Fear- The Ugly Cry

This is not one of those inspirational posts that talks with sanitized optimism and comfort about golly gee we all have fear and it’s important to overcome it. No, I’m going to talk about my own fear, my specific and ugly fear, and show you all the snot and the blotchy face and the sobbing. I’m baring my soul so I can have the cathartic experience and perhaps move on.

I’m afraid of starting new projects. I think I’ve gotten to a placid feeling in my life of having plenty of projects due – book contracts or school assignments or story requests – that I have gotten lazy. Nine years ago I had no audience, no readers, and I thought, hey, let’s do this podcasting thing. A project that had no money, no reward, just This Might Be Fun. And it was.

I don’t think like that anymore.

In my own defense, if I have a contract, it takes precedence. I shouldn’t blow off school work when I get a wild idea. But you know what? Right now I’m between contracts. I’m about to graduate from school. I have limitless potential. And I’m fucking terrified.

  • I’m afraid of failure.
  • I’m afraid of succeeding and not knowing how to handle it.
  • I’m afraid there are more eyes on me than ever and I’m open to more criticism.
  • I’m afraid of starting something and fizzling out and slinking away, ashamed. That’s probably the biggest one, the fear of my own lack of motivation.

I know that everything I say on I Should Be Writing is true – that you have to put fears in the Happy Box, that you have to strangle the Inner Editor, that you have to understand that failure, rejection, criticism, none of those will kill you. You can look at authors and other creatives who have tanked their careers (I often marvel at Hollywood in this case) and then five or ten years later rise from the ashes like the phoenix, stronger and better and more popular than ever.

But that stuff is hard to internalize. I feel its truth when I’m saying it on the show, but during the dark times, when I’m not podcasting, when i’m sitting here going AH GAWD I AM A FRAUD AND EVERYONE WILL FIGURE IT OUT ANY TIME NOW, that’s when I’m not on the mic, and I’m not saying the truths, and it’s when I need to hear it the most.

So this is my baring of the soul, the open look at the ugly cry. The truth is I’m so damn afraid of every project I have in mind. It is still hard to look at feedback and critique as helpful instead of “THIS IS DRIVEL QUIT NOW AND GO BACK TO MAKING COFFEE FOR A LIVING.” It’s hard to look at failed projects and think, “OK, what did I learn from this?” instead of “FAILURE MEANS I SUCK AND SHOULD QUIT.”

My subconscious always speaks in all caps. Little punctuation. I know it’s annoying, shit, I live with it every day.

When I’m feeling low, I can’t even look at successes without seeing downsides. I’ve written every day for 393 days? Well, somewhere around July I stopped hitting my big daily wordcount goal (which was something like 600 a day) and went back to hitting minimum 250. Sometimes I do more, but I haven’t been able to work up a good streak of writing over 500 words a day. I won an award? Well, that was for potential. I can easily not live up to THAT expectation. I got a book deal? Great, but those books are done and finished. What is in the future for me?

The absolute worst part of the fear is that when I speak them or write them down, they sound illogical and whining.

I don’t feel like I have the right to have these fears.

I did have a well-received book, I did win an award, I am about to graduate with my MFA. My career is going great. The answers to these fears are clear and obvious.

Airing these fears makes me feel ashamed. But I don’t feel as if I can work through them if I let them fester, so here they are.

I’m afraid nearly all the time. I hold back creatively nearly all the time.

It feels hypocritical since I give advice to deal with this stuff. But that’s one reason I give the advice; the problems of writers are so obvious to me because I feel them all the time. I don’t know if it will make you feel any better, knowing you’re not alone if you feel this way. It could make you feel worse since you might hope that these things go away once you get a book deal/the book comes out/you win an award. For me, they didn’t.

You know when you’re walking down the street and you stumble and flail like an idiot, and you look around and see no one saw, you have that sense of relief that kind of washes over the embarrassment? That’s being a new writer and writing something that doesn’t work. Doing a project that no one cares about. Getting a rejection. Yeah, you stumbled, and that can be disappointing, even disheartening but who cares? No one saw.* Try again. Next time you won’t be as likely to stumble.

The thing is, when you have eyes on you and you stumble, well, it’s a little more embarrassing.

If only we all had the humor and strength to deal with it as well as Jennifer Lawrence did.

And so, now that more eyes are on me, I’m terrified of stumbling; I have held back. And my cold logical stern mind says yeah, but if you don’t walk anywhere, you don’t go anywhere. You take the risk of stumbling when you take that step. And the rewards are worth that risk, dammit.

So there is my ugly cry. I’m afraid of new things. And I’m airing this on New Year’s Day to be cathartic and hopefully push me into realizing that these fears, while very real, are also very stupid, and I need to just create and get it done and over with, and move on. 2004 Mur would be appalled if she saw how I hold back today. We don’t want to appall our past selves.

Now, to create.

Happy New Year!

