This is my (until this point) secret: Almost every time I contemplate writing, I feel afraid. Thoughts of sitting down to write pass through my brain, and on what I can only describe as the muscular level, I find myself avoiding pen, paper, notebook, word processing program, typewriter, pencil, notecard, tape recorder (I once bought a voice-activated one in case I was driving and any ideas came to me), and any other implement or device for putting words next to one another. I don’t know how many other writers, or would-be writers, experience fear when they contemplate putting down words; mine took up residence with me and shows no signs of leaving.
Sometimes my fear takes the form of boredom; at other times it arrives in the guise of restlessness and jerky energy. My fear has presented itself as depression, lust, fatigue, indecision, a need to exercise, a need to clean or cook or read or look up long lost friends or watch episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that I have seen so many times I know the plot as soon as I see who’s going to discover the body. My fear has demanded that I do more research, that I review the research I’ve done, that I give up because no research exists, that I organize the research I might do. It has asked that I prepare myself spiritually, meditate, pray, stretch, or read a portion of sacred text from a smorgasbord of religious traditions (and some secular ones). It has driven me to plan, to abandon all planning and wait for inspiration, and to give up the very idea that I might ever become a writer of any kind and embark on a career in customer service.
Now, here’s the part where I’m supposed to launch into the requisite attack on fear. Here’s where I tell you how I’ve overcome and triumphed in spite of fear’s tenaciousness, how I’ve learned to find a way out of the dark cloud or fog or some other metaphorical representation of obscurity and into the bright light of hope and courage and fearlessness so that I can now spin words endlessly from my lion’s heart. But that’s not my story.
Neither will I tell you how grateful I am for the presence of fear in my life. I’m not going to say (though I considered the idea) that fear has helped make me the writer that I am—though that may be true—and that since its part in my journey has been essential, I cannot celebrate my identity without celebrating the fear too. I won’t say that not because it isn’t true but because it isn’t what I really feel.
Here’s the truth: More often than not, fear has beaten me. More often than not, I’ve walked away from the page because my head was crowded with the possibilities of my failure—again—as a writer, because I could picture readers (partner, children, family, friends, former professors, former colleagues, other writers, agents, publishers, critics, scholars, intellectuals, bookstore and library patrons, people who speak languages besides English reading my work in translation) rejecting my weak, regurgitated ideas, my trite phrasing, my convoluted syntax (see above), my incoherent structure. More often than not, I’ve considered the possibility that my failing was inevitable and that furthermore when I failed, no one out there would even really care.
But here’s the good part: I’ve figured out that none of that really matters. The odds of my success or failure in writing making a substantial difference to anyone but me are quite low. Which means that I have nothing to prove, no one to win over, no one to disappoint. I have only myself and this discipline of writing that I have taken on for reasons which remain unclear to me. I have only this space to step into and explore, this universe of possibility to absolutely bugger up or absolutely knock out of the ballpark or—more likely—wander about in and clarify in some miniscule way meaningful only to myself. But that’s reason enough to try.
So rather than a foolproof method for understanding writing and guaranteeing success in whatever situation at whatever time, the romance with language that I discuss here should probably be read more like the diary of a would-be lover trying his damnedest to figure out what his relationship is actually about, how to maintain it, and why it’s worth the trouble. It’s my way of trying to accept the fear (and other neuroses), stay sane, and actually keep writing. Wish me luck.