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