Maybe The Best of Us

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house.  I would like to see you living in better conditions.”  ~Hāfez

We all fear something. Some of us fear more things than others. Writers, well, most of us in one way or another fear everything, for through us, our characters surmount every fear imaginable … and in the case of fantasists, some fears that are unimaginable. That, I suppose, makes us unique among our ilk. We don’t just dread the possible or even the probable, but the unlikely and worse yet … the unfathomable. It’s a wonder we get out of bed every day.

We’re not all stark raving mad. I am … but I’m sure there is a good percentage of perfectly sane human beings out there who sit for hours on end, absorbed in the surreal, who function like normal people. Who wash their sheets as often as they should. Who water their plants, and remember to feed the dogs on time. I’m just not among them.

Bear with me here … I’ll get to the writing analogy in a bit …

I’m not certifiably insane (not on paper anyway) but I have my moments of wondering. No, I didn’t have one of those moments today, but I did mention last night to my husband that it would be nice … for maybe a day or two … to just live in someone else’s shoes. To be one of those functional people. Let me be frank (I know, when am I not frank?): I live in pajamas. From what I know of civilization, that isn’t normal.

But, I’m built for this existence whether I like it or not.

I don’t want, or know how, to be anything other than what I am. If I didn’t have a shred of moral decency I’d be an alcoholic, or drug addict, or both. I’d burn my candle at both ends, and die an early death. Lucky for me, there are people who will put up with my sorry ass.

You’d think, since I fear so many things, that I’d loathe horror movies, right? Nope. Just the opposite. Can’t get enough of them. Or horror novels, for that matter. There are some really sound reasons behind this, but instead of boring you with them, let’s take an analogy from my favorite childhood hero: Why did Batman choose a bat to be his persona? Because bats frightened him when he was a child. Why do I obsess over horrific things?

Because I live with fear every hour of every day.

How does this relate to writing? And more importantly to you as an author? Easily … your fears define you.

No they don’t! 

I hear you. I get that you’ve absolved yourself of any fears you might have once had, and made peace with their lingering remains. But, hear me out for a second. Fear leads to avoidance in most cases. If the fears are intrinsic in nature, then they’ll manifest through your writing faster than you can blink. This isn’t always a bad thing. Just like Bruce Wayne, you can find a way to use them to your advantage (if you don’t know who Bruce Wayne is, then you’re no longer welcome here … I’m just saying).

Don’t think you fear anything at all? Go ‘accidentally’ touch a hot stove and tell me that again. You don’t fear it, because you avoid putting yourself in that particular circumstance. But if you were strapped to a chair, and someone was bringing that proverbial stove to you, you’d shake, I assure you. Just because we can’t confront our fears doesn’t mean they don’t affect us. Our subconscious knows these things are out there, and adjusts, whether we’re aware of the action or not. It’s sort of how a person who has recently been in a wreck will often have trouble driving right away. These things linger. For writers, whose imaginations are always on overdrive, they linger longer than ‘normal.’

Knowing what you fear will help you know how to look for it in your writing. It will help you channel that energy. This extends to everyday fiction writers just as well as fantasy-fiction writers. So, don’t think I’m ignoring you.

It will also help you to see where you’re holding onto imagined pain. For example, oftentimes writers who pen stories of great tragedy will hold onto the grief their characters feel for weeks or months after the manuscript has been completed. This can seep into our daily lives if we aren’t careful. It makes us cranky, irritable, and moody as hell. It can also leave use emotionally crippled.

Think about it. We cry at times with our characters. We get enraged with them. We feel their love, their hate and their … you guessed it … fear. Do you honestly believe that those emotions never carry over?

They do. They do. They do.

It defines us in a way … those emotions. But the strongest of them all, is fear. Why? Because no other emotion carried over has the potential to create the kind of perverse relationships that fear creates. It wreaks havoc on our sleep and our sanity. At least, it does for some of us. Maybe the best of us. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but there has to be some benefit in all of this, or what do we suffer for?

Call it depression … for what else is depression than a sort of resignation to the inevitability of fear. Call it anxiety. Call it whatever you’d like. Hemingway had a few names for it. As did Sylvia and quite a few others. Woolfe comes to mind. But whatever you do, don’t call it ‘nothing.’ It’s there. And it’s best dealt with in the daylight, while we’re all nearby. While we’re all there for each other in this rabbit hole we share as writers. In one form or another it’s taken some of us.

Maybe the best of us. But, the thing is … it doesn’t have to …

It won’t go away, not entirely, because like I said before, these things, these emotions, these fears, make us who we are as writers. But we can’t ignore them. For some, this is a relatively easy task. For others, such as myself, it’s monumental and will take the breadth of my life to fully grasp. But, there is power in a name and in a beginning. And in saying all of this openly, I’m not only laying claim to my fears, I’m bringing them into the light. And, I think, perhaps that’s the most powerful option we have as writers … community. Not to network, or share links, or whine about agents and publishers and so on … but to really fellowship with one another. Because really, at the end of the day, no one knows you like another writer. After all, we’ve not only walked in each other’s shoes … we’ve carried each other.

