This weekend I did quite a bit of fear conquering and that got me to thinking that an awful lot of the things I do to avoid writing are fear-based. I have a nearly-paralyzing fear of heights that starts as soon as I stand on a footstool and this weekend I got up on a zipline 50 feet above the water (25′ above the cliff) and swallowed the fear and rode the zipline from start to finish. Fear 0, Kevin 1.
Certainly I fear rejection. I think you are given this fear as an initiation present, a “welcome to the author’s club” trophy that you carry with you as a combination point of pride and burden for the rest of your life. I don’t think fear of rejection ever goes away, we just get better at suppressing it.
What I think I realized this weekend, however, is that underneath the fear of rejection is an even more deep-seated fear, a fear that is often so traumatizing that we can’t even bear to confront it or even admit that we have it. Some writers reading this now probably know what I’m talking about already. The real fear, the paralyzing fear that simmers underneath the frying pan of the fear of rejection and the other things that contribute to writer’s block is this: the fear that we aren’t actually good at writing.
When I was a kid I took an aptitude test. This test told me that I should consider a career in the sanitation field or perhaps janitorial. At the time I had very few lofty goals outside of augmenting my collection of He-Man and G.I. Joe figures, so this didn’t hurt me much.
What if, as an adult, someone reviewed my writing and said, “you know what, you should stick to your day job.” Nobody (with the exception of a few strange people) wants to be that guy on American Idol who thinks he can sing but ends up in the “embarrassingly bad” clip montage. No writer wants to be that guy that devotes a year or two or twenty of his life to writing, to pouring his soul out onto disk, only to be shown the door and told that his stuff sucks and is beyond help.
I think this is the real cause for so much of a writer’s anxiety. They aren’t necessarily afraid of rejection, though it certainly stings. Everybody knows that even great writers have been rejected – if the story isn’t what they want to publish at the time, or if the editor was in a crabby mood that morning, the story is thrown in the round file. What none of us want is to get all the way to the end of the road and we wind up on the “embarrassingly bad” writer’s list. We can tolerate being called “unpublished writers”, but, can we tolerate someone telling us we shouldn’t be writing?
As I was standing on the launching platform for the zipline I looked down about 25 feet and saw metal fences, hard rock, and people, none of which I was particularly interested in landing on. 25 feet below them I saw water. I’d always had trouble with heights so it came as no surprise to me that I had trouble breathing and every fiber of my being told me to turn the hell around, go back on solid ground, and give up. Let someone else take the risk.
That’s when I reminded myself about this one pervasive fact: the only difference between me and the other people on the zipline was what was going on inside my head. If my brain wasn’t telling me that I was going to die, then I could easily get up on the zipline and jump off the platform.
This same conversation goes on in a writer’s head when they sit down to write. Somewhere deep inside, there might be a voice telling this writer that they aren’t good enough, that they aren’t really a writer, and that they shouldn’t bother, that they should let someone else take the risk.
I decided at that moment that I was going to take the risk, that the journey was worth it even if the ending wasn’t the one I’d dreamed of. And so the point of this blog post is that, if anybody is reading this and thinking about spending a year or more writing a novel, they should do it. Don’t let someone else take that risk, because they’ll end up with a novel and you’ll end up with regret. The only difference between the writers writing and the writers pacing is what’s going on inside their head, and thankfully, we have complete control over that. So write. Fear can’t stop you unless you let it.
I will close out this blog post with some inspiring words from Frank Herbert’s Dune about fear:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Writer, go and write. Everything else is secondary.