Ch 3.2 Fear and the Creative Worker
I believe that overcoming fear is one of the most difficult things a writer does. Maybe this isn't true for every writer, but it was (and is) certainly true for me. In the beginning, it was fear of sharing my work, fear of leaving behind "real" work for "creative" work, fear of failure. Later, it was fear of success (and the expectations that come with it), fear of not being able to repeat what I'd already done, fear of being "found out" as not a "real" writer. Later still, it was more fear of failure, fear that this writing thing might consume the other important things in my life, fear that the emotional part of myself that was unleashed might consume me in a different way.
As I go along the journey, the fears are still there, just transformed.
Eventually (because I can be an excessively slow learner), I realized that fear is an essential part of writing. In a way, you should be seeking out that which you fear, because there lies your greatest hope for progress as a writer. But this only works if you can manage the fear: admit it, name it, and take action in the face of it.
Between drafts of any work, I like to purge my mind by working on something else. So, when I sent off Draft Two of Free Souls to my critique partners, I decided to outline the next series I wanted to write. It had been rambling in my head for some time, so I was primed and ready to dive in! And I was excited - new stuff! Bring on the shiny!
It seems the fear always strikes, ninja-like, when I least expect it.
This new series was about a science-fictiony topic that was BADASS COMPLICATED. Serious brainiacs around the world basically shrugged and said, "This is way beyond our understanding." It wasn't like I had to pass a Ph.D. exam in the subject - it was much worse than that. I had to take the stuff that was already known and project it into the future to create more advanced stuff that hadn't happened yet. And, by the way, it all had to make sense and some of the people who could give a Ph.D. exam in it might actually read my work. Oh, and it had to be good fiction, too.
What are you thinking? the Fear of Failure asked me. That you can really pull that off?
So, I took that Fear and my library card and checked out a stack of books from the library. I haven't even read the books yet, but the Fear of Failure has already slunk into the corner and started playing with the cat instead.
Then I started outlining the series, and my heavens, there was a lot of material to mine for this story. My subconscious had been tossing this around for the last year, and it was gushing ideas. The series quickly looked like six or seven novels, not a trilogy, and not six or seven short novels, but six or seven full-sized novels.
Who are you, JK Rowling? the Fear of Consumption mocked me. Seven novels? You don't know how to do that. Besides, you'll get bored long before it's done, and then where will you be?
I parked that Fear on the corner of the coffee table, while I did this:
No Fear can withstand the power of the cork board.
Creative Action Buries Fear
Maybe the first book of this next series will be so badass complicated that I'll never finish it. Or maybe the series will wander into the hinterlands after book 2, or sales will tank, or I'll get bored and stop writing it.
But as I scribbled madly on small squares of paper and outlined and drank more tea, I realized that none of that mattered. The act of creation was here-and-now and this, THIS, was what I loved. Not only the act itself, but the more I outlined/wrote, the more I loved this particular story. Which told me I was working on the right thing.
That it summoned my fears only told me that I was on to something worth tackling.
A quick check showed it also lined up with my Core Values and my Creative Five Year Plan which said things like seek out ways to stretch myself in my craft and experiment with novel length/number in series. How this story turns out in the end is somewhat inconsequential, because what I learn in the process of doing it will have the greatest worth.
Ways to Tackle Your Fears
My fears and I are ancient foes. So there were several things I did in the example above, almost instinctively, to battle this particular fear:
- Take Action - I checked out books from the library; I outlined; I wielded the corkboard. Fear is always about something that might happen; take action in the arena the fear takes place, and that unknown is reduced to a less scary known.
- Recognize Fear as Opportunity - "Go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is." - Anne Rice Anne's insightful quote tells us that wherever the pain is (as well as the pleasure) is where we will do our best work. For creative people, this is almost axiomatic. Recognize fear as a signal telling you that you're doing something worthwhile.
- Focus on the Writing - For me, the writing, the outlining, the creative act of building a story is always life-affirming. It has to be: it's a fundamentally creative act, and creation is life. Whenever I am paralyzed by fear, whether it's related to a story, or the market, or publishing, or that my sales will suddenly plummet off a cliff of horrific no return and I'll be penniless overnight... whatever the fear is, writing always brings me back to center.
These are good strategies and can help in the moment when fear seizes you by the throat and doesn't want to let go. The next chapter Fear of the Dark explores another flavor of creative fear, one that gets closer to the vulnerability that underwrites fear, and then we'll look deeper into where fear comes from in How to Be Brave.