Things that actually are scary rarely get the reaction from me you’d expect. I don’t mean that I bravely march into the front row of the theater to watch horror films, or that I’m the first in line for the latest backwards-running, g-force nightmare at the amusement park. Cheap adrenaline rushes always undo me. But really scary things? Filing my itemized taxes, doing a job interview, confronting a friend or relative in a sensitive situation? Things that have real emotional stakes or actual, practical consequences for failure? Piece of cake. My lizard brain will happily freak out at all things Hollywood- and physics-triggered, but things that should give me pause just don’t phase me the way they should. I’ll take that awkward phone call. I’ll step in to break up that shouting match in the grocery store. I’ll stall the police at the frat party while my friends slip out the back.
I’ve done all these things. I’m sure I’ll do them again. (Well, probably not the frat party thing. The ship has sailed on those days.) I’m sure of this because experience tells me I’m totally unable to process the difference between an actual risk and something that’s only designed to seem like a risk.
And that is why my current writing project scares me so much.
In writing about how we build worlds, characters, stories, and relationships in sff, I have spent very little time talking about the act of writing. Put indelicately, writing is simply the act of applying your ass to a seat and making wordstuff. The fearful nature of that act has been much on my mind because, by the time this article goes live, we’ll be more than halfway through Camp NaNoWriMo, which means I ought to be half or better of the way through my project: revising a long-dormant sff novel manuscript I’ve been promising to critique partners, beta readers, and my agent for ages. Revising this project—already north of 70,000 words, a healthy size for a first draft in genre fiction—entails no tangible, measurable risk. It’s a risk-on-rails, with no actual way to fall and break bones. No death or dismemberment. No public confrontations. No one coming to lock me up if I say the wrong thing or turn around my edits too slowly. Writing should feel safe, the way a roller coaster is thrilling and yet, in almost every instance, without actual risk. But writing—and writing this project in particular—doesn’t feel the slightest bit safe. I am afraid that when I plunge into the project and my stomach flies up between my teeth, I’ll actually hit bottom instead of careening around another bend.
Writing a new project begins with a battle between fight and flight. My students have asked me how I stopped being afraid of writing and the honest answer is, I never did. Fear is usually the best indicator of whether what I’m trying to write is worth it. Fear tells me that, deep in my lizard brain, I know there’s something of value on the line here, and I’m the only one who can do right by it. Fear deserves a little time here, because it’s so potentially useful in writing.
Fear is a kind of litmus test for my new works. If I’m not scared by them, at least a little bit, then I’m immediately suspicious. Fear tells me I’m taking a risk; when writers take risks, it’s readers who stand to reap the rewards. The fear also tells me something about myself as a writer: who I am right now, and who I’ll need to become to get the work done.
In June 2009, I saw Neil Gaiman speak at the Chicago Printer’s Row Book Festival, where he read from his then-recently released bestseller The Graveyard Book. Gaiman introduced the book by first explaining that he’d tried to write it several times in his career, each time setting it aside to stew awhile, concluding that “the book needed a better writer than [he] was at the time.” I won’t go so far as to say Gaiman was giving in to fear, but he was listening to something in himself and in his idea, something that helped him understand the stakes of his work in progress and how best to serve it.
That fear of not being the writer an idea needs is instructive, too, because it helps me identify what I don’t know how to do yet, or need to do more of, to be ready to take on the project. Even though it means putting writing aside, this is a “fight”-driven, not a “flight”-driven, choice. When I decide to step away from a project to train myself to write it better, that’s fighting for the project’s future, and fighting to kill off the fear that I don’t know enough and haven’t done enough to meet it halfway. I need to be—to paraphrase Gaiman—a better writer for the sake of the book. Stepping away to become that writer is anything but giving in.
I’ve been “stepped away from” this work in progress for three years. In that time, I developed reading lists for myself, did practical research, and sharpened my craft. I let my fear of not being good enough for the draft I’d written make me good enough to write a better second draft.
We are all one Google search away from hundreds of blog posts, podcasts, YouTube channels, and other self-help materials about writing. Most of them talk about fear as something to be battled against, or faced down with brute force. (I’ve often talked to my students about “mastering the fear of sucking” as an alternative way of thinking about writer’s block. That certainly has a brute force ring to it.) The words “overcoming fear” appear often in writing discourse. But looking at fear as an asset, a kind of writerly spider sense that tells you when something is really important and pushes you toward thinking more carefully about how to approach it, might be more useful.
Writing is hard enough without making new enemies where we might otherwise find allies.