deputy from the iconic Andy Griffith Show (still in syndication), as well as his movies where he played the timid, shaking-in-his-boots human Chihuahua. The first acting part for which he auditioned he was soundly and critically rejected. Knotts scurried home to West Virginia (his home state; mine too) with his little dog tail between his legs. But like many Chihuahuas, the dog inside of him was bigger than his humiliation and fear. That “I want this” critter grabbed him by the throat and wouldn’t let go.
Knotts tried again and again and again; he would find some success only to have it taken away. Yet, despite repeatedly being knocked down, Knotts ended up as one of the most—at his time and perhaps beyond his time—well-known and beloved characters/actors on television. What people didn’t know is how his fears never left him even with his success. Those fears manifested in physical and mental sicknesses. Until he died in 2006, he worked at what made him both supremely happy and completely and utterly anxiety-ridden terrified.
Now, more than back in the “olden days” of television when actors were more “protected” from public scrutiny, we’ve heard/seen this story played out many times by those who make it big and grin at us from screens or social media, or glossy covers in the grocery checkout (where print magazines lie sad, waiting to be taken to their forever home), where that grin often hides the trembles and the addiction and the fears that it’ll all be taken away from them (and sometimes it is).
I have often heard that fear-monster tap tap tap at my window. I can open the window and face it head on—sometimes in facing the monster it runs away, a big silly bully. Other times, the fear-monster roars at me, its sour breath rushing up against me as it tries to repel me and keep me cowed. And then there are the times I open that window and what seemed huge and scary was nothing more than a tiny branch scratching against the window, after all.
As writers, or poets, or musicians, dancers, business owners, baristas, waiters, accountants, as Humans, we struggle with putting ourselves out there. When we show our face to the world through our work, others have a glimpse into something deeply personal. We reveal hidden truths about who we are, our experiences; we place our guts on a plate and wait for the monster to devour.
How vulnerable it is to have your work out into the winds, scattered here there and yonder, to have people judge it (and many times in a public way) and thus judge you. But despite that, we do it again, and again, and again, don’t we? We work hard and hope for the best. Open the window and face the monster every time we create something and then send it out into the big wide ol’ world. Right?
If we create (or do anything else) in a sealed vacuum, we are not Living, we are only Being. We are not experiencing life but letting it pass by our window as we furtively watch, peeking out from beneath our covers.
With each novel, story, essay, poem, memoir, or whatever it is that we do, we set ourselves up for someone somewhere to dislike our work and perhaps even to ream us in a public way. Well, you know, who gives them Power over us? Who gives them permission to make us feel like shit? Um, y’all, guess what? We do. We create the monster at the window. Folks, most times the people who do not like our stuff forget about us shortly after they decide we aren’t their cup o’ tea and they go on to the next thing. But do we forget about them? Nope. We keep them close to us so we have an excuse for not taking action because gosh darn it don’t we just suck! Well, that’s a bit o’ the bullcrapadoodle-doo-doo, don’t you think? I mean, do you like everything you read or listen to or eat or watch on TV or experience out there in the world? Of course not.
Open the window—is it a full-on scary monster? Or a little twig swaying in the wind? In that moment before discovery of monster or twig, I hold my breath, lift the window, lean forward, and wait for what will come knowing I am strong enough and good enough and powerful enough. I can apply the same kickass attitude I have with other areas of my life to my angsty creative life, where at my age I don’t give a ratty tat tat what other’s may think about me, where I know I am not the center of everyone’s attention whether good or critical, where most people don’t even know who the hell I am and that renders my “everyone thinks I suck” fears rather silly and fruitless, where on down the ol’ road I won’t remember or care one bit of nuttin’ because I’ll either be too damned old or I’ll be dead. Rather freeing, yes?