Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 24, 2014

A Recipe for Fear—and its Antidote

Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine into Gold

Fears Graphic

Fear can waylay even the most intrepid writer. Recently, I found myself in its confidence-rattling grip.

Followers of this series might be saying, What? This can’t be written by Kathryn, the relentless optimist who would never be caught whining on the Internet and who I’ve come to count on for my monthly shot of can-do attitude!

In order to be real—or “Velveteen,” as Therese Walsh called it at the Writer UnBoxed UnConference in Salem, MA earlier this month—I want to share the perfect storm of emotions I battled when I came home. Is this whining, or just a cold hard look at the life of the writer? You be the judge—but I promise to turn it to gold by the end of the post.

How to stir up a doubt-fest

Start with exhaustion. After a week of joyful interaction with a slew of new writers at the UnConference, my inner introvert needed her down time. Way down, as it turned out. Overstimulation and sleep are rarely happy bed partners. The first night I got home from the conference I slept 12-1/2 hours and couldn’t shake the resulting fog.

Add several handfuls of overwhelm. With a dream team of presenters led by Donald Maass and Lisa Cron, the UnConference prompted dozens of ideas to incorporate into my next novel, challenging everything I thought I had so far accomplished. How would I bring it all together? Even though I’m an experienced writer, I’d never traveled the path this novel needed to take. Sitting with the discomfort of not knowing what to do, and allowing a new vision to distill, is an emotionally challenging but necessary task.

Whisk in separation anxiety ’til dizzy. Before leaving for the conference I had completed all work on my second novel, The Far End of Happy. Writing under contract for the first time, I’d had all of ten months to create this important and very personal project based on my first husband’s suicide standoff—all while launching my debut. It took 17 years of climbing to gain the perspective needed to write about this life-changing event—I did it!—but the all-consuming, high-altitude effort left me reeling. And leaving it behind felt like walking off a cliff into an abyss.

Bake until dough cracks. I fervently believe that the Universe would not call me to write the book of my soul and then kick me to the curb without the tools to make it happen. But it’s one thing to trust the Universe when improving the book is still under my control, and another when my primary role is complete and the team takes over. Doubt creeps in.What if it isn’t as good as it could possibly be? What if I let my publisher down? What if, despite my fervent promotion, it never finds its audience? What if, after all these years of tilling the soil of my soul, and investing so much time and money into my writing education, this book doesn’t matter?

This wasn’t just a recipe for doubt, my friends. With these ingredients I had concocted a full-out crisis of faith.

The antidote to fear

People have been having crises of faith for as long as the human spirit has yearned to be part of a bigger, more meaningful story, and the antidote is readily available in our wisdom literature. Marianne Williamson, in her #1 bestseller A Return to Love, simplifies the issue by saying there are only two human emotions: love and fear. At the root of all negative human emotions—jealousy (I’ll never have what she has), disappointment (I’ll never be able to get what I want), and anger (I’ll never be treated as I deserve)—is always a seed of fear.

And look at all the seeds of fear I’d been feeding on! Luckily, my writing buddies helped me see this and helped me find compassion for myself—an emotion rooted in love.

Williamson suggests, as does the Bible, that love will heal our fear. And what do I love? Writing. As soon as I removed the opening scenes that weren’t working and typed my notes into my document, a resurgence of love and excitement drew me into the task.

Because I had already raised questions about my new project before overstuffed at the creative banquet that was the UnConference, hidden magic had been brewing upon my return, even during my week of despair. As UnCon session leader Meg Rosoff would have said, my unconscious mind was chewing on my problem and synthesizing a solution—and it showed up on the page when I began to write.

And once again, the same journey that led me into the dark forest of my psyche has delivered me to the sun. Through this work that I love, I am healed.

Have you ever noticed that fear cannot touch you while you are actually writing? What ingredients feed your storm of doubt? Let’s be real today. We will not whine, but share the burden of our doubts across empathetic shoulders, and try to love one another back into wholeness.

About Kathryn

Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy, out May 2015.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Website: http://www.kathryncraft.com/


Photo credit by Lorena G at Dribble.

52 comments on “A Recipe for Fear—and its Antidote”

  1. Kathryn, I love all your posts, but this one touches the heart of what I and every writer struggles with. I believe that the measure of our success (however you may determine that), lies in our ability to surmount fear.

    Every. Single. Day.

    I know that when I share my fears, people look surprised. "You?" The eternal-optimist-cheerleader with the golden-retriever-personality?

