As I write this, my friend Roxanne is boarding a plane that will fly her to Southern California. A “trail angel” will pick her up at the airport and drive her to the start of the Pacific Crest Trail, where she’ll begin hiking—alone. But this blog post isn’t about how Roxanne read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and, like so many other women, was inspired to make the 2,650-mile trek as a lone lady. It’s about her resolve to take that first step.
About nine months ago, Roxanne said to me, “I want to stop letting fear rule my life.” Between then and now, she quit the job she hated, went to the doctor to get all the vaccines she might need during her travels (she’s extremely needle phobic), moved out of her apartment, hugged her cat and her boyfriend good-bye (she won’t see them for the next six months), and left on a journey that will test everything she’s got.
Fear can be paralyzing for us writers, sometimes preventing us from even getting the first sentence down. But what are we so afraid of? Running through my own list of fears, I realized I could name quite a few: writing badly, rejection, not doing enough fact-checking, judgment from my peers, not getting published, getting published with a typo, getting a bad review, not doing enough rewriting, not using big enough words, using a big word incorrectly, divulging too much, hurting someone I’m writing about, writing too close to the heart, writing without enough heart, and writing dumb blog posts (my colleagues at Girl Friday set the blog bar pretty high, in case you haven’t noticed).
Some people advocate for “writing fearlessly.” But having no fear comes with its own costs. During the “Fearless” episode of Invisibilia, a podcast that explores the forces that shape human behavior, one of the hosts interviews a woman who biologically cannot feel fear. Code-named SM by researchers to protect her identity, this woman has Urbach-Wiethe disease, a rare genetic condition that can cause calcium buildup in the amygdalae, the almond-shaped fear centers of the brain. For SM, the calcium deposits have rendered her brain incapable of sending out the danger alarm. Some might say that SM’s condition is a gift; she views the world through a lens of wonder and excitement, giving her a perpetually outgoing and friendly disposition. But her nonexistent fear factor inhibits her ability to detect actual threats to her safety. SM was a victim of domestic violence and has been held at knifepoint and gunpoint on multiple occasions. Researchers are vigilant about protecting her identity to reduce the likelihood of people taking advantage of her. Though SM leads an abnormally carefree life, her fearlessness is a life-threatening handicap.
My friend Roxanne is brave, but she’s not fearless. And I’m thankful for that. I’d be way more worried about her if she had no fear of rattlesnakes, freezing weather, heatstroke, and the myriad other dangers on the trail. Fear is a survival mechanism for outdoor adventures, and it can be for writers too. If a writer isn’t afraid of writing badly, then she might submit bad manuscript after bad manuscript to publishers, without ever revising and editing her work. If I never worried about the factual accuracy of the articles I write, my freelancing career would have ended long ago. Fear of failure isn’t necessarily detrimental to the writing process. Instead, it can be just the tool we need to transform our work from bad to good to great. So how do we learn to face our fear and let it guide us in writing?
Jeb Corliss, a world-famous BASE jumper, has an intimate relationship with fear. He’s jumped from thousands of buildings, cliffs, and waterfalls, sometimes deploying his parachute with only a split-second margin for error. In a video clip shown during his TEDx interview, Corliss said he understands the risks of doing what he does. “I go into it expecting death,” he said. In the interview, he explains that he feels the most afraid when he’s standing on the edge, preparing to make the leap. But after he makes that decision to jump, all he’s thinking about is flying.
For me, the hardest part of the writing process is getting the first word down. As I stand on the edge, before I start writing, fear is telling me to quit before I even begin. But once I start, the fear is minimized by the focus that writing requires. The fear is still there, lurking, but it’s been transformed into an essential tool that aids the writing process. We don’t need to go into writing “expecting death” like Corliss, but we can expect the writing path to be fraught with dangers to our ego, misused words, mixed metaphors, and unintended stupidity. Then we arm ourselves with the right equipment—perspective, spell-check, a dictionary, good editors—and we can wield the fear to our own advantage. Once we recognize fear’s usefulness, we might feel more prepared to take the leap.
“Jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”