Art and Fear Perspective #3: Anna Humphrey

Writing in a Big Loud Voice

For me, writing has always been closely related to fear. Specifically, a fear of being noticed, and by extension, being judged.

I was a super-shy kid, who grew into a timid teenager, who became an apprehensive adult. I have close relatives who barely heard my voice before my 20s. But even though I didn’t speak up, from the time I could put pencil to paper, I was never silent. When I wrote, I had a big loud voice.

It started with a grade school play.

I was in second grade and we’d just finished putting on the Christmas pageant. Something about Santa Claus and a train. I was too meek for a speaking part. Instead, I rang a bell in the back row of the chorus—but I remember being wowed by the script. How could a pile of papers turn into sets, costumes, lights, characters? A whole story-world on stage?

It wasn’t long after that that my teacher, Mlle Desmarais, caught me writing a script behind my math book. Luckily, she understood quiet kids. Instead of scolding me—which would have made me fold inward like a dying leaf—she asked me to finish it later and bring it to show her. Then she went one big step further: she had the class put it on. That changed my world.

It wasn’t a great play: basically a rip-off of the Grinch who Stole Christmas, but about Easter, and in French. But there were costumes brought from home. There were sets painted on butcher paper. A few classes of big kids even showed up to be the audience. “Le Grinch de Pâques” came to life, and I didn’t need to say a word out loud to make it happen. From then on, writing became my way around fear.

Eventually, I found myself naked on the page.

I was lucky to go to an arts high school with a creative writing program. Bit by bit, along with a small group of peers, I worked up to sharing my writing and letting myself be seen and known through it—although I still didn’t speak much, except to close friends.

Then toward the end of high school, I entered a writing contest for teenage girls. It was a big one. The winning entry would be published in Chatelaine Magazine. The topic was body image. I remember sitting in my bedroom working on my submission, wondering what would happen if I dared to write about myself as honestly as I could.

My piece was called Self-Portrait of an 18-Year-Old Girl, Inside Out. It was an essay about my body as I saw it—all of it. I wrote about my breasts with no regard for who might read it. I talked about salsa dancing with a Latin boy who helped me see how beautiful I could be when I moved. I confessed to starving myself on a diet of plain rice. I talked about a sexual assault I’d never told anyone about and felt deeply ashamed of. I won the contest, and it was both thrilling and terrifying.

I opened myself up to criticism.

It was more terrifying than thrilling, to tell the truth—which was maybe why I eventually moved on to the safer-feeling ground of fiction. At least that way I could hide behind the characters and pretend that the things that drove them didn’t also drive me. All the same, the fear didn’t leave.

Writing is a very private activity; publishing is intensely public. I was 29 when my first book came out. I’d poured years worth of time and all of my heart into it and now there it was—finally on shelves. I waited to be judged. And I was judged.

There’s a graph you can watch on the Amazon author’s portal that shows your sales hourly. I hovered over it for weeks, feeling my self-worth surge and fall with each spike and valley. There are websites where you can find reviews written by readers. The first one I ever saw gave my book one star, with a comment “Don’t bother.” Some reviews were kinder—even glowing. (I don’t remember much about those ones.) Others said it was okay, but they didn’t like a certain character or the ending. I doubt it occurred to any of those reviewers that the author would read their opinions—or care—but I did care. Deeply. And I felt gutted, personally insulted, and lost. I really wanted to quit.

Writing has brought me full circle to face my fears.

But, eventually, a funny thing happened: I’d been judged through my writing, and some people found my words lacking, and some didn’t… but I didn’t stop doing it. In fact, I couldn’t stop. Writing had become my way of life. And although being judged brought me down low, it didn’t push me all the way under. After awhile, I stopped checking those websites and watching that graph. I learned I couldn’t please everyone, and that was okay. I was never meant to.

I’m learning why speaking up matters.

These days, I’ve been doing school visits and public presentations. It doesn’t come naturally. My inclination is still to hang back and stay silent… but an unexpected thing happens when you write books for kids: people assume you’ve got inspiring things to say to them. The first few times I stood at the front of a room full of students, my heart beat double time. I felt like an imposter.

