Fear is Not An Option

by JT Ellison

This year at Murderati has been one filled with pain, with joy, with sorrow, with compassion. Though we’ve been in business for five years, honestly, this has arguably been our best. Because we’ve all been facing our fears. Dusty covered the idea of true, earth-shattering emotional reaction to fictional things that go bump in the night. Tess talked about her incredibly personal panic reactions to events out of her control. Stephen is facing the unknown, and I daresay Louise is as well. We’ve covered phobias, frustration, anger, change.

We haven’t talked a lot about fear.

If you think about it, fear is truly what drives us sometimes.

Fear of loss. Fear of death. Fear of success. Fear of failure.

Ah, yes. Fear of failure.

For writers, that term is an all too familiar companion. Yes, there are probably a few who are so confident that they never worry about their work, just plow ahead and damn it all. Their work is often soulless, but they aren’t up all hours of the night, fretting.

Fear of failure is my constant companion. Not just as a writer, but as a woman, as a wife, as a human being. It’s what drives me to focus, to write, to love. To jump off cliffs, headless of where I may land.

Failure, to me, is fear. I’ve failed before. Colossally. I’ve had jobs that I wasn’t any good at. I suck at friendships. I’m too frank, too impatient. I’m damn good at the wife thing, most of the time, at least, but when I was first married, I was terrible at that too. Practice made perfect, that and a very, very patient husband. I’ve learned to cook, to manage a house, to handle issues I’d never dreamed of. I think I have it down pretty well, though there’s always room for improvement.

I’d like to think I’m decent at the writing part. Not great. Oh no, far from that. But capable. Getting more and more confident. Learning the things to fret about and the things to let go.
Controlling the things I can control.

It’s amazing, though, that after writing all the books I have, that I hit a point in every book where I decide it’s a hellacious mess that has no business being finished, much less published. I hit that moment last week, minutes before I was due to get on a plane to Scotland to finish the research. I say finish — when we made plans for the trip, I was supposed to be done, and the trip would be a way to finalize little details: smells, sounds, looks. We’d been in July and I was convinced it was going to look so much different — which it did, and didn’t.

Instead, I’m not done, not remotely close enough to being done for my liking, as a matter of fact, and the trip, while brilliant, was too helpful. I know have a glut of information that needs to go in that I didn’t realize before, which is slowing things down at the exact moment I need to be gaining momentum.

And this is the moment when the fear sets in.

You should HEAR my brain.

You’re never going to finish. You suck. This book is too much of a stretch. Why did you break form? What are you thinking? Serial killer books are so much easier to write. Why did you decide to make this a gothic suspense? You’re an idiot. This will be the end of you.

Yeah. Lovely little blackbirds, aren’t they?

But at its most basic, all this is is fear. Yes, I’m taking a chance writing a book that might not “fit” with the previous six. But the desire to keep my series fresh and inviting dictates change. I can’t change the characters too much, but I sure can change the way I tell a story. And sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.

But conquering fear is what every writer faces every day. Steven Pressfield calls it resistance, and it’s true—when you’re scared, you will find anything and everything to distract you from actually putting your ass in the chair and writing the book. But all that does is get you stressed that you’re not living and breathing every moment of the book, and works on the part of your fragile psyche that feeds on negative thoughts.

I daresay that anyone who has had success is well versed in these moments of fear. And let’s face it, all fear and indulgence aside, the idea that you’re going to fail is a great inducement not to.

I’ve spent most of the past two days thinking about all the things I’m thankful for. Getting home safe from Scotland. My health. The love of my family and friends. The success of my novels. The simple joys of my life–petting the cat, watching a crackling fire, sipping a glass of wine, reading a book, talking to a friend on the phone. My husband, en totale, everything about him. The freedoms we enjoy in this country. That God gave me a gift and allowed me to put words to the page and tell you stories. The world we’ve created here at Murderati — all fourteen of us, and all of you — where we can share our joy and fear and success and sorrow among friends.

