Use It or Lose It: How to Deal with Fear in Writing and Life

Spooky MoonI could write way too many words about the things that scare me. My list of fears—both writing-related and just in general life-related—could go on and on until you’d stop halfway and think, “How can one person live with so much fear?”

I’ve learned there are really only two options when faced with something that terrifies me: I can either use it, or ignore it. It’s not always easy, and I have to constantly push myself to do it, but some of the best things in my life have come from following this rule. So many things would’ve never happened to me if I’d simply run the other way.

Case in point: the way I met my husband. We were introduced by a co-worker of mine whom I’d only met three days prior. I was a shy 19-year-old at the time. I wasn’t in the habit of going out with random guys who insisted they wanted me to meet their best friend. So when random co-worker (now, best friend) asked for my phone number and said he’d call me the next day so we could all see a movie together, I had every intention of blowing him off. I had my own friends, thank you. I had a nice comfort zone going. I’d had my heart crushed a few too many times, and my wounds were fresh enough that I was scared to try opening up to someone again. And yet, when random co-worker called I surprised myself by pushing my fears aside and saying, “Sure, why not?” Turns out, my husband was stepping way outside of his comfort zone by showing up, too. That night and in the months that followed, we learned what can happen when you ignore your fears. Doing so became a blueprint for how we live our lives together.

Fast-forward to when we were two months married in early 2009. I was a “full-time” freelance writer working on my novel in Miami. I say that with air quotes because I hadn’t exactly built a thriving business. I had a separate, non-writing part-time gig that made up about 90% of my income. One day, my husband (we’ll call him E) came home from work and said: “I think I want to go back to school.” Not just that, though. He wanted to quit his job and go back to school in another state. This meant we’d be relying on my income alone. It meant that if I wanted to pick up my writing business and take it with me, I’d need to finally make it work, completely on its own.

I was terrified of failing. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to find clients or consistent writing assignments. I was terrified my novel would become a dream I never had time for, especially now that I was a sole breadwinner. We made a deal: we’ll move to Texas, E will go to school, and I’ll give myself 6 months to make freelance writing work, or else look for a “real” job.

I never did have to look for that job. My fear of failure was so strong that I ended up using it to push me in ways I never could have before. In Miami, I’d always had a safety net: my part-time job, my husband’s job, all the time in the world to write my novel. Without any of that, failure was simply no longer an option. I thought my fear would’ve been paralyzing, but instead it drove me to work harder than I thought I was capable of. I needed my fear. It became my fuel, constantly converted to energy I didn’t know I had.

So lately, as my pub date approaches, I find myself with a new set of fears: What if people don’t like my book? What if it doesn’t sell well? What if I can’t write the next one? And I have to remind myself to stop, take a deep breath, and let those fears sink in for a bit. Hell, let them take over me sometimes—that’s okay, too. So long as I figure out a way to use them or ignore them.

How do you deal with your fear?

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

22 thoughts on “Use It or Lose It: How to Deal with Fear in Writing and Life

    • Thanks, Heather! It’s not TOO consistently positive…I’ve been known to let myself mope quite a bit from time to time. But I guess what matters is that you pick yourself up, right? 😉

  1. I can really relate to this — isn’t there always something to fear? I’m always fearing that fear will paralyze me, too (but like you, it never does). Clearly the fuel is working!

    • Thanks, Julia! The other thing I’ve noticed is that fear is always at its worst before things have happened…the anticipation amplifies it. Once whatever we’re afraid of actually starts, we tend to just do what we have to do. No time to think about other things like fear!

  2. Everything about the writing journey has terrified me. I remember my first workshop experience. I was practically in spasm I shook so hard before reading my weekly exercise to the group. Same with agent one-on-ones. I must have wanted it bad to put myself through that!

    • Omg, my first agent one-on-one was terrifying. My palms were all sweaty and my voice kept getting really high-pitched from the nerves. The agent was so kind about it, though, and really put me at ease. That’s the other thing: so much of publishing is scary because we build it up in our minds. But we forget that these are our people! Book lovers and readers and writers! What’s scary about that?

  3. I love the way you push yourself to succeed by conquering your fear and the roadblocks all in one. You’ve got such an inspiring story – and it sounds like you’ve got a wonderful husband too!

    • He’s a great catch, if I do say so 😉 We’ve known each other 10 years now and what I love most is that we constantly challenge ourselves.

  4. Fear IS a great motivator, isn’t it? Well, Natalia, I think you know that I faced the exact same situation with my freelance business and my husband. Exact. I’d been full-time freelancing for only four months and didn’t have my business built up, either, when my husband came home and said, happily: “I quit my job. I want to go to school.” WOO WEE – talk about shock. But we made it work!

    • Yes! I’m still so amazed that we went through the same exact thing. That must be one of the (many) reasons that we’ve connected the way we have over the years.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Stefani! I’m so glad the post helped you look at fear in a new way.

  5. I have as much fear as anybody, in real life. What I’ve learned over the years is to just keep going anyway (in most cases).

    In writing life, I don’t have much fear. A quote from Andy Warhol had a huge effect on me when I read it: “[I]f you say that artists take ‘risks’ it’s insulting to the men who landed on D-Day, to stuntmen, to baby-sitters, to Evel Knievel, to stepdaughters, to coal miners, and to hitch-hikers, because they’re the ones who really know what ‘risks’ are.”

    That was wonderfully freeing when I read it and thought about it.

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