But gradually, I’m finding my way. I don’t try to hide who I am. I tell the kids about being shy; the story about the school play and Mlle. Desmarais. I talk about how writing gave me a voice. I try to show them that I struggle, just like them.

I don’t always know if I’ve managed to reach the quiet kids in the room, but yesterday, just as I was leaving a class, a little girl in a pink dress tugged at my sleeve. She spoke so softly. Even though I could see how much courage it had taken her the first time, I had to lean down and ask her to repeat what she’d said. “I like writing stories too,” she whispered, then she hugged me. It was one of those moments of connection that can be few and far between as an author, but I know now: it’s worth walking through my fear a hundred times over to reach another kid like that.

ANNA HUMPHREY is the author of several books for young readers including the Clara Humble series, Mission (Un)Popular and Megabat (forthcoming from Tundra Books). She lives with her family in Kitchener, Ontario. You can find her at www.annahumphrey.com

Art and Fear Perspective #2: Kate Blair

Art and fear are inseparable. If you aren’t at least a little afraid, you’re not pushing yourself to where you need to be. Art is taking risks. Art is sharing, and art is exposing yourself. Art can help you face your fears, it can help you to work through them, and come out the other side.

I’m going to a book club filled with friends soon, to discuss my first novel, Transferral. Obviously, I’m scared as to whether they like it or not, but my fears run deeper than that. All writers know that when you write, you’re spreading your thoughts – conscious and unconscious – all over the page. You can’t help but reveal your hidden biases, your secret beliefs about how the world works, and how it should work. You’re inviting someone into your head and letting them have a walk around. What if they are disgusted by what they find in there?

Or even worse, what if no one cares? What if you spend years writing your next book, produce something that resonates with your soul, and no one wants to publish it? I remember, when I started writing Transferral, after failing to sell my first novel, my father said to me “Oh, are you still doing that writing thing? Don’t you think you’d be published by now, if you were ever going to be?”

I was tempted to give up. I was embarrassed that I’d spent so much time writing with nothing to show for it, nothing that anyone else wanted to read. It is easier, safer, not to invest yourself, not to throw yourself into something. You can’t fail and humiliate yourself if you don’t try. But you can’t succeed, either.

You can’t avoid fear. It will always be a part of your mental garden. It’s a weed that springs up all over the place – a prickly, painful thing to confront. Sometimes you’re too tired, too overwhelmed to deal with it, so you let it have a few inches. But it grows quickly. It fills the space around you with barbs and thorns. It can shrink your life down to a tiny sliver, a corner that you’re afraid to step out of.

This happened to me, after having my children. The weight and terror of being responsible for them caused me to retreat. I went from being someone who traveled the world alone and wasn’t afraid to jump out of a plane to someone who was terrified of taking my kids to the park down the road.

Writing helped me face those fears. Tangled Planet, my second novel, is all about fear: the fear that my protagonist feels for the new planet she has arrived at, and the end of her old life. I wrote it because it felt like I was also adjusting to a new world, a world where everything looked familiar, but held unseen risks; so that’s the problem I put in front of my protagonist. Making my character wrestle with the fact that that complete safety does not exist helped me to do so, too.

Fear is the key to writing your best stories. What terrifies you? What is the one thing that you cannot look at without flinching? That’s what you should stare down, and stick to the page. That’s what you should struggle with, until you find an honest answer – not a convenient one.

You must not look away. As I said, you’re letting your readers into your head, so you’d better have something worthwhile to show them. When you face your fears in your art, you’re inviting your audience to do the same. You owe them honesty and truth. Good art is a sword you can share, one we can all use against the encroaching fear.

Writing is terrifying, but so is life. They work well together.

KATE BLAIR is the British-Canadian author of Transferral, a Young Adult novel about an alternate version of the UK where criminals are punished by having the diseases of the innocent transferred to them. Transferral was optioned for television and nominated for the 2017 MYRCA, Snow Willow and Sunburst Awards. Kate’s second YA novel has just been released in Canada and the US. Tangled Planet is about the crew of a generation starship who have just reached their destination, only to find that a killer may lurk in the alien forests of their new home. You can find her at http://www.kateblair.com

Art and Fear Perspective #1: Bev Katz

Do I have anything to say about art and fear? Oh, hahahahahahaha, let me count the ways.

