Swarms of Fears and Monsters
Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house.
There are so many hindrances – both mystical and mundane – to our process, yet a handful rise to the surface like apples waiting to be bobbed. They tangle together, crossing my mind in no particular order, so I offer them, simply, as the spirit moves.
Anideophobia – the fear of being bereft of ideas. What if the well has run dry and there is no rain in sight? This hits me every Monday as I ponder where to go with the week’s Editor’s Corner. Today, for example, I was all set to discuss writers’ groups, but then I discovered I’d done that already. Panic! What to do? Of course, elementally, every story has already been told; that’s just a given. And often with such blinding brilliance that there seems little point in even trying anew. Life, death, love, loss – what else is there? But if we think about it, it’s not the “what,” it’s the “how.” After all, Shakespeare had nary an original plot to his name, relying on Boccaccio and Plutarch, recent history and ancient legend. Thankfully, that didn’t stop him.
If you fear you’ve run out of ideas, go for a walk or sit in a café (or look at the calendar); be around other people, watch and listen to them. Glean a passing interaction or a snippet of conversation (eavesdropping has its place in a writer’s life). Then remember that you have your own voice – your own “how” to telling. From such kernels all sorts of tales can grow, and you will be never run out of ideas.
Vacansopapurosophobia – fear of the blank page. There it is, all crisp and clean, just staring at us, laughing, taunting us to fill it with scintillating prose. For how can we hope to match the existential power of the pristine page? Each word changes the void, shapes it to our will, but are they worthy? And if they’re not, can we go back or have we destroyed the unsullied surface beyond repair? Round and round we go, until the very thought of starting feels as profane as pissing on virgin snow. Best put it off for another day, right?
No, no, no. No! It is the emptiness which terrifies. Break the silence of the page! Forge ahead – put anything down, even nonsense – and the monster is sent packing.
Personally, I thank the computer for helping me over this fear. Light and pixels you can wipe away with a keystroke are less intimidating than actual physical paper marked with physical ink. (It also appeals to the Scot in me who frets over pennies and waste.)
Atelophophobia – fear of imperfection. What if our words are not the right words, or if, among a hundred diamonds, we let slip a simple chunk of coal. It could happen – it does happen. Always. On a certain level, we all strive for perfection, to write that flawless piece of prose or poetry. A lofty goal, perhaps, but totally unrealistic. Even brilliant ideas and well-honed craft all backed by a battalion of editors and proofreaders, there simply is no such thing as the perfect story. You make yourself crazy trying to achieve the impossible.
According to legend, the great artists of antiquity would put a deliberate flaw in each of their creations, lest they invoke the jealousy of the Gods. It might not be noticeable to the casual eye, but it’s there nonetheless. (Arachne forgot this bit of wisdom and it got her into a real web of trouble!) So don’t let the idea of perfection paralyze. A little coal does not necessarily spoil the luster of our gems; it can, make them dazzle the more brightly.
Atychiphobia/Epitychiphobia – the twin fears of success and failure. What if I can’t do it, what if I can? Beginning, middle, end, these fears raise their grisly heads at will along our writer’s progress, and just when we’ve conquered them for one book, they rise up again like necromantic hordes for the next. They stop us from starting, from finishing, from sending our literary children out into the world.
Worrying we’re not good enough – that one’s easy. While anyone can write, getting published is another matter entirely. The competition is fierce, rejects outweighing acceptances thousands to one. True, for better and worse, e-books and self-publishing open up new avenues and encouragements. But what happens if we put our e-book out there and no one buys it – or, worse yet, no one reads it even when we give it away? Such potential scenarios feed our fears of rejection. As thick skinned as we think ourselves, failure or the prospect of failure, can be devastating. It becomes particularly thorny as the rejection letters from agents and publishers start to pile up. We tinker and rewrite and send our MS out again – and again – and again. But, if we’re not careful, zombie fears can keep coming back until we toss our work into a draw and take that correspondence course in accounting we were holding in reserve.
Fight through. Write, heed critiques, write better, persevere. And remember that the rules of publishing are often not directly related to the quality of writing. If you doubt this, just meander through your local bookstore for an afternoon. Publishing is a business, and timing, trends, and luck, have a lot to do with catching a publisher’s eye.
As for epitychiphobia, or the fear of success, this is trickier. It afflicts some of us, but not all, speaking to the individual states of our individual egos. True, laboring in isolation for years writing the next “Satanic Verses” or “Interview with a Vampire,” only to have fame, fortune, even opprobrium come one’s way, can give the most extroverted narcissist pause. Then of course, there is the follow up, which, if not as good will only show what an absolute fraud one is! A nasty cycle.
For most of us, I say go for it. Be bold and brave and embrace whatever good fortune lands in your lap. It is a rare gift not to be shunned.
As ghouls and goblins roam the world and fears become manifest, remember that the ones that stop us writing are “what ifs” at best. “What if” is a pedant’s sport that distracts and mires us in inertia with its Medusa stare. This Halloween, don’t let the “what ifs” win.
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.
… Frederick Buechner