Getting the Best of Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. Actually, fear is frequently top of mind for me most days. Does that mean I’m a coward? Maybe, I don’t know.

What does this have to do with writing, though? Surprisingly, a lot.

Fear is the thing that keeps me from doing a lot of things. Hitting “send” on that e-mail to a potential agent, for instance. Or clicking “submit” on the short story I want to send to a litmag, or on the application to a residency.

Fear doesn’t keep me from the writing itself, though. That’s usually just laziness or lack of focus. Or both.

After two novels and more than two dozen short stories, every time I send something out into the world, my finger still hovers for a moment (or a month) over the Enter button. Even something like a blog post gives me pause.

Why is it so hard to commit to that? What’s the worst that can happen?

“Fear festers in loneliness” is one of the things Paul Jarvis and Jason Zook said on their podcast, and it made an impression. I’d probably revise it to say “fear festers in isolation.” When you’re working solo for extended periods, fear has a tendency to self-perpetuate. Which makes me think that if you could somehow design an engine that runs on fear, you’d be a) a millionaire and b) a really, really sick ticket.*

Where was I? Right, overcoming fear. Working in isolation comes with the territory a lot of the time when you’re a writer, much the same way it does when you’re a freelancer (although you’re working for clients, you’re still doing so more or less on your own). Since I’m both a writer and a freelancer, I’m more often than not hunched over my notebook or my computer in an office for one, so the only water cooler chat that happens is in my head.

Which, if you’re not careful, can be pretty disheartening.

What are you so afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen?

The hard thing to remember at the water cooler in my head is to ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” The answer: They could say no. Although I suppose the worst that could happen is that they could say no and include that response in a lengthy message cataloging all the ways in which my writing is lacking and how I am likely never to be a successful writer. To which I would respond, “Tell me something I haven’t already told myself, oh, I don’t know, a million times.”

Of course, it’s not likely that they would say that because most people aren’t that mean, not to mention that it would take time to do so, and believe me, people who work for literary magazines are not exactly luxuriating in free time. They’re also unlikely to do that because they understand just how much courage it takes to hit that send button.

As Paul and Jason brought up on their podcast, the worst thing I could ever imagine happening would be to die an painful and/or embarrassing death, and none of that is likely to happen by sending a letter to an agent or submitting a story to a magazine, and certainly not by posting a blog entry. Sure, I might put my foot in my mouth or not express something very well, but that’s where editing comes in.

Doing anything takes practice. Self-expression takes practice. The courage to express yourself takes practice. I think fear takes practice too, and that’s where being in isolation lends itself to fear. I don’t know about you, but my mind keeps up an active inner dialogue with me, and some of the things it says are terrible. We get a lot of practice at being afraid, almost without trying, it seems.

Like writing, courage takes practice

Most things get easier with practice. Exercising courage is no exception. (Actually, I’m going to call it “gumption.” Courage sounds like you’re risking your life, and like I said, writing is usually not life-threatening. Usually.)

This is especially true when the task at hand, more than just hitting the submit button, seems so monumental that you’re not sure how you’re ever going to accomplish it. I mean, do you have a to-do list that includes something like “write novel”? How on earth do you want to tackle *that* one?

I guess that’s why I’m such a fan of the list. If you manage to creep up on these monumental, frightening tasks a little at a time, they seem less impossible. (Plus, you get to feel more stealthy). So, “write novel” becomes a list in itself. And “submit to agents” becomes a list for each agent, where I look them up on AgentQuery, read an interview with them, check out what they’re looking for on their agency website, modify my query letter, gather the required writing sample or synopsis, and then hit send.

Yes, it’s still nerve-wracking. By that point, though, I know I’ve at least done my homework as best I can. They may still say no, but at least I’m not dead.

*By the way, that’s a story idea  I’m just throwing out there for anyone who wants to run with it.