No seriously, let me count the ways. Here is just a small selection of fear-based thoughts I have before, during, and after I write, any one of which could completely paralyze me and keep the thing from ever being written or sent out:

This idea is dumb, not genius–despite what I thought in those glorious first few seconds/minutes/hours/days after I thought of it.

Okay, this idea might be good, but other, more accomplished writers have already dealt with it, and way more effectively than I ever could.

And it’s pretty egotistical to assume I have something new to say on this topic. (Who do I think I am?)

Obviously, since it took me four hours to craft the first two sentences, it’s just not meant to be. (How did I ever do this? What if I can’t ever do it again?)

This idea was sparked by something that happened to me IRL. And even though, for dramatic purposes, that thing has morphed into something entirely different and taken on a life of its own, somebody might think it’s about them. Defs not worth all that potential upset…

…especially since it’s a steaming pile of crap, anyway. I’m a third of the way through now and it is not working. What if I spend months writing it and nobody wants it?

I could send it to my critique partner, but she’d probably just wonder how I could write something so bad. She’s been nominated for a frickin’ GG! (Hi, Danielle.)

Once I have a rough draft, I could run it by one of my editors, but they’ll probably just wonder how I could write something so bad.

And if I send it to them too early, I run the risk of having them turn it down.

And then I’ll have to send it out to a ton of other editors, who will also reject it…

(Rejection is hard, especially for sensitive writer types, and there’s so damn much of it in this biz…)

Even if somebody–who obviously doesn’t know what they’re doing–publishes this steaming pile of crap, the reviews will be terrible.

And then everybody will know I’m a fraud.

Sure enough, oh, look, there are a hundred one-star reviews on Goodreads…

Wait a minute—are these by Trump supporters? Is it my Jewish last name? (0r, um, my occasional anti-Trump posts on social media?)

The traditional review outlets have either panned or ignored my book.

Oh no, my editing clients are going to see all this. Why would they trust me to help them with their books? My editing career’s gonna go down the toilet…

My kids are gonna see this too. And think their mom’s a loser.

Their mom is a loser.

Sales are crap. No way any publishers will touch me in the future.

And if they do, they for sure won’t put big resources/a marketing push behind me.

My career is basically over.

What am I gonna do now? Why did I ever leave that in-house editing position decades ago? Oh yeah, cuz I’d published my first novel the year before and thought my writing career was made. Hahahahahahahahahahah. And now I’ve been out way too long to get an in-house position. I’ve always been super frugal, but now I’ll actually have zero money coming in and I’ll have to live on the streets, under a bridge…

Well, okay, maybe not. I might still get the odd editing gig, the odd book contract. But my career will never hit that next level. I’ll never be on a list or nominated for an award or get invited to speak to school kids or at conferences. (And even if I do get speaking gigs, they’ll know I’m a fraud. Also, I won’t be nearly as interesting/informative/entertaining/witty/charming as all those other speakers…)

Are people talking about me? I’m pretty sure people are talking about me. About my pathetic, so-called writing career.

Yeeeaaaahhh.

Like I said, that’s just a teensy selection of the bajillion and one fears I have to beat away with a metaphorical broom every single damn time I write something.

It’s almost funny, really.

Almost.

No, it is funny just how many opportunities there are during the writing/publishing process to let fear get the best of us. Yeah, us. Though sometimes I convince myself I’m the only one feeling or experiencing these things, deep down, I know I’m not the only one. Okay, not even deep down. I often meet and commiserate with author friends, so I actually know other writers have to constantly battle all these fears, too. It’s part of the game, baby.

I also know that I—and all my friends—are effing champs for powering through these shitty fear-thoughts every damn time we write something. Honestly, it’s a damn miracle any of us gets anything written, ever. And here’s a notion: I think feeling fear can actually be a good sign, especially in those early stages. It’s a sign that you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, doing something different. The payoff could be huge!

Oh, but the risk—

JUST SHUT UP NOW

THE END

BEV KATZ is an editrix and author whose hobbies include dancing, hiking, and smashing the patriarchy. Her upcoming middle grade novel Who is Tanksy? comes out in Fall, 2019. More about Bev at http://bevkatz.com/

The Countdown is On!

