I forget which author it was who said that we write about what terrifies us—most likely many of them have. Until I read this phrase a few years ago, I’d never looked at my own work in that light, but it strikes me as true. My protagonist in The Dream Peddler suffers the disappearance of her only child, and this is definitely the worst thing I can imagine happening to me or to any parent.
Sometimes, we write about bad things that have already happened to us. It’s a way of processing, of healing from trauma, of moving forward with life. But sometimes we write about bad things that could happen, as a way to prepare ourselves. Even if we don’t realize we’re doing that. I wasn’t consciously trying to find out how I might possibly survive losing a child when I wrote about Evie, but I used my experience as a mother to imagine what that might feel like. I even made her son nine years old, because my own son was nine at the time I started writing. I knew what that looked like.
But writing about what scares me, or exploring awful possibilities, isn’t the hardest part of writing for me. It’s not the part that troubles me. I’m not afraid to “go there,” to reach into my deepest sorrows or fears and splatter them across a page. What really terrifies me most of the time is just sitting down and doing it. I’m afraid to begin, because I’m afraid of failing.
Back when I was an art history master’s student, I went to a fascinating talk given by Douglas Cardinal, a famous Canadian architect. He said something that stuck with me: we often avoid doing what we truly want to do because we are afraid of failure. And we are afraid of failure because it reminds us of death. Sometimes, we protect our ego by giving less than our best effort. This way, if we do fail, we can still tell ourselves that we might have succeeded if only we had really tried our best.
I’ve never been guilty of that. I tend to try my best at everything I do, and I don’t hold back. That’s just my nature. But that other thing, avoiding what we truly want to do in order to avoid failure—that struck a chord with me. Sitting in my art history classes, I wondered how I had arrived there. A big part of me went into art because I loved it and wanted a challenge. It was harder for me than writing. And I wanted access to the studios and equipment. I knew I could always write no matter what, while having free reign to use Bavarian limestone for lithography, vats of acid for etching, and expensive darkroom equipment, was a huge draw. But then I had moved from making art to studying it, analyzing it, writing about it. And I enjoyed art history, too, but I didn’t care if I failed at it. It wasn’t a passion. Writing fiction was. I wondered if a smaller part of me had been avoiding it so that I couldn’t fail at something that mattered.
I took what Mr. Cardinal said to heart. It wasn’t long after that I began writing short stories, eventually submitting some of them to literary magazines. Just testing the waters, trying to find out if I might have what it takes.
The thing that scares me now is not the first draft writing, but going back into my own work. I enjoy editing once I begin, but beginning can be hard for me. I’m still afraid of what I will find when I start reading. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, thinking hey, this isn’t as bad as I feared. But most of the time, it’s not as good as I hoped. I leave myself a lot of work to do when I draft, and facing that mess can be daunting.
I wish I were full of great advice on how to get through that moment, that initial fear, but I’m not. My method is to procrastinate by checking my email and hanging out on Twitter until I’m so disgusted with myself that that feeling actually becomes worse than diving in. Sometimes it just comes down to momentum. Once I begin to edit, then I can put it aside and come back to it and the fear lessens each time, but only if I keep up a regular pace. If I take a week off, it’s back to that awful feeling that I won’t be able to tackle the tangle of words I have to face.
I’d love to be able to tell you that I had this all sorted by the time my book sold to my amazing editor at Penguin (see my post, Letter from an Editor), but I really didn’t. Every stage of editing my beloved book completely freaked me out. I was afraid to read my editor letter. I had a mild panic attack once I did read it, and the amount of work still lying ahead overwhelmed me. I was so proud when I got through that process. Her suggestions were brilliant, and I felt like most of my changes lived up to them. But then came the copy edits. And the first pass pages.