We’ve been carried.

Even the best of us …

15 responses

  1. Great post. Many years ago I had my first real gallery show of my paintings. It was entitled “FEAR”. One day I will post some of them. Very Dark. Never got around to the hopeful bit back then. So glad I get to now. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  2. I admire your courage in sharing with all of us your deepest self. I suffer from fairly severe anxiety myself, so I know it’s not particularly something you’d like to shout out to the world. Very few people in my life are aware to what extent anxiety cripples me in my day to day life. But as far as writing goes, this seems to be a gift of sorts. I am able to create unimaginable fear in my characters. I suppose you could call me an expert in this area. You are so right about our fears defining us. I never really thought about this before, but you’re so right on. They cause us to move through our lives according to them. It would take a tremendous amount of very deep thinking to even touch the tip of the iceberg of how deeply they create who we are at our very cores. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
    Warm Regards,

  3. Fear… what a thing to ponder. I think that you are quite right in stating that writers must fear everything in order to transfer those fears over to our characters. I guess that I had never really thought about that before, but it’s an interesting notion.
    Fear seems to be something that we tuck away, cease to talk about, and hide it under the rug… until that one fateful day that it flings back the rug, and grabs us by the toes.

    Personally, I suffer from Cartilogenophobia… which is a fear of bones. Jeepers, I’m not as bad as some people out there… but it’s a pretty insane phobia for one to have. I can’t prepare meat that has bone, I can’t touch bone handled knives, and god only knows how I’m going to react when I actually see someone’s real bones one day.

    I still haven’t actually transferred this fear into my characters at all… I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with it yet in that way… Not like Bruce Wayne.

  4. I love living in pajamas!!! And I wish I could do it more often than I do! (Did it all the time in college!)

    You’re very right and I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one out there examining, and even welcoming, my fears while writing. Great post, Breanne. Glad you can stand horror movies. I cannot. I cannot even stay in the room or house! There are some of us braver than others….

    • Leah, you make me laugh! I live in my jammies, too. Best part of being a writer is coming to work comfortable.

      You inherited my absolute terror of horror movies. Sorry, girl. I can’t stay in the same room either, though there was a mini-series I watched all the way through that was set in the San Juans. I wrote a sequel to the story (it ended oddly) because it stuck in my head and the characters wouldn’t just sit down and be wall ornaments, but seem to have hidden the notebook so can’t tell you the title of the mini-series at the moment.

      I wish there were more of those kinds of horror films where you can get involved with the characters over a longer period of time and then when they die you actually care and it’s creepier.

      Like Rod I have a breathless terror of heights, with a flashing nightmare of being hung off a tall building by my fingers while someone laughs, ready to drop me. I’m saved at the last possible moment, but the street is a thousand feet down. It’s an awful feeling.

      Writing science fiction helps face some of these fears for me. I wrote a scene where people fly out over a deep canyon strapped lightly into a chair hung on a rope. It was a lot more fun to write than I think it would be to fly in.

  5. I have an almost paralysing fear of heights. and since you mentioned Batman, if you’ve watched the dark knight- I’ve seen it a dozen times and during the opening sequence when the robbers are swinging from the window and the camera pans down so you see the POV… I pull away as if its me hanging from the ledge. ironically I write sci-fi. people flying around from planet to planet.

  6. I live in my pajamas. I love Bruce Wayne. I fear everything. I worry about everything. Most of all, I live. I think that without fear, life would be very dull indeed. It is often what drives us forward and makes us reach our full potential. You know how I feel about potential. In the end, I think writers are some of the finest human beings around because we truly do dare to live in other words, in other shoes, in fears bigger than ourselves. Perhaps that is why other writers are sometimes the only ones who can truly understand us.

  7. Fear is misunderstood mainly because many people don’t want to come to grips with its relative nature.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you of missing the point. I agree with your premise: fear is a gift. However, it is neither the strongest emotion nor the weakest. It just is what it is.
    Let me tell you the story of Lee and Beth.

    Lee was married to Carmen, a beautiful, lovely woman, both inside and out. They had wonderful children and were the perfect, happy family.

    Then Carmen got sick. Over the span of year and a half, she got worse and worse, and then she died on Christmas day, succumbing to the cancer that destroyed her from within.

    Lee moved on because he had to, but he had to embrace and master his fear of loving again, which he did. Eventually he met a wonderful woman and they had a daughter.

    My fears, and Lee’s fears, are relative. I have not experienced the fear of loss that Lee must have felt before he asked his second wife to marry him. I pray that I never do. His trials don’t invalidate mine, but they are, because that’s life, worse.

    Beth’s story is completely different. Beth started dating this guy. They went out on two dates, and then she was in a terrible car accident.

