Riding that Fear Into Battle…

portrait of the artist with unwashed laundry
Portrait of the artist with unwashed laundry by Aya de Leon

People often tell me they’re impressed with how prolific I am. Even my agent who, presumably, mostly has experience with successful authors, frequently comments on my output. But there’s a very simple explanation for it. It’s fear. I’m afraid of failing, so I work more and harder, and when I’m working I don’t feel scared.

For a compulsive eating analogy, it’s the equivalent of being the anorexic in a group of people with eating disorders. In a culture that worships thinness, the anorexics seem to have it all figured out. But in reality, they’re starving themselves to death, or rigidly controlling their eating to the point of obsession.

I suspect that some writers envy me. And fair enough. Many writers have paralyzing fears. They long so deeply for creative success and enjoyment, but feel stuck. So if all of us writers have painful fears, at least it would be convenient to have the kind of fears that push you to get work done. And it is convenient, but only as far as the work is concerned. As far as work/life balance? Not so much. I have what peer counseling leader Cherie Brown calls “scared-active,” when one’s personal fears translate into frantic activity.

It’s funny, because when I’m writing, I don’t feel scared or anxious or anything. I’m able to be in the moment—the moment of thinking and writing. My brain is at peace. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Compare that to, say, cleaning the house, paying bills, decluttering my desk, or organizing my to do list. All of those things make me feel anxious, bored and restless. So I do the absolute minimum to get by in those areas…and it shows. Of course there are workaholic types who take this to the absolute pathological extreme. Who neglect their children, don’t brush their teeth, or have no social life. That’s not me. And then of course, there are men. Some of them act just like I do, and they have wives to do all the cleaning and parenting plus pay the bills…

But regardless of the external situation, the internal one is the same. Underlying this fear is fear of failure. In my writing life, it has attached itself to different things over the years: fear I would never get an agent, fear the book wouldn’t sell. Now it’s attached to fears about the debut. Not so much that people won’t like it (either they will or they won’t) but fear that I won’t have done everything I possibly could to ensure its success and that’ll screw up my big break. That if it doesn’t sell well, it’ll be my fault. So I become a frantic whirlwind of activity to try to cover all the bases and work all the angles to make it go well.

Fortunately, I have people who reel me in. My agent, who put a stop to the fourth additional book I proposed while I was going crazy on submission. More recently, I’ve been interviewing freelance publicists, and one of them wisely reminded me to focus on efforts that will actually sell books, not just random activities and accomplishments.

So obviously one of the downsides of this pattern is wasted energy for things that don’t actually support the main goal. And then, of course, there’s the exhaustion and lack of self care, cluttered house, an occasional bounced check. Or the fact that I’ve been wearing the same pair of flip flops since I bought them from REI in May (with the exception of the days I manage to go walking or when I wore cute sandals for a gig). But the biggest downside of this is the fact that I have a hard time celebrating the important accomplishments. The scared-active pattern just moves on to the next frantic activity.

Gradually, particularly since I sold the book, I’ve managed to slow down a bit and enjoy my life, especially when I’m with my family. Maybe I need to change my twitter location to “smelling the roses.” Anything to remind me that life is good.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. Now THIS is a fear to which I can TOTALLY relate! I keep thinking, “What else can I be doing? What else should I be doing?” It’s a nerve wracking feeling as we go into this virgin territory of debuting!

  2. “But the biggest downside of this is the fact that I have a hard time celebrating the important accomplishments. The scared-active pattern just moves on to the next frantic activity”–I deeply relate to this. I am always on to the next thing to worry about, and have the hardest time taking in the fact that This Is Happening.

  3. I’m with you, Louise. I never take time to celebrate. Oh, I did drink an entire bottle of champagne when I got “the call” from my agent. But the next day, I was already worrying about what would happen next, researching editors, etc. We should all promise ourselves that we will do more celebrating when good things happen. And more wallowing when bad things happen. Both are equally healthy when done responsibly!

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