And I am also thankful for the fear. Because if I didn’t have anything to lose, I wouldn’t have much to live for. After a week delving deeply into the lives of Randy’s and my Scottish forebears, of seeing what they had to lose if they gave into the fear that must have plagued them constantly, the fact that their decisions were based in courage, in a desire to better themselves and the lives of their families, that the wrong decision meant an almost certain death, and the right one did too – all my “fear” seems a bit silly.

What about you, ‘Rati? What puts fear in perspective for you?

Wine of the Week: I did it the last time we went to the UK, but this one is such a winner, I’m recommending it again. Côtes du Rhone “Heritiers Plantin” Mont-Redon 2007

30 thoughts on “Fear is Not An Option

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great post – fear is a writer's constant companion. I put the increasing wobbles as you get further through a book down to the law of diminishing returns. When you're faced with that first blank page, the book has endless potential. It could be the next Pullitzer. But the further through you get, the more it is … what it is, warts and all. And I can never shake the feeling that I could have done something along the way – maybe even a lot of somethings – that would have made it better.

    By the way, I think our brains may be related, or at least share a phone line, because I hear much of those same doubts. I'm hearing them very loudly at the moment.

  2. Chuck

    Bar none, fear of failure, fear of what I once was. We grew up poor. Very poor. This motivates me every single day. It gets me out of bed. It kicks me into gear on a day I might be below the weather.

    Fear is a helluva motivator. I welcome it.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    I fear that my newsletter isn't going to catch on and I've thrown away a lot of money. I fear that my temp job isn't going to go permanent and I'll go back on unemployment later this year. I fear hyperinflation is going to hit soon and I won't be prepared enough.
    Perspective: fear is the opposite of love. Fear is not trusting God. I breathe deeply and say the fear mantra from Dune.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
    o Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from DUNE

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, PK – I knew "Fear is the mind-killer" but I love the whole quote.

    The 3/4 book fear – I've said it before, but always forget it myself – authors have to make that Visit To Death, have that Dark Night Of the Soul, just at the same point as our characters do. Everything is darkest just before that final revelation.

    Maybe that's true in life, too.

    These days, meditation and my Alanon meetings are what get me through fear. I'm working hard on this issue – all stuff from my past, obviously, so thanks for the topic!

  6. Debbie

    I fear my children growing up a burden on society as a result of my ineptitude parenting them, not advocating well enough for them in the school system. I fear losing my husband. Any time he is reasonably late coming home from work, I fear an officer at the door. There is family history on both sides to explain the first fear, my dad died when I was eight so I completely understand the second. Both unreasonable and unusual but there they are.

    In terms of writing, it would be pressure: to turn out the books, to be successful as other people define success. Both of these lead to self perceptions of usefulness and dissolve contentment. My intent in writing was to get a particular story out of my head because it wouldn't leave me alone. I did that, so I'll attempt to move it to the next stage. That's where other people begin to judge, 'Why have you been wasting your time writing if not to publish. No one wants it…you've been wasting your time. If you can't deliver at least a book a year, you're not a writer….." And then I answer, "Am I just wasting time and defining it as purpose?", "can/should I continue".

    My favourite lines from The Lord Of The Rings include:
    Aragorn: "What do you fear, my lady?"
    Éowyn: "A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all chance of great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

    My goal was to write, I did that…am still doing that. That takes away the fear when I acknowledge the accomplishment but it's time to move to the next level. Challenge accompanied by fear. I'm wondering, does fear only enter into the equation when you count the costs?

  7. Cornelia Read

    Oh, JT, I fear so much, and it's really paralyzed me at times this past year or so, for long stretches. And yet it's somehow fertilizing for the soul, too, to come through that and look around and realize there is still love and good in the world. Fear can make you go deeper, in life and in art. I hope I can remember that more and more powerfully, to face my fears as I am in the midst of them, to use them to create instead of just allowing them to put my work on hold, to overwhelm me.

