The Power of 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.
~Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune
Writers are assailed by fears every day and from every angle, regardless where we are in our career. Fear we won’t endure. Fear of finding an agent or even the right agent. Fear of failure and even, strangely, fear of success. If left unchecked, these anxieties can sabotage our creativity and even our dreams.
The last couple of Warrior Writer blogs have addressed the emotionally volatile subject of critique, generating more comments and feedback than any other blog posted. That says something to me. Why do we take critique to heart the way we do? I mean, my mother always told me that opinions are like noses, everyone has one—ok, maybe she used a slightly less socially acceptable body part, but you get the idea. On an intellectual level, we do understand that everyone has the right to his opinion. But, deep down, criticism can feel like a sucking chest wound, so too often we avoid it if we can.
In his Warrior Writer Workshop, Bob Mayer spends a lion’s share of the time getting writers to locate and identify 1) weaknesses 2) fears 3) blind spots. Now one might think this is a waste of time. There are so many other useful topics this NY Times Best-Selling Author could teach. Give us some characterization mojo, or plot juju. So why would Bob spend so much time on identifying fear?
…because most of us don’t want to.
Ignorance is bliss. Right. The problem is that fear is like that mole you’ve had since childhood that suddenly gets a little sore and changes color. You don’t go to the doctor for fear it might be cancer, but it ends up being cancer because you didn’t go to the doctor…and then it goes metastatic and turns into a killing machine.
Fear does that to a writer. We avoid attending a really (good) brutal critique group, because they are like the doctor who could give us bad news. We focus on the scalpel (red pen), and forget they are healers. Forget they possess all sorts of ways to cure the ailment. All we see is that they (critics) have to power to give us bad news.
I’m sorry, but your protagonist is brain dead.
We’ve done all we can, but this plot needs to be taken off life support.
Your POV is violently schizophrenic and a danger to the characters in your novel. Putting it down is the humane thing to do.
Fear’s reach often extends beyond the critique group. We are terrified to ask family to cut us a break and give us quiet time, or afraid we won’t finish that novel. Or worse, we fear we will finish, but that our work will end up a tall pile of unpublished nothing only suitable for lining a bird cage. We fear asking agents the tough questions about the industry or how to handle the financial hassles like self-employment taxes. We fear asking about the details in a contract, fear asking for what is rightfully ours (rights, advances, etc.). We avoid all these things that might have helped our success because we fear being seen as weak, or foolish, or plain stupid. Yet the ironic part is we can end up being seen as far worse by failing to act.
All of us have fears, but not all of us are self-aware. Trust me; what we don’t know will hurt us. Fear, like that mole, if left unchecked will grow tentacles guaranteed to reach into our work, our attitude, and even our destiny. The symptoms are clear.
Symptom 1: Writer’s Block
I had several e-mails this week asking for tips to overcoming writer’s block. One big tip? Ask yourself what is making you afraid. Fear is a big reason most writers hit a point and then it is as if an invisible wall has landed in front of them.
I’m going through that right now. I’m in the process of writing a thriller. While it is my favorite genre to read, I’m finding it has been by far the hardest for me to write. Why? Because I was never in combat. I’m not an expert. Even though I have researched and researched and researched, I still fear that I won’t get the details correct, that I’ll be viewed as a fraud or as someone too lazy to get the facts straight. I fear I am a far better editor than writer (even though I’ve won multiple awards that indicate otherwise).
I am just blessed to have friends who give me regular swift kicks in the derrière and help diffuse my anxieties. Granted, every page has been like pulling teeth, but no one ever said facing fear would be easy, ;).
Symptom 2: Avoiding Rewrite
We already discussed the generalized anxiety we all have for critique. In this case, fear can make new writers avoid critique altogether—almost sealing their fate to never be published. But I’ve also seen writers with a finished manuscript keep shopping the same work even though it has been rejected time after time after time, and often for the same reasons. They fear going in and fixing the problems. The irony is they might have saved time had they just taken it on the chin.
Symptom 3: Changing Genres like They’re Socks
I have been guilty of this one. We get some really great momentum going then hit that wall. Instead of facing what the real problem is? We chalk it up to the fact that we just haven’t found the “right” genre for us. While that might very well be the case, be wary. Examine and, again, ask yourself the tough questions. Why are you really making the shift? Is your desire to stop writing romance because you really, really want to write articles about yoga? Or does writing romance make you have to face some dark parts about your own personality? Remember writing is therapy. Maybe your writing is unearthing some things that are making you feel vulnerable and, therefore, uncomfortable. Thus, switching genres has less to do with preferred subject matter and more to do with self-preservation.
Just think about it.
There are, of course, more than three symptoms of fear, so feel free to comment and expound on some others.
I began this blog with the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear for a reason. Fear most definitely is the mind-killer. There has probably been no better moniker assigned to this emotion. Fear has the power to cripple, maim, paralyze, and kill your writing and your career. The good news, though, is that fear, like any other emotion, is energy. Energy, when harnessed, loses its destructive properties. A lightning bolt that burns down a forest becomes electricity that powers the modern world and its conveniences. Fear, too, is an immense reservoir of potential energy that can be channeled and redirected…
…you just have to have the courage to stand in a storm with a kite and a key.
Recommended reading “Who Dares Wins–The Green Beret Way to Conquer Fear and Succeed” by Bob Mayer (Simon & Schuster 2009)
Go to www.bobmayer.org to order a copy or to sign up for a Warrior Writer Workshop in you area. Bob also posts wonderful blogs for dealing with fear, so make sure to check those out as well.