* And if you’re thinking, “THE EDITOR SAW, MUR!” I promise you, it’s rare the editor formed any opinion about you when they rejected you. They probably didn’t even register your name, unless they’ve seen it many times before. And EVEN THEN you’re still a new writer, and all new writers are expected to submit and be rejected. It’s part of the process. You see it as huge,** that the editor is singling you out to reject you, while you’re just a part of the process to them. You can see this as a positive or a negative. I try really hard to see it as a positive.
** And it is huge. I remember the sting of rejection, and still experience it. But there’s the sting of rejection and the humiliation of public failure, two different feelings, two horrible things.

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6 Responses to Fear- The Ugly Cry

  1. Graydon Saunders says:

    Fear is not subject to moral judgement.

    Actions are subject to moral judgement, but feelings? Not even a little.

    All harm is in the future. Because the future is vast, any even slightly thoughtful person can postulate an equally vast set of plausible harm that could happen. If it all happened, it would indeed be crushing. (When even lots of it happens, yeah, it is crushing.)

    Thing is, you can’t know. Nothing about the future is certain.

    If you’re stuck with the kind of brain that insists on thinking of all these things — someone could give Stalin a balrog, they could! — it doesn’t help to yell at your brain for being defective. This just makes your brain surly and displeased, and it mutters at you about lack of forethought and planning and a due respect for consequences.

    So, well, what’s true?

    It’s unlikely. That’s true. (any given instance of harm is unlikely.)

    Pretty much everything is easier than you think it is. (With a brain like that? Oh yes it is true. “Lots of things can go wrong” is not the same “all these thing will go wrong” and guess which one your brain is in favour of worrying about?)

    Feels arise from real things. If you’re insisting that the rewards are worth the risk, somewhere, something down in there is feeling hurt and panicky for a reason. It’s probably not a material-logic reason, but it’s a reason, and it’s real, and could likely do with being addressed on its own terms.

    And, just as a general obnoxious platitude, preferring who we’re supposed to be to who we really are is a bad thing when we do it to ourselves, too. A narrative of particular success is narrow, and will not be achieved. (It won’t. It’ll be some other success, and it won’t match the expectation, and the discontent lingers like the angry ghosts of slaughtered cabbage harvests that are stuck in your nasal passages.)

    Narrative by constraint — effort, honesty, fair dealing, stuff like that — works a lot better because the problem’s so much simpler than hitting some single tiny pathway of success in a future you don’t in any way control.

  2. Tim Niederriter says:

    I’m really glad you posted this, and especially today of all days.

    I’ve been gearing up to tackle my projects again after the holidays, and a lot of little fears have sneaked into my head. Good to know I’m not alone.

    Happy New Year, Mur!

  3. Jim Kelly says:

    Just so you know, you’re not alone. We all have it. The Fear. It doesn’t go away when you get the cover of your favorite magazine, or when your story gets into a best of the year or when you get nominated for an award. The Fear is part of the deal. I know I had my career turned up to 11 back in 1990, but what have I done for me lately? I think everybody loses it eventually, maybe it’s happening to me. Now. And that’s why I can’t get my butt in the chair. I was talking to Connie Willis a couple of days ago — Connie Freaking Willis — and she was saying that as she was telling her daughter the plot of her new novel that it sounded awful. Just terrible. I told her she was crazy and Connie acknowledged that it was so. She knew the book wasn’t bad and that she could fix what wasn’t working. But The Fear! The Fear.

    As your trusted adviser, here’s what I have to say. Writing is scary hard. And just plain scary. That’s why only some of us can do it right. It’s a curse and a blessing. Your job is to find the balance.

  4. remerian says:

    This fear is what Steven Pressfield describes as Resistance. (With a capital R.) He wrote several books about Resistance, which he describes as the destructive force in each and everybody’s mind / soul, that wants to hinder and sabotage us.

    After reading some of his books and several of his blog posts, I suppose that your fear (or the fear of any artist) is a very good sign: the more you are afraid (and thus attacked by your own Resistance) the more important and valuable is the work in progress.
    Because Resistance wants you to fail and the greater your work in progress, the harder it fights.

    Every time I start to doubt my work and myself, I read one of his books (most often “The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle”) and remind me that all my doubts are a sure sign that I (probably) do valuable work and that I can (and should) become and create as good as I possibly can.
    It is like working out: you know it is good for you & your health and you are going to be glad afterwards, but it is seldom easy to put on your running shoes and start training.

  5. Jezz de Silva says:

    Like every other honest person in the world, I battle fear everyday. For me it was the fear of confrontation and standing up for myself and my loved ones. After decades of punishing my body and mind with every form of training I could find I realised one simple truth, everyone is insecure, everyone doubts themselves, and everyone is scared. Successful people do it anyway.

    Success for me is not related to fame, money or power, it’s being able to look yourself in the mirror and say you had the courage to follow your dreams and give it a go.

    Happy New Year to you and all the fabulists. You are not alone : )

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