    Beth was a mess. She had to recover for a year, yet, during that time, her guy friend who could have easily walked, away, visited her every day in the hospital. He kept her company. he brought her flowers. He made sure the nurses and doctors were doing their job. He watched out for her and took care of her. When she got out he was attentive and helpful while she went through painful physical therapy.

    Beth, of course, was stunned. All they did was kiss but her guy, she realized, was a great guy. She fell madly in love with that man. One could say love was all she had left, she had been stripped of everything else. Her health. Her dignity. Her independence. But her guy loved her and she loved him.

    She married that man and gave him three children.

    Was fear Beth’s definitive emotion? Definitely not. One moment she was driving and the next she woke up int he hospital. Beth is defined by how she dealt with love. She and Lee are very similar in that they both had their trails, but Beth never experienced the raw, naked fear of loss that Lee has had, nor has Lee experienced waking up broken with only love to carry him forward.

    When you say fear wreaks havoc on our sleep and our sanity, I say no. Something happened to cause that fear. And whatever that experience was, and whatever emotion it triggered, that, and more specifically how we dealt with it, is what defines us.

    You are right when you allude that fear is a gift and that we should embrace our fears. But in the end, it’s simply a tool in the tool box. To over-emphasize it is to refuse to see its relative nature, both against other people’s fears and other feelings caused by different experiences.

    • Fear is a base emotion necessary for survival. When you said, “whatever emotion it triggered” you nailed my point on the head. It’s base. It’s foundational. And no matter what you do with it, you can’t deny its existence to begin with.

      It’s not over-emphasizing to say that as humans we have instincts and primary emotions. Fear is one of them, and from what I’ve studied, it’s the strongest of the eight. Secondary emotions, or rather, the result of those emotions, is where you start to get into love, etc.

      Here’s some basic, wikipedia summary kind of explanation of the stuff I’m talking about:

      Not everyone agrees with this theory. There are tons of folks who have spent years trying to rebuff it. But don’t flippantly disregard it. Your stories were beautiful, but as far as I’m concerned, they just proved my point when you look at them in regard to Plutchick’s wheel. Beth and Lee’s experience’s fall perfectly into alignment when you look at them as a whole, instead of narrowly focusing on the singular fear of loss. Fear is multi-facted, and so is its study.

  8. Fascinating post. I wholeheartedly agree with this: “We cry at times with our characters. We get enraged with them. We feel their love, their hate and their … you guessed it … fear. Do you honestly believe that those emotions never carry over?”

    The only thing I would add is we also LEARN from our characters. I mean, how many times have I been channeling some message (writing about that character) and had some new insight come from the telling.

    • SO true. So true. I’ve found profound faith through my characters’ experiences. That’s a sort of learning, I suppose.

  9. Such a fascinating subject, JS, thanks for bringing it into the open. Yes, of course we all have fears – just as we all have all the other emotions. Fear is one of the basic tools for survival, for if you don’t fear anything, how can you recognise a dangerous situation? It’s like pain – the person who feels no pain will certainly burn themselves in fire. The problem comes when you allow fear to rule your life. Phobia is a human invention – it’s unknown in the animal world. Sometimes they are completely irrational, like Leigh’s terror of bones. I once even heard of soemone having a phobia of buttons. Sometimes they are an extention of a perfectly rational fear, like the fear of heights. Personally, I am terrified of thunderstorms (I like to think it’s a rational fear, after all, lightning can kill you!) and I have no idea how that one began. I’m also claustrophobic, and that fear began when as a child I used to love burrowing down into the blankets and sheets on my bed. One day, my father, for a joke, sat on those sheets and trapped me. Ever since, I’ve had a morbid fear of being confined in a small space. I never – ever – take elevators!
    I also don’t like heights, and this stems from a visit to Paris as a teenager. A French student who was standing next to me on one of Notre Dame’s towers suddenly decided to throw himself off. The image of his body, falling arms outstretched to smash on the pavement below, replay itself any time I stand on a high point.
    But do I let those fears define me? No, I don’t think so. They impact on my life, of course they do, but so do my other emotions. What they do define, I think, is the way I interact with my fellow human beings. They influence how I deal with other people, how well I understand them. They prevent me from making light of other people’s fears – even the seemingly ridiculous ones. I might find it very hard to understand how Leigh can be so fearful of something as innocuous as a bone, but I’d never mock her.
    Certainly I have let my own fears color my writing. The third of my Artesan trilogies – Master of Malice – turned out very dark, darker than I ever thought I could write. But in a way it was cathartic, and although I might well be biased, I believe the writing is all the better for it.
    Fear, like any other human emotion, should be embraced and examined, rather than locked away and ignored.

  10. I don’t have as much to say as everybody else did, but I loved this post! It’s so true. I learned so much about my insecurities and fears after I wrote my novel and analyzed it as though it were something I hadn’t written, and I think it’s beautiful and mystical and magical how a lot of me is between every line of that story. Sorta like we’re giving the readers a secret window into our lives. If they look hard enough, beyond all the fiction and stuff on the page, they’ll really just see me.

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