    Yes. Every single day I sit down to write is a victory over my fear. And I sit down to write

    Every. Single. Day.

    Thank you, thank you, for your honesty, and your wisdom. You are a gem.

    ps. can't wait to read that next book!

    1. Our ability to surmount fear—yes, Laura. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of honesty. Fear of vulnerability and the resulting fear of exposure—all these and everything in between. We must forge ahead anyway or we will not get our work written.

      1. A long time ago, Laura and I had a WITS Throwdown about fear. Two years ago we spoke in Atlanta at RWA National with Tessa Dare about fear. And reading your post added a new dimension-a hopefulness-about working through all the ways fear can eat away at our lives. Thank you!

  2. "Have you ever noticed that fear cannot touch you while you are actually writing?" You just blew my mind, Kathryn. Excellent post, but this. This. THIS! Thank you!

    1. Haha! Love to blow minds. Thanks Jess! But you've felt it, right? How when your pen scratches the pad or your fingers hit the keys, and the fear that had crystalized like icebergs in your veins thaw as the ideas start to flow? Bam! You are back in the game.

    2. That's exactly the sentence that roared through me, Jess! Fantastic post, Kathryn. We really appreciate you bringing your sunshine and wisdom to our readers here at WITS.

  3. Well said! Last night, while reading a book I admire, I was overwhelmed by the way simple words and easy sentences evoked complex emotions. Major world events invaded the story without firing a shot, and became part of its resonance. How can I ever do all that with my little tale?

    One word at a time, I guess. Thanks for the love. Back at ya!

    1. Aw, thanks Chris. I know what you mean about that fear when you encounter talent greater than your own. But it always juices me, in the end, so I submit to the pain over and over, lol. As a matter of fact, I read "up" when I want inspiration. Reading authors with greater skill, or a different skill set, makes me want to get right back to work.

      1. When I get frustrated or fall into the fear pit, I reach for a book by an author I admire. That always motivates me to jump back in and be better.

  4. Powerful words of encouragement, Kathryn. So much has made us the writers we are, including those holes that we've stuffed with fear-triggers. It's a constant battle, isn't it? But those words Jessica emphasized? The perfect reminder. Stave off those fears by putting fingers to the keyboard.

  5. "It's a constant battle." Well put, Normandie. We are so hard on our protagonists because we want to be able to show them rising above their problems. It makes for a great story. If we want to make of our lives a great story, we must face the inner demons every day so that we too can rise above.

  6. Thanks you for your honesty, Kathryn. Each time I sit down to write a new novel, fear creeps in, and I find myself saying,"At least I have (insert name of previous novel(s)." Each time, I have to remind myself to write anyway. To trust that my subconscious mind is looking out for me...and that next story.

    1. Lorrie it's so hard to be objective about our accumulation of experience, isn't it? Just as it's difficult to give any credence to our natural aptitudes. But they saw us this far. And should subsequent ideas not be as great, in addition to the mantra you share above, we can always say, "At least I'm pursuing my dream."

  7. It's funny how our fear can be so debilitating. This month I've been participating in NaNoWriMo, and the greatest gift I have received is that there is no time for fear. When I feel it clawing it's way into my brain, I have to slam the door on it and remind myself to just put the words on the page. I can color it in with beautiful phrases later.

    It always helps when other authors share their stories of how they battle their dragon. Thank you.

    1. Honestly Barbara (considering my debut was a NaNoWriMo mess that took me years to untangle and re-shape), I think encouraging that very workmanlike attitude is one of the best takeaways from NaNoWriMo—learning to let the writing assuage your fear. Good for you!

  8. fear cannot touch you while you are actually writing- love that, nor doubt either, which I guess is bred from fear. In the crazy act of creating you get that freedom from the worry that rushes in as soon as you finish and you have to deal with your work from the external side of creating.

    1. Shelley I always had the same fear when choreographing—often when transition in from the first creative rush to that external, more critical stance we must take to ensure our work is any good. That is a particularly rough transition but I'm not sure there's a way around it—only through it.

  9. I look forward to your posts every month, Kathryn, but this month ... wow! Just wow!

    "Fear cannot touch you while you are actually writing." To write, we have to trust ourselves - not what others are saying about us or to us, but what's deep inside. And the moment you shut out the noise, you give yourself permission to move forward.

