Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Are You Afraid Of?

No, I don’t have the song lyrics in mind when I pose that question. Although, come to think of it, Tony Bennett’s song would make a great theme for a romance novel: “Learn what love is made of. / What are you afraid of?” But that’s a topic for another day. Today I’m asking myself that question and another that is related. What am I afraid of? How are my fears affecting my writing?

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi
 According to one source, there are at least 500 words in the English language for specific fears that human beings harbor, ranging from A (the familiar Acrophobia- fear of heights and the lesser known Alliumphobia- fear of garlic) to Z (Zelophobia- fear of jealousy and Zoophobia- fear of animals). My own greatest fears fall in the A range: Atelophobia- fear of imperfection and Atychiphobia- fear of failure. Such fears can be paralyzing and ironically bring about the very thing I most want to avoid—falling on my face and looking foolish, proving myself a loser and imperfection an overwhelming reality.

I know I’m not perfect, and I really don’t want to be. I rather like knowing that I’m part of what Emily Dickinson called “freckled human nature.” But my writing—ah, that’s harder because, you see, the book in my head is perfect. It is polished and flawless and scintillating. The gap between the book in my head and the book on the page fills me with dismay and fear. If it’s imperfect, it can fail—and that leads to my other fear.

Psychologists say that fear of failure interferes with our analytical, cerebral thought process and pushes us toward “fight or flight,” instinctive responses connected to basic survival that are generated in the pre-rational part of our nervous system. Now these instinctive responses that result in tense muscles, pounding heart, and floods of adrenalin are useful if I’m confronting a woman-eating tiger in a jungle or a gun-toting neighbor who dislikes my choice of music, but they short-circuit the reasoning I need to move past the fear that tells me I can’t write fiction, that I’m wasting my time, that there are other things I should be doing.

The rational part of my brain can remind me that failure may be a necessary step in moving toward success. Thomas Edison failed to invent the light bulb 1,000 times before he succeeded. Babe Ruth is remembered for his 714 home runs, but he struck out nearly twice as many times as he homered. Stephen King’s first novel was rejected thirty times. It was 27 years between the time Anna Campbell completed her first manuscript and the sale of her debut novel Claiming the Courtesan. But I can’t remember all these anecdotes and draw inspiration from them if I’m all caught up in “fight,” meaning I claim all responsibility for the situation, or “flight,” meaning I assume no responsibility for the situation. I need that reasoning part of my brain to remind me that some things are out of my control. I can’t control market trends or agents’ lists or the state of publishing, even though any of these and doubtless a thousand other things equally beyond my control play a role in the rejections I have received/will receive. I am responsible for disciplining myself to write even on the days I’d rather do anything else, for producing the best work I can, for being professional in my actions and interactions, for recognizing that in writing, as in most things, to stop growing is to die.

Dr. David Perkins, author of The Eureka Effect: The Art and Logic of Breakout Thinking (W. W. Norton, 2001), believes that creativity is fostered as much by attitude as by talent. Believing in yourself and working in a disciplined fashion toward a goal frees the imagination to become more productive. I also take comfort in the studies that suggest age has its benefits in terms of creativity. The young use one side of the brain for creative problem solving, but beginning about 40, when overall cognitive abilities begin a slight decline, people begin using their entire brains to think even more creatively than when they were younger. Gene Cohen, M.D., author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (Basic Books, 2006) compares it to “shifting from two-wheel drive to all-wheel drive.” Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her mid-60s when she published her first Little House book, and Grandma Moses, American primitive artist, was 76 when she began painting and 80 when she had her first one-woman show.

The difference between those who succeed and those who fail frequently has less to do with degrees of talent than with degrees of perseverance. My goal for 2011 is to conquer the paralytic fear of failure, to remember those things that will encourage me to persevere, and to keep writing. To that end, I copied and placed above my desk the advice of Kaki Warner, whose first two books in the Blood Rose trilogy (Pieces of Sky and Open Country) won high praise in 2010. (The third book, Chasing the Sun, has just been released.) In her interview on January 11 with PJ at The Romance Dish, Ms. Warner advised aspiring writers:

Never give up. Love your characters, because if you don’t, how can you expect an agent or editor to? Get all the feedback you can—discard half of it—use the rest. Keep it real (I know, in Romance that kinda defeats the purpose, but try anyway). And remember, no matter how much of yourself you put into your work, industry rejections are not personal. Finally, it’s your story, your voice, your plot—don’t write to please a critique group, an agent, an editor, or a market. Listen and consider…but in the end do it your way, as true and honest as you can make it. And did I say “never give up?” I mean it. Never. Ever.
I'm still afraid of failing, but I'm writing past the fear.

What are you afraid of? What advice are you set to follow in 2011?


