Sunday, April 19, 2009

Room to Write - "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid"

"Make a list of the things you fear. Pick one and describe it in concrete and specific detail."

This one was a bit difficult for me, because my most prominent fear is more abstract than most. I'm not afraid of physically tangible things like snakes, rats or spiders. I'm wary of heights but not necessarily afraid of them, and I can climb a ladder or stand on a bridge without falling to pieces. What really scares me is more of a concept, and it was really hard to pin down exactly how it affects me without becoming redundant.


I am afraid of failure. Not all kinds of failure, mind you, but the kind of failure that is the end result of some misguided or underwhelming effort. As a child, do you remember being told that you could accomplish anything so long as you put forth your best effort? Do you remember fantasizing about growing up to become the President or developing the cure to a deadly disease? I do.

I was going to be a ballerina, a belly dancer and an astronaut. Just because they told me I could be anything if I wanted.

But that really isn't true. No, not even close. The people who succeed and achieve brilliance are, to be completely frank and unnecessarily blunt, anomalies. These are people who were in the right place, had made the right social contacts and possessed a set of adequate skills at the perfect moment in time. Perhaps they made monumental effort to get to where they made it to, but effort alone isn't going to reward you with everything you've ever wanted. In fact, it may result in nothing.

Every time I go to a shopping mall this concept is hammered home. Every time I see a table full of Twilight books at Barnes or a rack of Twilight shirts at the front of a Hot Topic I'm reminded of this. I'm not going to derail this exercise by spending more time than necessary explaining in depth my issues with Stephenie Meyer, but let me say that there are a great many truly brilliant and altogether under-read authors who are passed up by young readers in order to salivate over her latest book. If you buy into the concept of effort and good faith yielding rewards, this is a cold slap in the face by an arrogant, sparkly marble hand.

This is what frightens me. This is what causes me to second-guess myself or, even worse, to lose interest in achieving. Simply knowing that putting forth time, effort and hope could very well (and, statistically, probably) do nothing but bring my faults to the public fore is terrifying.

What if I write a novel and every agent rejects me? What if every publishing house blows me off? What if I'm exposed to my peers as a fraud and a wannabe? What if people find out I really don't know what I'm doing and am usually just winging it? What if I manage to successfully navigate the world of publishing (which is really an achievement in and of itself) and then nobody reads me?

I think I would prefer an epic chorus of negative reviews to the silence of being ignored.

I'm really getting way ahead of myself here, though, because to be either mocked or ignored you have to put yourself in front of people, and this fear is keeping me frozen behind a thick, dark curtain. Nobody knows I'm here. My friends are barely, if at all, aware of my ambition. I'm terrified and unsure if I should put myself in the vulnerable position of writer-in-public, but yet at the very same time I know what happens to me when I try to leave this urge behind me. I grow depressed. I grow fat. I lose the will to do anything but wallow in self-pity and bitterness.

I become someone who isn't me. That is much, much more frightening than being mocked for being a crappy writer.

How unbelievably hilarious it is that I suffer from the dual fears of stagnation and progress? It seems that no matter which path I take ( and it's obvious at this point that I've already chosen one over the other) there's going to be something waiting just out of view to frighten me. If it won't come during my waking hours it's sure to find me in my sleep. I have frequent nightmares, always with failure as the core theme. When my fish are sick I have dreams that feature closeups of tanks full of still-living, half-decomposed occupants, jaws and heads with gaping holes, gills struggling to function, fins barely mobile. This is what you've done to them, I tell myself, because you didn't take care of them when you could have. After waking I invariably do a water change or swap out filters and start testing ammonia levels, because I realize, at least for a while, that inaction is far worse than failure after effort.

There is no choice for me. I have to do what I have to do, but the end result of this doing is a horrible blank in the future. There is no guarantee, no safety net, no consolation prize. I suppose I could very well pull the adult version of the taking-my-ball-and-going-home stunt and publish my work myself, but even then I'd be subject to the same pass-fail standards of success that are prevalent everywhere else. And I'd have to deal with the added stress of trying to convince the rest of the publishing world to deal with me on terms they're not often willing to deal on.

I will soldier on, and hope for the best, because the shudder-in-my-chest fear that falls upon me when I think of being mocked and torn apart is nothing compared to the wake-up-screaming fear I feel during the nights when I have horrible dreams full of guilt for not trying.

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