Making Space for Fear

I’ve spent most of my life afraid of writing. But I didn’t start out that way.

When I was a kid, I made up stories all the time. I wrote a short book about a girl rescuing a tiger cub from poachers. A play about a group of friends searching for buried treasure. Lots and lots of Star Wars fan fiction. I didn’t care what anyone thought of it, I was writing for myself – to entertain myself, to express myself, and (I realize now) to distract myself from the stress of my home life. My parents went through a messy divorce when I was in middle school, but the stress had been there all along – in their strained relationship, my father’s perfectionism and passive aggression, the crushing guilt generated by their religion. I was afraid of a lot of things as a child, but writing wasn’t one of them. It was my escape from fear, the place I went when I couldn’t handle real life.

Then as a teenager I, like most teenage girls, started to care a lot more about what other people thought. I still wrote (mostly bad poetry about the obsessive crush I had on my friend’s goth older brother), but it wasn’t the same. It felt like a dirty secret, something I had to hide. As a kid I’d proudly show my stories to other people (I even harangued some of my school friends into performing the aforementioned treasure hunt play; directed by me, of course). But as a teenager, I would have been mortified if anyone saw my work. I hid it in notebooks and folders buried on my computer. I didn’t talk about it anymore.

In college, I was a little more open about my interest in writing. But perfectionism had well and truly taken hold of me by then (as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her brilliant book Big Magic, “perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified”) and so much of the joy of writing had drained away. I dabbled with plays and short stories and first chapters of novels, but never finished anything of substance. The most substantive writing I did in college was actually blogging. I had a Xanga journal (showing my age…) where I shared – overshared, really – my thoughts and feelings and opinions. Reading it now is painful; I would be terrified to spill that kind of raw unfiltered emotion publicly on the Internet today, but somehow it didn’t scare me then. And as much as it makes me cringe, I’m grateful to that self-indulgent blog, because it kept me writing, through so many years when my perfectionism held me back from creating what I really wanted to.

I’d always been interested in writing novels. But the idea scared me so much, I had to sneak up on it. I couldn’t admit, even to myself, that it was something I wanted to do. The turning point happened in 2012, when I was visiting a friend of mine who’s an exceptionally talented writer; we went to college together, and while I was messing about with my blog and a few overwrought one-act plays, she was finishing multiple manuscripts. I’d beta-read a few books for her, and she was telling me about some others she had planned, and I got up the courage to tell her about an idea for a book I’d had. My chest pounded when I said it out loud, and I immediately followed it with, “I know it sounds stupid.” My friend looked me right in the eye and said, “I don’t think it sounds stupid.”

That was the permission I needed. Before I came home from our visit, I’d decided to try National Novel Writing Month that year. I was still telling myself it was just for fun, no one ever had to see my work, I didn’t want to be a professional writer or anything, because that’s what I needed to believe in order to go through with it. But something shifted in me during that fateful November. Meeting my word count goals for NaNoWriMo forced me to push past the perfectionism and get words down on the page. More words than I’d ever written before, than I ever thought I could write. I knew what I was writing wasn’t very good, but I was writing. The fear was still there (it still is now, to be honest) but it didn’t control me in the same way. Instead of using writing to escape fear, or using fear as an excuse to avoid writing, I was writing alongside my fear, hand-in-hand.

To quote Elizabeth Gilbert again: “if I want creativity in my life – and I do – then I will have to make space for fear, too.”

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Layne Fargo

Layne Fargo is a thriller author with a background in theater and library science. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, a member of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

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