Getting the Best of Fear

Fear: You’re soaking in it! (photo by Viktor Jakovlev)

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. (“Ooh,” you think. “Timely, what with Halloween just behind us.” [OMG, IT’S BEHIND YOU. RUN!] To which I say, ha! As if I could even try to be timely or topical. If I were really timely and topical, this would have been written before Halloween, so there’s that.) No, it’s more like fear is one of those things that’s frequently top of mind for me most days. Am I a big old scaredy-cat? Maybe. Who knows? (Don’t mind me while I finish my saucer of milk.)

Anyway! I was listening to a podcast this morning called The Invisible Office Hours, which is hosted by two entrepreneurs/creatives named Jason Zook and Paul Jarvis. (I have no idea how on earth I came across them and their podcast, which seems to happen a lot with me on the Internet.) I’m catching up on their previous episodes (I highly recommend “Vampires and Zombies”—no, I’m not trying to be topical again; it’s just really funny), and the one I was listening to this morning at the gym was on Fear.

OK, what does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, I don’t know about you, but fear is the thing that keeps me from hitting “send” on that e-mail to a potential agent, or clicking “submit” on the short story I want to send to a litmag, or on the application to a residency I’d like to attend. Oddly, it’s not the thing that keeps me from the writing itself; that’s usually just pure laziness or lack of focus. Or both. But even 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 minute, or oh, I don’t know, A MONTH) over the Enter button. Even something like a blog post gives me pause.

“Why?” I sometimes ask myself (and by “sometimes” I mean ALL THE TIME). 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 and Jason said on their podcast, and it made an impression. I’d probably revise it to say “fear festers in isolation” because I think it’s when you’re working solo (without lonely even entering the picture) for extended periods that the 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. (And there, by the way, is a story idea that I’m just throwing out there for anyone who wants to run with it.)

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.

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 just terrible. We get a lot of practice at being afraid, almost without trying, it seems.

So practicing courage—actually, I’m going to call it “gumption,” because courage sounds like you’re risking your life, and like I said, writing is usually not a life-threatening situation. Exercising gumption takes practice too, especially 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 manage 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? (See my previous post for more on that.) 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 (and 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, but I know by that point that I’ve at least done my homework as best I can. They may still say no, but at least I’m not dead.