What, me worry?

I’m going to be honest here.

I’m afraid of my novel.

It’s true!  I used to be one of those people who thought that the idea of “art and fear” did not apply to me.  Every once in awhile I’ll get a false sense of security that I have conquered my fear, that the only way to fail is not to try, etc, etc.

As I’ve mentioned before, and as I’m sure most of you know, writing a novel is an extremely difficult thing.  Tim Wynne-Jones, a great writer and one of my mentors at VCFA, once said, “No story is as full of promise as the one that’s in your head.”  To me, that’s true, and though of course he meant it to be a very inspiring statement, those moments when I am not at my most self-confident I translate it to mean, “Once you start writing something, you lose control of it.  And that’s terrifying.”

Something, of course, that I will have to get over.

I’m reminded of an old MAD TV sketch, in which a desperately terrified patient goes to see a counselor (played by the brilliant Bob Newhart), who tells her that he will give her two words that she should keep in her mind at all times.  She has a crippling fear of being buried alive in a box, which consumes her life and makes it difficult to function.  These words, he claims, will cure her of her fear.  There’s a lot of buildup to this moment, and he finally sits up straight and tells her what these words are:


The patient, of course, tries to argue that she can’t simply “stop it.”  At one point, Bob Newhart says, “You don’t want to live your whole life afraid of being buried alive in a box, do you?  That sounds frightening!”

He makes a compelling case, even if the idea of being able to vanquish our fear so easily is preposterous.

Finally, the patient gives him an emotion-filled monologue, telling him how misguided and wrong he is about the way the human mind works, and he concedes that maybe for her, “Stop it,” isn’t the best advice.  So he tells her that he will give her ten words, and he truly believes these words will help her.  And what are these words?

“Stop it or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”

So, who’s right here?  I guess I’d argue that there is no “right” or “wrong” party.  The patient is right that it often takes more than two words to get over our fear.  Bob is right that when we look at stressful situations as an outsider, it seems ridiculous that they are allowing such an irrational fear to control them.

I have been both the patient and the counselor.  I have watched my friends struggle with various issues and have wondered why they let that fear control them.  I have also found myself in a seemingly hopeless spiral of terror that something I desperately want will not manifest, no matter how hard I try.

While the final ten words of the sketch send the audience into uproarious laughter, there is some truth there.  Even though the chances of this particular patient being buried alive in a box are rather slim, often the more we fear something, the more likely it is to happen.

Right now, I fear my novel.  Several things about it are scaring me.  I’m afraid I won’t be able to finish it.  I’m afraid that if I do finish it, it won’t be very good, and no amount of editing will make it good.  I’m afraid that even if it is good, no one will want to buy it, and all the work I did will be for nothing.  I’m afraid there’s not enough to the story to sustain it for the 60 or 70,000 words that seem to be required of YA novels these days.  I’m afraid I don’t know my characters as well as I thought I did.

But you know what?  Yes, it’s scary.  Yes, I feel like my novel is a rabid, barking dog that’s backed me into a corner.  But Bob was right.  The surest way to ensure your fears come true is to let them control you.  If I spend all my time worrying that this novel will not be good, or it will not sell, or the pacing is wrong, or whatever, and not enough time actually writing, then I am absolutely 100% guaranteed that it will never, ever be finished.

Does that mean it’s easy to overcome those doubts?  Hell, no.  But what helped me through this miniature crisis was my writer friends who assured me that it is indeed a scary process.  Yes, that’s right.  Being told that I was right to be scared actually helped me not be afraid.  Probably because it helps to know that you’re not crazy.  One of the dangers of that spiral of fear is that when you’re alone in a pit surrounded by all of your insecurities, it’s pretty easy to forget that there are plenty of others who have not only been where you are, but are right there with you.

Tim’s right.  The most exciting book is the one you haven’t written yet.  But if you ever expect anyone else to agree that it’s a good book, it’s not going to happen if it’s just swimming around in your head.

As for actual tools that might help YOU work through your fears, I’m afraid I have very little to offer other than, “Stop it!”


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Jess Leader
    Aug 10, 2012 @ 21:28:24

    I love this, Rachel! I will think of that box sketch every time I shirk a fear, particularly a writing one. And I love how you laid this all out. I predict that when your novel is a success and you are a famous writer, you will get to publish this in an anthology about how you Made It.


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