Fear does a good old job of holding us back. Fear can take the disguise of other emotions—anger, or depression, or timidity, or it hides itself as other maladies that make us feel less than we are, or even physically ill as we seep into negativity or panic. When we do not face it, the fear can grow into a snarling drooling stomping all-consuming monster even if its only a figment of our over-active desire to make sure we don’t Mess Up.
How do you handle your monster? Hide in bed with your head under the covers, live in a glass bubble, never take chances, or lead a very charmed (and unnatural?) life?
I recently watched a biography of actor Don Knotts most notable as the deputy from the iconic Andy Griffith Show. The first acting part he tried out for he was soundly and critically rejected, and he went home to West Virginia (his home state; mine, too) with dog tail between his legs. But that dog grabbed him by the pant leg and wouldn’t let go. The “I want this” dog. Eventually, he tried again and again and would find some success only to have it taken away. Yet, despite being knocked down just as he thought he was moving up, Knotts ended up as one of the most well-known and beloved characters/actors on television. What people didn’t know is how his fears never really left him. It manifested itself in sicknesses that were mostly “all in his head.” He may have never learned how to over-come that fear completely, but he never let it stop him from doing what he longed to do, what he loved: acting, entertaining. Until he died in 2006, he worked at what made him both happy and terrified.
I think how in the past my own fears have held me back from what I wanted to do and to be. My fears led me to let my writing languish for years and years—it wasn’t until my forties that I began writing seriously again; my debut novel Tender Graces wasn’t published until I was near 52. With two more novels released after that, and a novella, and with a novel soon to be released, I’m now less likely to hide from the monster tapping at my window, well, because the stakes are higher and there are people depending on me. Because mostly because the dog has me by my pant leg and won’t let go. I want this. I long for it. I love it. I take all the ‘stuff’ that comes with it.
But just because I’m less likely to hide now, it doesn’t mean that fear-monster doesn’t still tap tap tap. I can rise, open the window, and face it head on—sometimes in facing the monster it runs away, a big silly bully. Other times, the fear-monster roars at me, its sour breath rushing up against me as it tries to repel me and keep me cowed. And then there are the times I open that window and what seemed huge and scary was nothing more than a tiny branch scratching against the window, after all.
As writers, or poets, or musicians, dancers, business owners, baristas, waiters, accountants, politicians-(though this is oft-times debatable!), as Humans, we struggle with putting ourselves out there. When we show our face to the world through our work that we love, others have a glimpse into something deeply personal. We reveal hidden truths about who we are, our experiences; we place our guts on a plate.
How vulnerable it is to have your work out into the winds, scattered here there and yonder, to have people judge it (and many times in a public way) and thus judge you. But despite that, we do it again, and again, and again, don’t we? We work hard and hope for the best. Open the window and face the monster every time we create something and then send it out into the big wide old world. Right? That is what you are doing, isn’t it?
If we create (or do anything else) in a sealed vacuum, we are not Living, we are only Being. We are not Experiencing life, but letting it pass us by as we watch, peeking out from beneath our covers. Sometimes taking risks or chances or facing our fears leads to disappointment or a seeming “bad” thing, but I’m up for taking the chance anyway, because sometimes it does not lead to disappointment but to success, or the “bad thing” leads me on to a “good thing.” And there is only one way to find out, isn’t there? And really, if you find out you weren’t meant to pen the Great American Novel and/or find success on the New York Times Best-sellers List, then what? What’s next? What’s for you next? Aren’t you curious?
There is one word I’ve often used in the past and I simply cannot stand to use it any longer: Regret. A remedy to Regret is Action, right? We can fall on our arses; but we will not regret the action of trying, for we then rise up and try again. Action is a better word for me than Regret. What about you?
Action moves us forward. Regret keeps us stagnant or moving backward.
With each novel, story, essay, poem, memoir, or whatever it is that we do, we set ourselves up for someone somewhere to dislike our work and perhaps even to ream us in a public way. Well, you know, who gives them the Power over us? Who gives them permission to make us feel like shit? Um y’all, guess what? We do. Folks, most times the people who do not like our stuff forget about us shortly after they decide we aren’t their cup o’ tea and they go on to the next thing. But do we forget about them? Nope. We keep them close to us so we have an excuse for not taking action because gosh darn it don’t we just suck. Well, that’s a bit o’ the bullcrapadoodle-doo-doo, don’t you think? Yeah. That’s us creating the very monster we are hiding from. Huhn.
We are who we are; we are who we write, we write who we are—to touch another human being with your words/work is one of the greatest feelings ever, a joy, a measure of success, a beautiful light of trust. And sometimes we do have the privilege of touching another through our work.
I open the window and face the monster scratching at my window or only a little twig swaying in the wind. But at that moment before discovery of monster or twig, I hold my breath, lift the window, lean forward, and wait for what will come.