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post!

  8. Dana King

    I've read many places that the most common motivating factor for great athletes is fear of failure. They hate losing more than they enjoy winning, which, I suppose, takes a lot of the fun out of it.

    I keep fear in perspective by comparing results. "What's the worst that can happen if this book doesn't get published?" The worst is, I'm not published. I'm not published now, so it's a no lose situation. (Kind of like the detectives on TERRIERS. "We're not licensed because we found if you don't have one, you don't have to worry about losing it.")

    This may be a more difficult perspective to maintain if I ever make a living from my writing, but I have to confess, I'm not too worried about that.

  9. Dudley Forster

    I have Stephen King’s quote "The scariest moment is always just before you start." On a P-Touch label stuck to my monitor. I think I was born motivated by a fear of failure. When I was in the third grade I remember memorizing spelling words, terrified I would miss one (I was a terrible speller. The whole “good readers make good spellers” is bullshit). I’m sure having The Great Santini x10 (sans the drinking) for a father didn’t help.

    I have found it odd that the compulsion to write increased dramatically after I quit practicing law. Law creates the perfect storm. Not only are you motivated by the normal fears of failure, litigation being a zero sum game, but opposing counsel are paid to make sure you fail. It didn’t matter I was BV rated (trust me it’s kind of big deal) at the start of my tenth year of practice, deep down every case I lost (no matter how bad my client’s position) I took as a personal failure.

    Writing, as everyone knows, is also a perfect generator for fear of failure. Maybe, in a way, it’s worse. You are putting your heart, your creation out there and you are just asking for rejection. More difficult for me, is you have to believe in yourself. Self doubt is a killer. So what do you do when your whole life has been consumed with self doubt? I wish I knew. I take comfort in my family. I have three great daughters who are daddy’s girls and I have been married 33 years to a wonderful woman, who for some unfathomable reason loves me.

    As for writing, some days it’s just bird by bird (see JT I read the book 🙂 ). NaNoWriMo has been such a great experience. It has taught me to just get the story down. Don’t fret over it. Of course, I will be fretting over the rewrites, but at least I have something to rewrite that I created without the constant voices in my head. Even so, I had a period around 35K words when I started thinking that this was a monumental waste of time. That I was just producing crap, that nothing would be the least bit useful if I decided to turn it into a real MS.

  10. JT Ellison

    Zoë, I think that's the thing – you get to a certain point and it's like uh-oh – too late to turn back and start over now, so you must work with what you have. And it's so funny, every time I admit I'm having trouble, I have a massive breakthrough. So the blackbirds are gone today. Beasts.

    Chuck, you're right, fear is a great motivator! So are friends who send you really cool articles from their local papers, you know. : )

    PK, love love love the mantra from Dune. That's a perfect blessing to have at the ready when fear and doubt creep in. I thought your newsletter was wonderful, BTW – I hope it's a huge success.

  11. JT Ellison

    Alex, I think that life certainly imitates art – why else would we all have that 3/4 book death knell? You've been my hero this year – facing adversity and blossoming because of it. You are wonderful.

    Debbie asked – "Does fear only enter into the equation when you count the costs?"

    It's a good question, Debbie. Though I think everyone has a different perspective when it comes to the costs. The concerns and fears I had ten years ago are completely different than what I worry about now.

    "Fear can make you go deeper, in life and in art." – Cornelia – exactly. Sometimes indulging in a little fear is a good thing. Keeps us sharp.

  12. JT Ellison

    Dana, never say never – I wrote my first book in a vacuum, not having any inkling it would be published. You do have to believe in yourself and your writing though – that's very important. If you don't believe in yourself, why would anyone else?

    Dudley, I'm a little behind on my NaNo count because of the trip, but I'll certainly make the goal by the end of the month. So I'm pleased that it worked, and always pleased to have a bunch of words to work on a rewrite. Can't rewrite without a manuscript in the first place, right?

