Fear Factor

- by Barbara Bretton

I spent much of the early part of this year trying to remember how it felt to write fearlessly. I had actually convinced myself that this was the first time I’d ever written scared, but I was wrong.

That’s the problem with keeping  journals. They tell the truth. They make you remember all the things you’d rather forget. No revisionist history for the journaler: the raw truth is right there waiting to bite you in the butt.

And that’s not a bad thing. I’ve been scared before and written anyway. Sometimes a writer just needs to be reminded there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t Amtrak.

Unedited journal entry:

January 14, 2002 – Monday 9:17 p.m. – sipping tea, typing trash

I’m scared.

That’s it. That’s everything. I am bone deep scared out of my mind to make a serious run at writing the book that was due months ago. I’ve tried to look at it from every possible angle, tried to push emotion aside and view it logically and the plain truth is there isn’t one damn logical thing about what’s happening to me.

I’m scared.

More is riding on the next book than ever before, both in terms of money and expectations. And, as luck would have it, I am less equipped to deliver than at any other time in the last five or ten years.

Isn’t that a fine kettle of fish? (Have you ever seen a kettle of fish? What an idiotic thing to say.)

If too much time passes between the end of one project and the beginning of the next, I always lose confidence. Always. You could chart it alongside the phases of the moon and be every bit as accurate. I am always one half-sentence away from being uncovered as the fraud I am.

You say the Emperor has no clothes? I say the Emperor not only has no clothes, he’s buck naked in the village square and experiencing severe shrinkage.

I’m reaching the desperation point, resorting to the old Lawrence Block “Write for Your Life” tricks: Writing is easy and fun for me. (Oh yeah, moron?) Writing is easy and fun for me. (Blow it out your ear, Larry.) My writing brings me great success and satisfaction. (In your dreams, buster.)

I put a chunk of amethyst on the nightstand and I just might dig out a few magnets and aim them in the general direction of my empty head.

Scared scared scared. Finger-numbing scared. Brain dead scared. Flop sweat scared. I’d rather work at McDonald’s scared. I can’t do it. I can’t remember how it’s done. I’m not sure I ever understood how to put those words together and create a world for strangers to inhabit. I’m not even sure I remember why.

And yet I long for it the way you’d long for a lost lover. I pine for that drunken feeling I get when the words spill all over me and pull me under. When the world of flesh and bone fades away and the world inside my head takes over. What the hell am I so afraid of? Are they going to send me to maximum security if I screw up? Will a bad book with bad sales rain scorn upon my house?

I know how to rewrite. I know that I can fix anything once it’s down on paper but damn it there’s nothing I can do with words that don’t exist. So what if I screw up. So what if take two dozen wrong turns before I finally take the right one. Who cares? Who’s gonna know besides me? It doesn’t matter if I throw away fifty versions of chapter one before I finally get it right.

Nobody cares about the process. All they care about is the finished product. And you’re entitled to try and fail. It isn’t the end of the world. It’s the not trying at all that spells failure. You have the time now. Life isn’t spinning quite so fast as it was before. You have R ready and willing to pick up the slack and more. The only thing holding you back is that damn logjam inside your head.

AN’s heartfelt note got me thinking. Do I need more time to heal? Maybe, but I’m not sure that has anything to do with this writing problem. Writing is an avenue toward healing, toward making the pain go away. It’s like playing dress up when I was a little girl except it isn’t grown up clothing I’m slipping into, it’s other people’s lives.

Is that it? Why didn’t I see it before? This has happened before, in contexts both similar and not. My real life, both inner and outer, has been operatic the last year or so, great tragic highs and lows that have dwarfed anything my imagination can create.

on sale August 4th

on sale August 4th

Is it any wonder I’ve disappeared into reading historical novels, immersing myself in centuries past? Real life, this all too real world, was more than I could handle. My life has been loud and demanding, a two-year old let loose in the cookie aisle at Shop Rite. Grabbing, demanding, tugging on my sleeve, throwing a tantrum near the checkout counter. Leaving me with only enough energy and confidence to slink into bed each night a beaten woman. A once upon a time writer.

It’s okay to get back to work. It’s okay now to let go of all the bits and pieces of reality anchoring me here in central New Jersey. It’s okay to climb back inside my head and play. And, more than that, it’s okay to fail.

Don’t be scared. Write it. Read it. Fix it. It worked before. It’ll work again. But don’t put it off any longer. You have everything you need.

Now get moving.

6 comments

  1. This is quite simply a fabulous article. To know that you’re not the only one who goes through this process is a tremendous blessing.

  2. Thanks for this- comfort in knowing that even though I’m the only one in the hourse, I’m not alone!

  3. You’re a complete fraud too? I always thought I was the only one in danger of exposure. Thanks for the smile and for sharing the self-talk that rattles in my own head daily too.

  4. If the magnificent prose of this article is any indication, you haven’t forgotten how to write.

    I, too, am writing scared at the moment, but the only way to overcome the scared part is to do the writing part. Thank you for the reminder. And go forth and play in that wonderful universe inside your head. I’m sure it’s dying to get out!

  5. Perhaps scared adds a spice to the finished product? All I know is I loved this article AND I can hardly wait until August 4th! Except this time, I want a signed copy of your book!

  6. This is wonderful, Barbara. I am writing scared indeed. Thank you for this. I echo your other readers when I say I can’t wait for August 4th, either!