The month of October invites a lot of conversation about what scares us. Halloween is the ultimate culprit—people do horror movie marathons and theme parks create haunted houses that you have to sign a waiver to enter. Front yards are full of lynched skeletons and open graves, not to mention the sugar-crazed kids who mob the streets every October 31st.
I tend to avoid scary things. I’m not a fan of slasher movies or rollercoasters and though someone may one day entice me to try skydiving, I feel like I take my life into my hands every time I drive I-80, so parachutes aren’t high on my priority list.
As a writer, however, our fears tend not to be death-defying or phobia-provoking. Generally, we are not Navy Seals or Bear Grylls wannabes. As riveting as Naked and Afraid can be, I’ll never apply just to research a book. To the outside eye, the things that really set a writer’s heart racing may seem mundane. But I’m sure many of you will recognize—and relate with—some of the things on my list.
What scares me most?
- Waiting. Anyone with an active imagination can make the very act of waiting—whether it be for five minutes or five months—an exercise in terror. Waiting to hear back from anyone. Agent, editor, critique partner, reviewer. The horrors that arise can be stifling (they hate it, I’ll never write again, this is the end of my career, they love it but want me to change the main character, they’ll want me to write a book exactly like this next time, etc. etc. etc.) I pity the families and friends of waiting writers.
- Failure. This can be failure on a microscopic level (oh, hell, I got that word wrong) to failure on a global scale (I think I may have made a mistake admitting on a national newspaper website that I totally stalked a book blogger). Usually, the failure is something in between—I won’t get this character to appear on the page as he appears in my mind. I won’t be able to finish this book. I won’t be able to do this topic justice. I won’t sell this book. If this book sells, no one will read it. If people read it, they will hate it. I only have one book in me and it was a fluke and I actually have no idea what I’m doing and my career has ended before it began. Even in the situation where you’ve sold three books to a publisher, a writer can spend the entire time until the third book actually shows up on shelves thinking, “they’re going to cancel my contract.” We can fear every kind of failure, writers.
- Success. You’d think fearing failure and fearing success would be mutually exclusive, but no. If a book gets a lot of buzz before it hits shelves, we can be afraid it won’t live up to the hype. If a book does really well, we can fear that it was a fluke and we’ll never write another (see above). If a book does really, incredibly, amazingly well, what if that paralyzes me and I just can’t write again? (see below). If someone loves (or hates) my book, what if they stalk me?
- Anachronism. This is the term for writers of historical fiction, anyway. For others, it’s the fear of “getting it wrong”. Putting buttons on a Roman tunic or having a 12th century character use the word focus or allowing a Tudor to drink tea. One tiny slip up can feel like the entire world is crashing down upon your head. I’m sure other writers have the same issue—changing a character’s hair color halfway through the book or having someone say, “I know a shortcut from Wandsworth to Heathrow.” (something my husband comments on every single time we watch Love Actually—it totally destroys his suspension of disbelief).
- Public speaking. See that leap I made there? From the utterly internal, psychological fears of the writer in the writing process to the external world? That right there is the fear. I can’t tell you how many debut authors I’ve spoken with who are terrified that when their book comes out they will have to get up in front of a group of friends at a launch party and open their mouths to speak. Fear includes public readings and impromptu Q&As. We are not only afraid of being observed by a group of people, we are terrified of saying the wrong thing, offending someone, looking stupid, stuttering and not remembering the title of the book or any of the characters in it. The even bigger fear is that no one will come to hear us speak and we will spend an hour talking to a row of empty chairs and the bookstore maintenance person who sat down on his break and now is too embarrassed to get back up again.
- Never writing again. This is my biggest fear. Before Gilt came out, I voiced this (and several other) fears to a writer friend who had published the year before. The fear that if my book didn’t do well, my contract would be cancelled and I’d never write another. She said, “Even if you knew you wouldn’t be published, would you still write?” And my answer was yes. So now I’m afraid that the pain in my wrists will lead to acute neuropathy that will turn into some rare form of disease that no one will be able to diagnose but will render my hands useless. Or I will go blind. Or my brain will be attacked by a flesh-eating virus. And I will never write again. I love it that much, that the worst case scenario for me would be to still be living, but unable to play with words.
We are riddled with fears. Any one of them can be crippling to creativity and several can be crippling psychologically or socially. But we keep doing it. Writing. Querying. Publishing. Public speaking. Because we love it.
This is why I think writers are some of the bravest people I know. We face our fears. And keep going.
What fears have you overcome recently?