Elyssa Papa said...

You know, I used to think I was afraid of a lot of things but I've realized hoe untrue that is.

For example, I was always afraid of rejection. But take auditions in college (where I often never got the part), to agent and editor rejections that have topped the 200 mark, and you know, I've learned that rejection is just subjective. For whatever reason, they didn't like you or your book. Their loss.

Then I was afraid of failure. See, I hate failing. Hate it. I equate failure as being the worst thing. But guess what? I've failed at things--failed at getting sold, failed at getting tenure--but I'm still here, stronger and more determined to succeed.

I think fear of things is fear of the unknown, fear that we will not live up to our image of what we want for ourselves. And, yes, I think it's great to goals and aspirations. But I think sometimes fear can be used as an excuse. You think, well, I fear failure so I won't send out my queries to agents or I won't write another contemp because they aren't selling, but fear is something you have to push past. You have to look it in the eye--whatever it you're afraid of (I'm speaking figuratively here, because I'm sorry there's no way that you will ever get me to get over my fear of tornadoes)--but you do have to say f it, so what if I fail or get rejected? What's the worst that could happen? They say no? Well, get over it because it's just one person's opinion.

It counts more that you get up, after any setback, and that you decide to go into that fire once more. It's hard. It's scary. But you'll be happy you did it--because nothing I'd worse imo than the question: What if?

Anonymous said...

Janga, this is a beautiful post. And Elyssa's comment is perfect. I shouldn't even try to add anything, but I can't help myself. LOL

My fear is that my books won't have a chance to find their audience, that they're not "big enough". And thinking something like that stops me in my tracks--which I'm sure is what the thought is intended to do. It's a protective mechanism.

Only protective mechanisms can be SO confining! I hate being told what to do, so being dictated to by my fears really irks me. LOL

Fears are designed to make us cautious, and alert. But writing requires us to throw all of that aside. It's hard to do.

I just know I don't want my tombstone to read, "She was too afraid to go after her dreams". :)


TerriOsburn said...

I'm not sure there's a term for it, but I'm afraid of being miserable. Sounds very selfish, but I've made many decision in my life with the sole purpose of getting away from misery or getting closer to what I thought would make me happy.

We recently had an epiphany on the ship that has been helping me during revisions. The book I'm managing to get on the page may not be as perfect as the one in my head, but the eventual reader has no access to the one in my head.

It's highly possible that she'll read my story and see perfection in it. She'll be moved and laugh and cry and sigh and sit down to start over from page one. I'll still think it's not quite right, but who am I to tell the reader she's wrong? :)

Janga said...

Ely, I have serious doubts that I'm ever going to say "f it." LOL
But I do agree with all you say, and I admire your tenacity. I also think "what might have been" is indeed a sad commentary on a dream--or a life. So we'll both just keep climbing the mountain, right?

Janga said...

Thanks, Donna. I relate to your "not big enough" fear because I worry that my work is too quiet. It has no vampires or serial killers or threats to the safety of the world, and the love scenes hover between sweet and arm on the sensuality scale. But I have to believe there is an audience for all kinds of books. When I get really down about all my mss. lack and start thinking I won't be able to find an audience, I remind myself that Debbie Macomber has become practically an industry--and won a seven figure deal for each of her next six books from Random House--writing quiet books.

Janga said...

Terri, avoiding misery and doing what makes you happy sounds like a smart choice to me. Contrary to what the stereotype of the tortured artist suggests, I think most of us are more productive creators as well as kinder and more generous people when we're happy.

The point about the book the reader sees is a good one to remember. I just have to get past my concerns about all the flaws I see before the book is even available for any reader to see.

irisheyes said...

It's amazing to me how many times you write a blog that makes me feel like you've been peeking into my life again! LOL

I definitely get where you're coming from and getting past it has been my lifelong struggle. I feel as if I'm getting there, though. Fear, especially fear of imperfection, used to be my driving force. I think pushing through it, as Ely suggested, is probably the only way.

I don't know if this would help you but I've also always found strength in the "fake it til you make it" philosophy. I've acquired a few of the healthy behaviors I possess today because I mimicked them until they became second nature. You're halfway there cause you've already proven you can finish once you begin - countless poems and articles. If you can do it once you can do it again with your mss! Right?!

The one truth I'm asbolutely sure of is that you ARE already a success, a writer. You haven't failed at all - you've already succeeded in that. Now it's just time to switch gears :)

TerriOsburn said...

I'm just tagging on a big "AMEN" to Irish's comment. :)

Janga said...

Irish, we should compare genealogical notes sometimes. I think we must have a common ancestor in the distant past, perhaps in the auld country. :-)

I think the "fake it until you make it" is good advice. It's pretty much how I got through 30+ years of first days of classes, which were always torture for the introvert I am.

