The Fear Factor

We writers are a complicated bunch. We’re sensitive, imaginative, and creative. Although those qualities allow us to cook up plotlines and characters, they also get us into trouble.

Because we can imagine more doubts, fears, insecurities, and bogeymen than just about anyone else in the population.

To consider how imagination can derail us, let’s look at one of my dogs as an example.

His nickname is “Spook.” Now, as a breed, scotties are smart dogs. They’re also stubborn and independent, which can make them seem–at times–less intelligent than they really are. The Spook, however, is smarter than most and also imaginative. This resulted in a puppyhood filled with all sorts of crises:

Here's "The Spook," a Scottish terrier with too much imagination.

Bark! There’s a monster in the bathroom! (A pile of sorted dirty clothes about to be taken to the washer.)

Bark! There’s a woman screaming in the house. (I had to cut out watching suspense films until the Spook grew older.)

Bark! There’s a stranger in the house. (My father wearing a cap.)

Bark! That trashbag’s going to swallow me, and I’ll never be seen again.

Bark! I’m going to go down the bathtub drain. Help me! Help me!

Bark! Can’t you see what’s standing there? (No, Spook, there’s nothing in the room but you, me, and the furniture.)

Some of these examples are normal puppy frights and some–such as staring into space and reacting to what simply wasn’t there–aren’t. The Spook’s behavior was all the more noticeable because his littermate didn’t react to any of these so-called dangers, except that scary, rattling trashbag.

These days, I’ve learned that the Spook is what Cesar Milan would call a dog with unstable energy. The Spook runs around, overreacting to the slightest stimulation and making up the rest. I had to learn to step up and be very much the alpha pack leader in order for the Spook to feel more secure. However, the point is that the Spook suffers from too much imagination, and he’s firmly convinced that he could operate the TV remote if only I’d let him push those little buttons.

Too hot and sleepy today to be afraid.

I, too, have more imagination than is probably good for me. As a writer, it’s my job to make up scenarios of escalating trouble for my characters to confront. As a writer, it is not my job to make up scenarios of escalating trouble for myself.

When I’m teaching, a lot of my tutorial sessions with individual students revolves around coaching them through whatever’s holding them back. They have fears–sometimes big ones–even if their Joe Cool College Dude persona won’t let them admit it.

-They’re afraid they’re going to make a mistake. Get over it! You can’t learn unless you mess up. You can’t grow unless you try new things.

I had a grandfather that waited, ready to pounce on the slightest misstep so he could tease us mercilessly about it for years. Family members learned to be skilled and successful at what they did. They also learned to be hesitant, less-than-confident, and inclined to practice in secret or not try at all.

-My students are afraid they’ll be laughed at. By whom? Who’s sitting around in New York publishing offices, saying, “I hope a new manuscript lands on my desk today so I can har-har at it?” Editors don’t have time for that; and even if they did, they aren’t cruel people; and even if they were, you’ll never know because you aren’t there.

My students are afraid of criticism. Get past that one, too. Chances are, if you really burn to write, then you really burn to be read.

That means, somewhere inside you is the dream of seeing your name on a book cover, on a shelf, in a store, in an airport rack, on a Walmart shelf, in the library, at amazon.com, and–most importantly–in someone’s Nook.

However, if your name is on a book and people are reading it, then not everyone is going to love it. You’ll get good reviews, enthusiastic reviews, lukewarm reviews, and scathing reviews. You’ll have to suffer through unkind comments written by amazon.com customers who may decide they hate your opening paragraph and want to slay you online.

The cruel, unjustified criticism hurts. Let no one claim differently. Constructive criticism stings but it helps you improve. You need honest feedback. You need to know if what you’ve written doesn’t make sense, or is lame, or requires tightening.

My students are afraid of their own feelings. I call this the “apathy factor.” By the time students reach my writing classroom, they have usually mastered the art of deadpanning their indifference to adults.

Here’s a little secret: You can’t write well if you don’t feel.

Granted, emotions are messy. They are disdained or unwelcome in public. We’re supposed to control them, manage them, and unleash them only when appropriate. Because society can become too bottled up, it seeks emotional outlets such as reading fiction to let off the steam.

Which means, fiction shouldn’t be bottled up. Characters need to feel their emotions in a big way, but they won’t be well-drawn or plausible if their author is afraid to feel with them and plays it safe.

-My students are afraid of success. What’s this about? I dunno. Maybe it ties in with shyness, not wanting to be noticed. Because of course if you are noticed, then you might mess up and then everyone will know that your first success was a fluke.

How do you get past this one? I can’t tell you. I’m not a trained counselor. I think you have to find a way to push yourself past your comfort zone and just try.

There are plenty of self-help books for writers out there. Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART is a good one.

-My students fear they aren’t good enough. That’s a really big, insidious, reach-down-into-your-guts-and-eat-you-alive fear, all right. It can jeer at you in the back of your mind, cause you to second-guess every word you write, and keep you tied in knots.

So what you do to face down this worry is master writing craft. Practice, read, practice, practice, read, and practice some more. You have no excuse for not knowing how to construct good sentences or to spell and punctuate properly. None. There aren’t that many rules. If no one ever taught you, then teach yourself.

Train your story sense by watching well-written films about people working through their problems. Vincent Minnelli’s last movie, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, starring Glen Ford, Shirley Jones, and Ronnie Howard, is a good example of emotion, character growth, solid plotting, and how to mix tears with humor.

You have to read. And read. And read.

When you know story craft, when you’ve written the best plot that’s in you about the best characters you’ve ever devised, and you haven’t held back–what’s to stop you from being good enough?

And after all that, if you aren’t trendy enough, chances are there will still be a publisher willing to take your story. Or, if you choose to self-publish on Kindle, there will be people willing to read your story.

All I know is that you can’t write your best at half-throttle, afraid to take chances, afraid to believe in yourself, afraid to listen to your own instincts.

Go for it, every time. You’re never too sensitive, too delicate, too shy, too frail to really try.

These petunias are about the only flowers I've got not wilting in the heat.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Fear Factor

  1. CurtissAnn

    Thank you, darling friend. I am helped by your wisdom and clarity. I can pray to be bold.

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