Writing Life: Fear and Writing (Agents and Critics and Commas, Oh My!) by Lisa Ahn

Last month, I broke a promise to my husband. It was a vow we’d made together, many years ago, when we swore we’d never pass our bad habits to our kids. Yes, we were naive, and, yes, that was before we had kids, before we knew how many terrible habits children can inspire — like sneaking gobs of chocolate after bedtime, obsessive worry about GMOs, and saying nonsense like, “You can’t go outside because you hit your sister in the head with a jar of maraschino cherries.” Still, with all the best intentions, we promised to give up our worst behavior for the betterment of our children. In particular, I swore to squelch my panic at the sight of bugs, if my husband would stop spitting on the sidewalks. (Listen, I’m not saying we are charming, just committed.) In any case, we did well, kept our promises — though mine was far more challenging. All he had to do was swallow his saliva. I had to choke down terror in the face of eight-legged minions in the cupboards, sow bugs in the garden, and earwigs every summer. Earwigs have pinchers, by the way.

Still, even earwigs pale beside a centipede — with those million twitchy hairs and lightning legs — and it was a centipede that cornered me in the bathroom several weeks ago. Shattering a decade of false-bravery, I screamed and swore and trapped the monster underneath the toilet plunger while I sprinted for the vacuum. This behavior did not inspire confidence in my children. In fact, they both swore off the bathroom as an entity, at least until Daddy could get home. Epic fail. In an attempt to salvage my hero-mom reputation, I Googled centipedes, hoping for some vaguely cute and fuzzy pictures. Unfortunately, my image cache included graphic shots of centipede bites, oozing, black and rotting flesh. It didn’t matter that our centipede was the benign, bathroom-drain species without venom. One creepy bug, one nauseating image, and the rollercoaster of my imagination careened, full throttle, off the tracks.

But, of course, imagination is the root of fear, its germination and its bailiwick. Standing on a cliff edge, it isn’t the reality that swoons us, but the chance of falling, the imaginative “what if.” We take the leap inside our heads.

And that’s what writing is about, for me: that leap, full-hearted, into falling, into bold imagination, and often into fear. Sounds crazy, right? What’s so hazardous about writing? Where’s the danger there? It turns out, the people who are most inventive with their plot twists, their characters, and settings are the same folks who can conjure up a plague from a coincidence of sneezes, a conspiracy from ashes in the grate. My imagination fuels my writing, but it also makes me nuts. In my daily life, the one-two punch of fear and fantasy can convince me that I’m going blind. In my writing life, it can lead to paralyzing “what ifs”: What if I never get an agent or a publisher? What if my current book is just a hopeless mess? What if I should have been a banker? Imagination, running at full-tilt, can be worse than centipedes or earwigs.

Every story, every essay is a push-back against fear, the insidious little whisper that says, “not this time, you won’t.” That first draft? It’s never pretty, never even close. I’m just hoping for a string to hold, a path, a backbone in the wreckage. Revision is an exercise in ruthless shearing, cutting off two sentences for every one I keep. The bridge from brain to paper is a devil of a crossing. Even when the story’s done, it’s an act of faith and daring to push it, hard, into the world, to gather the rejections, and send it out again. Every writer knows this. We all struggle with the looming specter of “what if,” the hellion shouts of critics (real or imagined), and the fear of never quite embracing — or escaping — the stories in our heads.

Writing isn’t for the faint of heart. Days after my encounter with the centipede, I read an interview on Buzzfeed Books between Kate DiCamillo and Lemony Snicket. They are both iconic writers, well-known across the globe. Yet, with over forty published books between them, they still struggle against fear. It hasn’t left them. DiCamillo says, “I am scared every time,” and then she asks Snicket, “Are you scared every time too?” He says, “Of course, and I try to tell myself that I should be glad to be scared — it keeps me on edge or something — but I’m still not glad I’m scared.” Throughout the course of the interview, they share the fear of starting, the fear of early drafts, and of not already knowing endings, both in life and books. At the last, DiCamillo says, “It’s easier to do the work than it is not to do the work.”  And that is true. There is no standing still. We take the step. Still scared, yes, but still writing.

Ultimately, my parental fears aren’t that different from my anxieties as a writer. I’m still not fond of bugs, but I clamp down the terror, slap a smile onto my face, and say “How interesting! Look at all those legs, the spots, the eyes! Aren’t they cool?” I do this because my kids are more important than my fear. The same is true of writing. It is larger than my terrors. It keeps me moving on. Maybe I’m like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, worried over forest beasts — lions and tigers and bears, oh my! — and finding only friends in need of heart. I learn my lessons in the woods. I tell myself that agents aren’t lions. They’re just people who ferociously love books. And, while everyone’s met a critic armed with snark, most don’t have a tiger’s teeth or claws. As for commas, let’s just say, like centipedes and earwigs, we’ve never been good friends. Sometimes, in life and writing, there are real bears in the woods. That’s when I scream and grab the toilet plunger and the vacuum. Whatever happens after that, there’s bound to be a story, just begging to be told.

Lisa Ahn, Columnist emeritus

Lisa Ahn's writing has appeared in Quiddity, PANK, Limestone, Prick of the Spindle, Toasted Cheese and Literary Mama, among others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two spunky daughters, three cats, and a dog who steals everybody's socks.

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  • Vaughn Roycroft

    Huh. I happen to be avoiding doing the work right now. Today. At this moment. And I can clearly see that my fear is at the root of it. And, thanks to you, I can now see that being afraid all day is worse than actually doing it. Thanks! Wishing you a summer free of earwigs, Lisa!

    • Lisa Ahn

      Our writing lives are running parallel again! Thanks Vaughn.

  • Kathryn Dyche Dechairo

    Love the one-two punch of fear and fantasy. Fear is such a rich source of inspiration. Glad to know I’m not the only one who see the vacuum as a weapon to be used against frightful monsters.

    • Lisa Ahn

      Never underestimate the vacuum or the story — thanks Kathryn.

  • Patrick Ahn

    I don’t know what your talking about with these bad habits of mine to pass on to our children…what bad habits? Haha! I love reading your writing because you are so careful and meticulous in how you write to make it just right. Your choice of words and the order in which they come conjure of some of the most amazing images in my mind! I know that it is scary to put your thoughts to “paper” as it were, but the results are fantastic, and I know that you will get your book published!

    • Lisa Ahn

      Thanks for this, and for putting up with me. 🙂