Thanks for the kind words. Knowing that I have friends who believe in me helps to keep me going.

Janga said...

Thanks, Ter! I always count on you to be in my corner.

quantum said...

Janga: So we'll both just keep climbing the mountain, right?

I suffer from a fear of heights, which is so annoying for a rambler who loves to be in the mountains.

I believe that many phobias can be cured by confronting the fear gradually. For fear of spiders for example, you first force yourself to be in the same room as a spider and just look at it. Then you move closer to the spider, as close as you can manage. Then when you can sit very close to the spider you pick it up on a ladle and hold it for as long as you can. Having mastered that you allow it to crawl on your clothing and eventually, after many months, you will be able to cope with it crawling on your hand.

I find spiders fascinating by the way!

The method works for psychological fear but unfortunately my fear of heights seems to have a physiological basis, connected with the balance mechanism, so I'm stuck with it.

It means that when climbing mountains I plan my routes very carefully, to avoid placing myself on ridges with precipitous slopes to either side.

With your fear of failure, perhaps you are setting the bar too high initially. Diving in at the deep end with a full scale novel is OK for some, but if it worries you then one way forward would be to lower the bar and write some short stories as Terri did with her magazine article.

If you hope to publish a full novel then you aught to be able to publish magazine articles. When successful at that, your fear levels will be lower and you could raise the bar a little higher to write a novella or two before finally making a full scale assault on that mountain peek.

Alternatively you can simply grit your teeth and continue writing through the fear. It may be the quickest and steepest route to the summit if you have the strength and determination.

Somehow Janga, I think there is a very tough nut lying under that shy introverted facade. I expect you to be placing your flag at the summit any time soon. *smile*

Curiously I find that when climbing mountains you should always expect the unexpected.

When lost in fog you can rise above it and in an instance find yourself in a sunlit landscape of unimaginable beauty with the previous fog lingering in a valley below you.

I hope you will wave to us from that summit when you make it!

PJ said...

Very thought provoking post, Janga. Fear of putting myself "out there" ruled me for a long time but several life-changing events were instrumental in guiding me to a new perspective over the years.

My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 53. She too had been ruled by fear and I kept thinking of all the wonders of life she had missed because she was afraid.

Next, my husband died and that thrust me into doing all the things he had handled before. Having no choice goes a long way to overcoming those fears but there were still others I hadn't yet faced.

Lastly, my dad died six years ago. He received a 4-6 month diagnosis and I made many trips north to spend time with him during those four months before his death. We talked and talked and talked and what struck me was the fact that he had no regrets. He told me he had done everything in life that he wanted to, hadn't let fear keep him from trying anything new and could leave this world without regret. He urged me (over and over) to not hold back, to try new things, overcome my fear of terrorism and start traveling abroad again, broaden my horizons, put myself out there. He said, "You only get one shot at this life. Don't reach my age, look back and have regrets because you were afraid. What's the worse that can happen? If you know you've done your best, be happy with your effort. If you fail, you just pick yourself back up and try again."

Without his encouragement during those months, I doubt that I would have overcome my fear enough to return to Italy, something I'd been wanting to do for 30 years. I wouldn't have started reviewing books and I'm pretty darn sure I wouldn't have had the courage to start The Romance Dish with three friends. I would have missed so much!

Anonymous said...

Janga, I cannot tell you how moved I was that you took my advice so to heart. And all the other people who have commented here--great writers, all! Please don't do what I did and hold yourself back for 25 years. Getting it done and sending it out there is truly the most important thing. The rest is chance and luck and the alignment of the planets, or whatever. They say a book has a shelf-life of 3-6 months. So why spend years agonizing over the "what ifs" and "if onlys". Just do it. Finishing your book and being proud of that accomplishment is something that will last a lot longer than 6 months. That wonderful feeling is forever. Don't let fear make you miss it.

Janga said...

Q, I promise you that I am never going to allow a spider to crawl on my clothing or my hands. Ewww! I've also been uncomfortable with heights since I was stuck for nearly an hour (It seemed much longer) at the top of a ferris wheel when I was a teen. Metaphorically, however, I can deal with spiders and heights. LOL!

Thanks for the vote of confidence. I hope you're right.

Janga said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, PJ. Your dad's advice is wonderful. I'm so glad you dared to follow it. Not only do you provide inspiration for us cautious souls, but also had you not dared, I might have missed knowing you.

Janga said...

Thanks for visiting us, Kaki, and thanks for the encouragement. I'm going to do my best to follow all your advice.

For me, just saying "It's finished" and finally letting go is a major battle, but it's one I have determined to win this time.