What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrors


Usually nothing.  Or very little.  It’s difficult to talk about fears and their causes.  But writers tend to need to know about their characters’ fears as well as their own. 

 For characters, two important questions can focus in on a character’s motivation.  They are: 1) What is the character’s greatest fear? and 2) What is the character’s primary emotional vulnerability?  Sometimes these two questions have the same answer.

What if a writer were to ask those same questions about himself?  Especially regarding his writing? 

I have been thinking lately about two moments in writing that tend to terrify me.  The first is that moment in the middle of a story, or the second act, when I haven’t a clue what to write next.  Every action, every character, everything has stopped, waiting for me.  My brain freezes.  I begin to wonder what I’m doing, who do I think I’m kidding, I probably can’t write worth beans, etc., etc.  Or, I think the story isn’t worth pursuing further.  The physical sensation of my stomach tied up in a ball of rubber bands and being thrown vigorously against my rib cage accompanies the nauseous sinking feeling of failure.  I’m terrified I just can’t do it.  I can’t write or what I write is stupid and awful and on and on.  Even though I know this can happen (and will) and what to do when this happens, this moment still terrifies me.  The remedy, according to Steve Larson, a very wise screenwriter and teacher, is to take each primary character and ask for each: what does this character want?  What will this character do to get it?  What are the potential conflicts/obstacles to the character achieving his/her goal?  By listing each character and answering these questions for each, ideas begin to spurt and sputter, and soon I’m writing again, the terror forgotten. 

The second moment is when I need to show someone my writing, e.g. send the novel to a literary agent or someone else for feedback.  The terror strikes even when I consider letting a good friend read my writing and I know for certain I will get thoughtful, constructive feedback given gently but firmly.  But the worst moment is when I send my writing to a stranger.  I’ve heard this compared to sending a young child into the unknown, but it’s not really about the child (writing).  It’s about how the writing reflects on the writer and what the response to the writing will be.  It is about both a fear of rejection and a fear of success, slugging it out in my psyche.  I also fear that my stories are stupid when I want them to be interesting and grab readers and hold them through to the end.  I guess I don’t know any writers who do NOT experience all these fears when on the verge of showing their writing to a stranger or anyone.  The only remedy, for me anyway, is to acknowledge the terror, acknowledge what it’s about and then box it up and throw it to the back of my psyche’s closet even as I’m mailing out the manuscript.  After all, what do I want?  What will I do to get it?  What are the potential conflicts/obstacles in my way?  Surely, I am a potential obstacle to myself, and I have control over that.   So, I return to my writing — I usually have more than one project going at a time.  Immersing myself in another story I love banishes the terror of what response might come back to me about the story I’ve sent out.

Writers live with these fears all the time.  They also live with constant uncertainty — perhaps a subject for another day. 

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