    Thank you for this post - it's just what I needed today! 🙂

    1. Orly yay! I'm so glad. I've always thought of writer's block as cessation due to fear—and once it gets a toehold, fear sets down some fierce roots. The antidote is always "just do it."

    2. Yes Orly - with me too - every day is a leap of faith. My fear breathes in my ear "You can't." I say, "Okay." and sit down anyway. It's funny - fear is like a bully, that pushes and shoves, but the second you step around it, or push back - it runs away. It's just that, unlike a human bully, it's back the next day, and its siren call never weakens.

      I wish more writers knew that!

  10. Excellent post! This is going to touch a lot of hearts today. What makes this writer (me) most jealous is the success of those who write poorly (in my opinion.) Hard to compete with that, so I'm practicing not competing. 😉

    1. "I'm practicing not competing"—love that, Linda! We each have our own goals within our own self-defined literary worlds. I know you too well to think that lowering your standards would bring you joy or any modicum of "success." I'm not sure standards of excellence are all that disposable.

  11. Thank you, Kathryn for a very timely post. I'm plugging along with NaNoWriMo, and every time I get stuck it's because of fear. Once I remind myself that the words on the page can be improved later, and I knock those imaginary critics off my shoulders, I can proceed.

  12. Ain't it the truth: for those who write, writing is the answer. Thanks so much for this look into fear and it's solution. You have delivered your wisdom at the most perfect time. Thank you, Kathryn!

  13. Kathryn, you have a way of walking inside our heads. While you are in mine, I often stop to let the meanings penetrate the concrete barriers that years of doubt have build, one brick at a time. I came late,

    I journey with fear and doubt ... yet ... there is this secret place I find that reminds me ... better late than never. This dream is not going to happen, it is happening.

    Fear fires much of what holds us back. And in a strange way, those fires also do what nature intended ... it burns off the underbrush to reveal a new growth.

    Thanks so very much for sharing with us each month 🙂

  14. Wonderful, and timely (of course)! I love Williamson's concept of only two emotions--which is making me think about my characters productively--but I also appreciate how you broke down your own doubt into components. There were lots of very good/valid reasons for the overwhelm! And at the end of the day--or the end of the pause--it's back to the page once again, deep breath. Thank you for this!

    1. Alicia, yes—Williamson's sensibility has helped me numerous times in the way it gives depths to character emotions. Negative emotions can often come across as trite—add conflict by making your character angry!—when really we should be asking, "What is this character afraid of?"

  15. Excellent post...The only other negative emotion that I would personally add in with the others is Panic (the twin sister of Overwhelmed). I read a quote this morning from an unknown author that resonated with me and pairs beautifully with this topic. "Never give up on something that you can't go a day without thinking about."

    1. Hey there cmrtopchef, thanks for your comment. Let me be clear that I have experienced a boatload of other negative emotions, not the least of which recently was frustration—I was only attempting to give a few examples. Panic of course is fear that you will never be able to cope. This is where those trained in mindfulness meditation have it all over us "just bat the balls faster" types. Thanks so much for sharing that quote—good one!

  16. A perfect message as I venture into the unknown place of writing again. Had to quit my part-time job to see clearly that the writing itself is the work I am designed to do. Thank you for reminding me how to face those fears. Yes, I've been avoiding them for years and, not surprisingly, they haven't disappeared. Armed with new perspectives, I am ready. Thank you, Kathryn, for always being that fly on the wall in my home. How do you do it?

    1. Lisa I can do it because I've been there! It's tough to juggle financial insecurity with general creative insecurity, I know. Let your hunger drive you forward and keep the faith! While writing.

  17. Thanks so much. The fear monster shows up every day in my office and whispers that I'm a hack and I'll never complete another book. And if I do, it will be awful. It helps to know I'm not alone and to ignore the fear and doubt and write anyway.

  18. Wonderful, Kathryn and well said. It is amusing and magical that when overwhelmed, writing more--as you have done with this post--is medicine. Thanks for the reminders. And it was great meeting you at UnCon.

  19. "At the root of all negative human emotions—jealousy (I’ll never have what she has), disappointment (I’ll never be able to get what I want), and anger (I’ll never be treated as I deserve)—is always a seed of fear."

    Very interesting Kathryn. And so true. No wonder my father always preached, "There's nothing to fear but fear itself." Not an original quote I know. But so true. And we need to push through it. Then there's the doubt. It's a vicious cycle. Shoot me now! Thank you for using your own experience for a very inspiring and encouraging post! 🙂

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