In last week’s article, I wrote about a cliché that writers hear all the time: “Write what you know.” This week, I’d like to think about another cliché for writers—and for people seeking to live well—namely, “Write [or face] what you fear.”
I first came across this idea in Natalie Goldberg’s masterpiece, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. She wrote, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” She has followed her own advice through many books on writing and spirituality (primarily Zen), including her recent heart-breaking memoir centered around her sorrow that the two men she loved the most in her life—her father and her Zen master Katagiri Roshi—had both betrayed her trust. In this book, she lets us see her journey from grief and anger through sorrow to forgiveness and compassion. But on every page, I heard the echo of her words: “Be willing to be split open.”
Natalie’s version of “write what you fear” keeps the focus on the issue that disturbs the writer. To learn about and then write about her discovery of her master’s secret life was a blow to everything she held dear, and she wrote about it after many years of suffering silently with it. But there are other meanings to the phrase.
On the blog “Men with Pens,” “Agent X” wrote about the “7 Deadly Fears of Writing.” (Actually, there are seven separate articles, one for each deadly fear; the link I’ve included takes you to a summary page from which you can link to the individual articles.) Agent X’s list included:
- fear of rejection,
- fear of being inadequate,
- fear of success,
- fear of exposing oneself,
- fear that one only has one book inside and that sequels will flop,
- fear of being too old to write, and
- fear of research.
Agent X’s advice about overcoming those seven deadly fears might be summed up as, “Just do the work.” Although it’s a bit simplistic, its kernel has merit. The characters in most successful novels must face fear in one form or another, and they “do the work” that they’re afraid of in one way or another—and if they don’t overcome the fear, they are changed by it.
In my forthcoming novel, Nobody’s Savior, for instance, one of the minor characters, a fellow in his sixties, is dying of cancer. Since his early 20s, Art has lived with a secret guilt he has been afraid to face. As he nears the end, he enlists Ed Northrup’s (the main character, a psychologist) help in sorting out that fear, acknowledging it, and telling the story behind it. He dies at peace. I’m sure you know many stories in which characters hide from their fears and suffer for it, or look their fear in the face and somehow bungle their way through.
There is another kind of fear—and facing fear—that is a powerful source of personal and spiritual growth, and an equally powerful driver of narrative story. Think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned 27 years by the apartheid regime in South Africa. Think of his moral stature when he was released and later became president of the country and a world leader. He wrote, in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
Mandela says he hid his fear “behind a mask of boldness.” The source of his fear was not internal, like Goldberg’s. Mandela was afraid of his world, his environment, his captors, his government. He donned a “mask of boldness” to proclaim to his enemy that he would not be broken.
Does “donning a mask of boldness” against an external threat resemble Agent X’s suggestion that one “just write”? After all, some of the seven deadly fears of writing, like fear of rejection, are fears of what the outer world can do to us. Perhaps just writing is a small version of “donning the mask of boldness.”
Recovering addicts like the saying, “Fake it till you make it.” Write till it’s all right. Don the mask of boldness. I’m not proposing that the writer’s fear compares in moral stature to the fear felt by Natalie Goldberg to expose the great tragedy in her life, nor that the lonely writer at her desk faces the same degree of fear that Mandela felt in a country organized to destroy him and his people.
I do mean to suggest, though, that human beings, including writers, have fears that are real and oppressive, fears that stunt our growth when we don’t address them. The advice to “write what you fear” points directly at that. But it goes far beyond writing. All of us, whatever we do, die a little when we hide from our fear, and all of us grow a little when we face it, when we don the mask of boldness, when we write.