The nablopomo prompt for today is another from Ricki Lake: I was terrified to go on DWTS, but facing my fear and overcoming it has been an incredible experience. Have you faced fears and overcome them?
There’s another prompt that my friend Ellen offered me recently: What would you write on a piece of paper that you were going to burn immediately after writing?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about facing fears in writing, and fears of writing. What are the places I’m afraid to go in my writing, and how do I push into and through those edges, write anyway? There are pieces of my own story that I never write, never talk about, never engage. They sit, still, bulbous, inside me, and I’m afraid of what will happen when I attempt to find language for them. Will I be up to their tellings? Will I be able to find the right words? Will it be too overwhelming for me?
The more I live into those questions, the bigger the wolf gets for me — right? Whatever the task, the more I avoid that task, the scarier it looks. Always. And then, nearly every time, when I actually just let myself take it on and do it, I find that 1) I am capable and can handle it (or can ask someone to help me, who is willing to do so), and 2) that it wasn’t as bad as I’d built it up to be. Mostly right now I’m thinking about my taxes. But there’s also this little business about writing something that terrifies me.
What do we do with the writing that we both want and don’t want, with the stories that we need and that we don’t want to commit to the page? What happens with these stories that scare us?
Dorothy Allison talks about the importance of writing in/to our fear, that what we’re afraid of holds an awful lot of energy, and that energy will emerge on the page, will transmit to the reader, will bring the story alive. We have to be willing to go directly into what terrifies us. That will bring us naked on the page. We can use that energy, the energy of our fear, to bring the writing vivid and alive for the reader.
We pay attention to what we’re afraid of, don’t we? I can tell you how my stepfather’s face looked when he was getting angry, when he was shifting from Fine to Fucked-Up. I remember the nuances of the dining room table, the one I stared at during the hours and hours we had to sit there and confess all of our psychological workings, every thought and imagining. I remember my sister’s face, I remember how the light was in the house, I remember the qualities of silence in each room around his voice, around each of our own, how the house, his house, seemed to swallow us, the way he wanted to. Those details, when I can get into them, are important — they allow the reader to be there with my narrator, exactly in the situation with her.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to writing that’s drawn closely from life. There’re fiction stories that scare us, too. What happens when you meet a telling, a character, who both draws you in and repels you? What happens when you let yourself all the way into her, anyway, even though you find her disturbing, even though you question what it means about you that you can imagine her so clearly? I think it can be useful not to analyze too much, but just to write it — don’t worry about where she comes from. We all have plenty of models of terrible behavior to draw from. Use your fear of her to show her vividly.
There’s power in the material we’re afraid of, and we can make it ours, we can take it back. All those stories that we’re afraid of, they’re ours now, just ours. I say write them, even if you need to tear out the pages after you’re done writing and shove them into the back of a drawer (I myself don’t advocate burning any writing, but I’m a packrat when it comes to writing — you do what you need to do.)
Is there a story you want to write that you’re afraid of? Pat Schneider gives this simple prompt: Write something that scares you. Take 10 minutes, go into it. Give me the qualities of light, expressions on faces, how the narrator felt in their body. Keep to that time limit, whatever you set for yourself. Dive in, then come back out, and stop for today. You can come back to the story; there’s no need to push into overwhelm.
Then, after you write, do something excellent for yourself. Go to the ocean, get a coffee at your favorite cafe, call a friend and laugh. Celebrate your success.
You face your fears every morning — thank you for that. Thank you for the fears your writing names and shows, thank you for the ways you’ve taken that power back for your own use. Thank you for your words.