Writing and Fear


What is fear?

Why do we fear?

I remember years back, what I feared when I walked to my high school each morning. I invariably took a route that passed by a house with an old wooden fence and a massive dog within. It had anger issues. So did I, but I was a teenager; it was expected. Every time I would walk past that house, it would run out snarling to the length of its thin line, threatening to break free and crash through the old fence that was my only barrier between us. Its bark rolled up through the bottom of my spine to the top, and added an extra hop to my step each time. I was afraid. He was hungry and I was clearly his intended next meal.

At that time, it was easy to say what I feared: The angry, blood-thirsty dog. The fear consumed me each day I had to walk past there.

Now though, the fears within are not such solid, substantial things. A friends opinion of you, how economic forecasts for the next year may affect your employment, or that the traffic jam might make you late to watch the season finale of that sit-com you’ve been following. It still lives, just under a different guise.

I love words.

I have always felt a connection with them; like an outlet for what I was thinking, or how I felt inside. When I was growing up, I read everything I could; having read more full books by the time I was sixteen, than many people read in their whole lives. I loved how these words created whole worlds complete with their populace inside my head. I loved being able to relate with characters that only existed in written word. My bookshelf grew to a second, then to a third, and has continued to grow even now.

While I enjoyed my collection, I also felt something was lacking. Asimov, Tolkien, McCaffrey, Koonts, Clancy, were but a few that sat upon my shelves. I loved each of these for their word-play, and yet knew that such a thing was beyond my writing abilities. I love words. I love finding that right word to express exactly what I want to write in that moment of time. I’m also not Tolkien.

When I would try to put words to paper, it felt like those books that I so loved were staring back down at me, waiting for a mistake to be made. I feared that somehow, the world I was creating might crumble at how inadequate my words might be. I don’t have a degree in literature, or creative writing, or any other such thing that I might feel would give me permission to write.

Yet still characters and scenes swirl around in my head. The characters interact with each other, and whole scenes play out inside my head, and I think, “Oh wow. That is a pretty good idea! I wonder how I can use that for a story.” When I sit down to write though, they don’t fall in line for me, or I can’t find the right words, or I just fear what I write might simply suck.

I work hard to maintain a positive attitude as a whole. I try to look at the bright aspects when things don’t go as planned. There is always something to be salvaged, or a lesson to be learned from what has happened. It’s a mindset that I have applied to several other aspects in my life. When you fail, you get up, learn what you did wrong, and try again. And again. Until you succeed.

I was born with a few physical deficiencies, like Cavus Foot, accompanied by Claw toes, and Rotoscoliosis. The doctors suggested I should not exert myself physically, or work long on my feet, since this would cause me pain. Instead I run in the gym every second day now, trading a little pain, for long-term health. I push through it, and endure the pain to achieve that which I set out to reach. I just can’t imagine letting myself become lethargic and lazy because of what they say. It’s just not me.

So why could I not do this when writing? What was it I feared so much?

Typically, fear is divided into two categories: physical threats, and social threats. Physical is of course things like snakes, heights, rats, tight spaces. Social includes public speaking, fear of rejection, and fear of failure. Interestingly, an fMRI machine was used on subjects to look at their blood flow, down to the cellular level while conducting fear tests[1] [2]. They illuminated parts of the brain that were active while flashing pictures of objects to them. A little chunk of the brain stem, called the amygdala, became the most active during these tests. This area sounds an alert and triggers a fear response if a danger is detected.

So knowing this, what was it I feared? Here, is the crux of the whole thing: If you’re aware of what the enemy is, you can find out how to defeat it. I feared failure. I feared starting something that I couldn’t finish. Or worse, that I did finish it, but it would fail to live up to my standards. It is true that if I never started on something like that, then I wouldn’t have to worry about any repercussions from it. Or would I? Have I not had to deal with other repercussions for the last many years because of an unsubstantiated fear? Robert Frost once wrote in a poem of his, “The best way out, is always through.” The exposure, and embracing of this fear isn’t an easy task, for anyone. Living in a house of avoidance isn’t either, and it isn’t much of a life. So for me, this means I have to change. This here, is a start for me. One step at a time, and I’ll eventually reach my destination.

One day as I was walking home from school, that dog got free of his line, and I knew the fence wouldn’t hold him either. As it bounded towards me snarling, I grabbed a rock near my feet, and set my feet to fight this creature. It wasn’t until it had come near, when I had no choice but to fight it, that I noticed he didn’t have any teeth. All it had was its bark, but no real ability to hurt me. I had been afraid for the last two years, for no reason. After that, I didn’t let that old mutt give me reason to feel fear again.

Now when the words speak to me, I listen. I will let them tell me their story, and I will try to capture it with the very words that I love. They’re not Tolkien’s words. They’re mine. I may not write as flowery, or as eloquently, but I will write. I accept that I will make mistakes and blunders, but most importantly, I will write. Zig Ziglar once said, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”

I’ve always appreciated the wisdom in those words. Now, finally, I will apply them to my writing. I will conquer that which I have feared most. I will be talking about that more in the future, but first I start by taking a few steps towards it. The characters that are in my heard, are finally being put onto paper.

This fear no longer has any teeth to me.

Matthew E. Berry

[1] http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0005865

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9620698

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