Monday, August 01, 2005

Swimming Into The Unknown.

It isn't easy, this swimming into the unknown...without a map to reveal what's ahead of you.

In Ralph Keyes' The Courage to Write, a book on how writers transcend fear, Gabriel Garcia Marquez shares his anxiety about stepping into the water of words: "All my life, I've been frightened at the moment I sit down to write."

And John Steinbeck, another wordswimmer, offers this: "I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one."

And Fran Lebowitz: "It's really scary just getting to the desk--we're talking now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine."

And Margaret Atwood: "Blank pages inspire me with terror."

But here's the thing: Keyes suggests that "fear is not an incidental by-product of writing but an invaluable part of the writing process."

"I usually write about things that frighten me," says Israeli author David Grossman. "Otherwise, what's the point?"

What if, as Keyes suggests, the very best writing grows out of our fears?

Listen to Paul Auster: "Every time I come to work on it [his new novel], I'm scared. I think maybe that's a good sign."

The most understandable trap, writes Keyes, is to wait for fear to subside before starting one's journey.

Here's what Lawrence Block has to say about fear: "Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightening and thunder; they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner. If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly."

It seems a lot of what we take to be writing problems, Keyes writes, are really courage problems, problems about being honest confronting others and confronting our selves.

But fear can point the way into your story.

Toni Morrison becomes alert at the slightest whiff of fear: "When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information."

The next time you're setting off from shore into deep water, think about Willa Cather's comment about how "she wrote best when she stopped trying to write and began simply to remember."

And remember E.B. White's observation that "if a writer succeeds in communicating with a reader, I think it is simply because he has been trying (with some success) to get in touch with himself."

Keep swimming!

PS - Take a look at Ralph Keyes' The Courage to Write on those days when the water seems too deep or too cold... and don't hesitate to share your strategies for dealing with fear so others might benefit from your struggle.

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