  13. Gar Haywood

    My greatest fear is hypocrisy. At some point in every book, I look at it and go, "Wait a minute. This is the very same crap I rip other people for writing!"

    I never worry about being lousy. But the thought that I might actually be mediocre terrifies me.

  14. Chuck

    That statement on that poor woman's mirror, red herring or not, was too scary. Wow. That was like something from one of your novels. Had to share!

  15. Dudley Forster

    Alex – It's always the crap from the past the we carry around that gives us the most problems. My wife is always saying "Let it go. Just let it go." I wish I knew how. The stuff is super glued to my brain.

    JT – One of the best parts of NaNo is the word war I have going with my oldest daughter. We are neck and neck. She wrote more that I did last night so she's over 46K and at 45.5K. She and I have always been bibliophiles and now we can share writing. It is another one the great fear fighters in my world and one I am so grateful for.

  16. Reine

    My fears are the memories. My fears are the reliving. My strength is restructuring them. I reweave them. The better ones are available. I can go on.

  17. KDJames

    It has been an unusually sucky year, hasn't it. Fear. Yeah, I've given it a lot of thought too, JT. I wrote a post about facing fear last fall but I'm not going to repeat all of that here. You're welcome. (if anyone wants to read it, it's here: http://kdjames.com/2009/11/07/finding-truth-facing-fear/ ) Geez, I feel so gauche linking to something I've written. Oh well. Someone might find it useful.

    But understanding fear, the what and why of it, doesn't necessarily mean you are able to overcome it. I'm still struggling, every time I sit down to write. I don't think mine will ever go away. And probably that's a good thing.

    Bob Mayer wrote an excellent book about conquering fear — the way he approaches the topic (from the point of view of a special forces soldier) and then gives practical no-nonsense advice have been very helpful to me. Now I suppose it would be good karma to link to something someone else has written, right? 😉 Hang on… here's the link to the book on his site: http://www.whodareswinspublishing.com/WDW.html

    You know, topics like this are one of the things I love about the internet, and this blog in particular. It is so reassuring to discover that people who seem to exude confidence and success are struggling with some of the same doubts and fears I face. Thanks for tackling this particular monster, JT.

  18. pari noskin taichert

    I think I'm with Gar on mediocrity. Man, that terrifies me.

    Being a parent brings a whole different set of terrors too. I'm surprised I can even function at all some days.

    One of the reasons I've taken a new approach with my writing is that the fear of failure, of not being "successful" re: a career, was killing the joy of writing. I have to totally turn off that editor and naysayer in the creative process now. Can't even let her step close to my writing computer.

    I'm not sure my writing has improved or is more honest because of it, but my output has probably increased at least 100 percent.

  19. JT Ellison

    Louise, I've been humbled by experts, so I know what you mean. I'm always interested to see what I'm actually afraid of anymore.

    Gar, are you sitting on my shoulder? Just had that conversation. My husband, darling that he is, has a sports analogy for this: some years you win the Superbowl, other years you make it to the playoffs. I want to win the Superbowl every year, and sometimes that's crippling.

    Dudley, love that you've made it a family affair! Your daughter will always treasure this month, I'm sure.

    Ah, Reine, the memories. I've never been one to look back – I firmly believe nothing can be done to change the past, and sometimes reliving it is more damaging than it's worth. But if you can channel it, then it's working for you.

  20. JT Ellison

    KD, trust me, we all face these fears and doubts. I'm getting better at voicing them, and I've realized that when I finally give in and write about it, at least to a point, it helps me find the path back. And as Alex pointed out, there are very specific times in the writing journey that they rear their nasty little heads. Thanks for the links!

    See, Pari, I think the output is the teller, you know? Success is such a subjective term. We all have to define it for ourselves. But without product, there will be no success to measure. I for one can't wait to read your new work, which couldn't' be mediocre if it tried. Your voice is too unique.