Only sixteen more days until the first official blog post goes live, here, on REAL TALK.

If I were a visual artist (or, organized enough to have asked one to help out) I would have created an enticing trailer for the posts you are about to read. But, since I am neither of the above, what I can offer is a bit of a teaser in the art form I am most comfortable with: Words …

The first topic we’re going to tackle is Art and Fear. You’ll get real talk from Bev Katz, Kate Blair, Anna Humphrey, and Ishta Mercurio on their experiences with facing their fears with, about, and through their art. I’m betting there will be many “me too,” moments as you read their stories.

Next up will be Leah Bobet, Josiah DeWit, Cheryl Rainfield, and Jo Karaplis sharing their personal experiences with Rejection. Each perspective is real, vulnerable, and relatable. Jo will share a different angle on this topic, as one who has been on the receiving end of the dreaded “slush pile.” She’ll give you a peek behind the curtain; a perspective we don’t often get the chance to see.

Then Bev Katz, Andrew Tolson, Andrea Mack, Kari Maaren, and Melanie Fishbane will get real about Dry Spells; what it’s like to be in the middle of one, what they’ve done about it, and what their times in the creative desert have taught them.

Later topics will include: Switching Gears, The Creative Process, The Inner Critic, Imposter Syndrome, and Art and Faith. You won’t want to miss any of them! See the Contributors tab, in the menu above, for a full list of Creatives who’ve volunteered to share their stories.

Tons of REAL TALK by real people coming up, offering opportunities to connect and relate on matters that affect us all, as we carve out our creative paths. Hope you’ll join our virtual meeting space, to find community and relationship among like-spirited people.

Looking forward to linking arms,

Claudia

The REAL TALK Begins

Hey, Creatives! Have you ever felt like no one gets you? Like you’re alone in what you think/do/experience/feel/perceive? Like all the non-creatives in your life just don’t understand — just. don’t. get it?

On the flip-side, have you ever felt like someone gets you? Like, really gets you? Have you ever had that, “me, too!” moment? That moment when you realize you’re not alone in whatever it is that you’re thinking/doing/experiencing/feeling/perceiving? Well, that’s the purpose of this blog. It’s designed to be a space where you can feel like you’re not alone in this thing we call the creative life. It’s designed to offer REAL TALK on issues that affect a great number of artists.

REAL TALK. It’s something we want. It’s something we need. It’s something we crave.

I’m fortunate to be part of two amazing groups: One is specifically a Toronto area middle-grade/YA writers and illustrators group; the other is a mixed artists’ collective. Both of these groups are built on REAL TALK and offer opportunities to give and receive support, encouragement, solidarity, commiseration, understanding, camaraderie, advice, feedback, friendship … the list goes on. My interactions with these people prove to me that we’re not meant to do life alone, let alone try to navigate a creative life alone! There is much to learn (and much comfort to be had) from others’ experiences, so I want to share some of their voices with you.

This blog is being built from a compilation of real-life stories, dealing specifically with issues regarding the creative life. You’ll hear from writers, actors, visual artists, singer/songwriters, and performing artists. Topics that will be covered include:

rejection

creative block

the inner critic

day job/art balance

family life/art balance

the creative process

dry spells/replenishing yourself

art and fear

art and faith

finding/making time to create

making a living as an artist

creative bliss/when things actually go right

and many more …

The plan is to hear different perspectives from different people on each of the topics, creating a bit of a mini-series for each one. Some perspectives might be in opposition, some might echo one another. Either way, all perspectives are valuable and offer greater opportunity for understanding, personal growth, and connection. New posts will generally appear once a week, and will allow you to comment and interact with the author. It’s my hope that we can make our vast artists’ world feel a bit smaller, tighter, and more connected.

Being an artist is hard work. Sometimes, simply reminding ourselves that we are artists is hard work. It’s true that we all have our individual journeys to take, but it’s always good to know there are fellow travellers on the road beside us.

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photo credit: Silk Kaya Photography

I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap. — Ani DiFranco

Hope you join us! Looking forward to linking arms with you.

Claudia

*Blog content launching May, 2018*

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