Art & Fear Perspective #4: Ishta Mercurio

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photo credit: Claudia Osmond

Fear.

Such a small word — only four little letters. But it’s so big, it’s bottomless.

There is so much fear around making art. So many questions and doubts that stem from a place of fear:

What if this is bad?

What if it’s good, but nobody finds it?

What if people find it, but they don’t like it?

What if people hate it?

What if my words are met with indifference, which is even worse than hate, because at least if they hate it, I got them to feel something.

Even worse than that: what if, in a year or five or twenty, I look back on this and I realize that *I was wrong*?

What if I write this today, and everybody says I am wrong tomorrow?

What if writing isn’t even what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? What if there’s some other, untried thing out there, at which I would be effortlessly brilliant? (Okay — not effortlessly. But maybe it would, at the very least, be easier than this. Maybe it would at least pay the bills.)

What if, what if, what if. Fear, fear, fear.

And that doesn’t even get at the existential questions that keep me up at night, the figure-eight loop of self-doubt and then doubting the self-doubt, and then doubting the doubting of the self-doubt, around and around, over and under forever.

If I’m wrong but people love it, does that make it right?If I’m right, but people hate it, does that make it wrong? And anyway, if people hate it, why bother?

What if this is all a waste?

———————————————–

Recently, I had to make a decision. It was a “Do I or Don’t I” decision, the kind of decision that I knew would carry Consequences, but the consequences were hard to determine ahead of time. Fear weighed heavily on both sides of the scale.

If I did nothing, the result would be the continuation of the status quo, which was rather terrible to begin with.

If I did something, well. What was the worst that could happen? (Reader, the worst that could happen was that I would never be published again.)

And as I was contemplating this awful decision, things were happening around me: things that were out of my control, but that had a shape, the shape life takes when it’s falling apart a little bit. Crumbling at the edges, and loose at the joints.

And I thought, “Well… It looks like this is the direction things are going to go anyway. What have I got to lose?”

And I let go.

I let go of hope, a little bit. And in letting go of hope, I also found freedom from fear.

I don’t generally recommend nihilism as a healthy lifestyle choice, but in those moments of paralyzing self-doubt, it saved me. Because when nothing I did mattered, I could do anything. I could try that ambitiously great thing, because if it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t matter. Even if it did work out, and in that working out it still didn’t matter on the grand scale of things, I would end up in the same place by doing as by not doing, so WHY NOT DO? We are but specks in the great cosmos that is the Universe, after all. Our time here is short, but while we’re here, we might as well make the most of it. Nihilism turned toward darkness is a dangerous thing, but nihilism turned toward the light can be freeing.

The key was in letting go of hope only enough to embrace the possibility that if the worst happened, I would still be standing. It is in this place, at the nexus of nihilism and hope, that creativity is most free. It is in this place that the question ceases to be, “What if this goes horribly wrong?” and becomes: “Who will I even be if I don’t at least try to find the words to tell this truth?”

That big fear that this isn’t the thing I’m supposed to be doing with my life is nothing against the bigger truth that my life, like all human lives, is small, and who I choose to be within it is the only thing I can control.

And so, for today, I choose this: this pen, this paper, these words. This is who I am. This is my truth. And in embracing this truth, I leave fear behind.

ISHTA MERCURIO is the co-author of Bite Into Bloodsuckers (published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside) and the author of Small World, forthcoming in spring 2019 from Abrams Books for Young Readers. She currently resides in Ontario, where she grows vegetables, films and photographs insects, and collects stories. Find her at www.ishtamercurio.com 

 

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/