  21. Rochelle Staab

    Great post, especially today when I'll face the page I left before the Thanksgiving baking-cooking-eating extravaganza began. There's a twisted comfort in knowing writers share the same uncertainties: The fear of not being good enough, the fear that the last sentence was the best I'll ever write again, ot the worst of all (for me) – the fear I will disappoint myself.
    As soon as I begin to write, the fear vaporizes. My antidote to fear is to just keep writing, knowing that my doubts are just doubts and if I can finish the story, I can rewrite the story.
    Thank you for the big dose of reality today.

  22. Chris Hamilton

    Great post, JT.

    Fear that I'm not a good writer, that all this time I spend trying to put a salable story together is a waste of time. That I could be spending the time with my family or working a second job to make the bottom line a little looser, or taking care of the myriad things around the house. Fear that I'm pretending and this is just a pipe dream.

    How do I put it in perspective? Keep writing and hope I'm not a fool at the end of the day.

    Thanks for asking us and for everyone else who shared.


  23. Reine

    JT, I didn't mean that I'm there yet. Actually I am sure that fears are ever present. It's just the direction I'm moving in. I relive the trauma every evening when I move to shut off the light. It's just that those memories are so terrifying that the more "ordinary" fears I have – like paying the mortgage and medical bills, maintaining independence and creativity – no longer feel so much like fear. The daytime is a relief because of the skills I've developed that help me shift the focus and rebuild my daytime awareness, something like pulling a sweater or jumper apart and re-knitting it. It's still the same sweater. At night it's still hanging in the closet.

  24. Reine

    So what I'm saying is, I don't relive them on purpose, rather they mount an invasion, now pretty much confined to the dark night or when coming home alone. I still see his boot print on my French door entry.

  25. JT Ellison

    Rochelle and Chris, there's good advice in both your comments – one that we at Murderati have as a bit of a mantra. Just do it! There's nothing like sitting down and getting to work to dispel all the demons, is there?

    Reine, please forgive me if I wasn't sensitive to your situation – I wasn't thinking. I'm fascinated by your daytime process and how it f differs from nighttime though. I have no doubt you're going to conquer your fears, both day and night.

  26. Reine

    JT, thanks, and I don't hold others responsible for being sensitive to what they don't know, especially when I don't really say what I want to say very well. I do really like this post – a lot – and the fact that I am able to give expression to these situations as they relate to my experience. I left that guy's prints on my doors until he was sentenced for murdering my friend. Having those prints, that tangible piece to the experience, allowed me some control over where I held him in my consciousness. That's when I began to see how I might work around the memories and displace them with other, relevant ones. Nighttime, however, is too hard to do that. I close my eyes and the monsters stand in the doorway. I'm not as bad, though, as I think I must sound.

  27. Tammy Cravit

    What puts *my* fear in perspective, gruesome though this may sound, is reminding myself of what being a rape victim felt like. If whatever I'm wrestling with now isn't as bad as that was, then I know I can make it through. As I said, perhaps a gruesome yardstick, but it works for me, and it keeps me facing the day, facing the blank page and getting words on it, and facing the incredible challenges (positive and otherwise) of parenting my daughter.

    And, I wholeheartedly agree with everyone who's pointed out the perils that come with fear of failure. I have a quote from Shakespeare taped up next to my monitor: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt." And, I remind myself that a baseball player who gets a hit 1/3 of the time he's at bat is considered exceptionally good.

  28. Reine

    Tammy, I love your baseball metaphor regarding fear of failure. It reminds me of the question I sometimes asked of medical students when fear was beginning to paralyze them in their studies: What do they call a medical school graduate who finishes at the bottom of the class? The answer is, of course, "Doctor." It isn't original, but it often helped. Sure, they wanted the best residency or lab, but mostly they wanted to be doctors and/or researchers.

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