Writing with courage and fear

Fear is not something often talked about in conjunction with writing. But after receiving (yet another) partial manuscript request from an agent today, fear is very much at the forefront of my mind.

When I was starting out writing, I was always hysterically happy about partial or full requests. Someone likes my work! Lots of requests mean it’s a matter of time before representation, right?

That’s what everyone around me said (and still says), but in my heart, I don’t believe it’s true.

I’ve had about 50 rejections on this manuscript, and about half of those have been based on partial or full manuscript rejections. Agents are only human, and they make requests and scrutinize manuscripts with their own kind of jaded cynicism.

If you kick a dog in a cage enough times, the dog will cease being vicious and simply become apathetic and afraid, a state of affairs known as ‘learned helplessness’. Learned helplessness is caused by a combination of pain and the inability to escape that pain… and unpublished writers are, quite literally, powerless in their dealings with agents and publishers. We can’t set deadlines without being thought of as rude. ‘Wannabe’ writers are regularly mocked by industry professionals on social media, sometimes deservedly, other times not. You can’t call, you can’t make any demand. You submit and wait anywhere between two weeks and two years for confirmation that your work is worthy – or more often that it ‘doesn’t grab me enough for me to work with it’. It is painful. You can’t tell them why they’re wrong. That’s ‘unprofessional’. It is a system purposely created to disempower. I now expect punishment, so whenever an agent emails me back, I don’t get excited: I cringe.

This isn’t leading into some kind of pro-self publishing talk, either. Self-publishing is just as fearsome. It is the ultimate gambit. Your book can be the most amazing thing ever written, but you are tossing your glass of champagne into a sea of piss. Maybe it’s 1/4th champagne, but no one can tell unless you point to the patch where your book is and scream ‘look!’. I have decided to self-publish this first manuscript, and while I am excited, I am fearful.

Being looked at is frightening. Not being looked at is frightening. This paradox is one of many that we contend with as authors.

I remember reading a variation of this quote in a Harry Potter book when I was in my late teens. It’s the only thing that ever really stuck with me – the notion that courage is persisting through fear, not the absence of fear. I grew up thinking that brave people were fearless, but they’re not. They are afraid and do it anyway.

I think all writers have to be pretty brave, by that standard.

The Fear

I’ve been a digital nomad for nearly three years, and have lived in 8 different countries for anywhere between one and six months, working from my laptop. The lifestyle is sometimes vaunted as being the ultimate in exploratory freedom, and there is, indeed, a lot about constant travel that I love. However, I have one great problem: I’m terrified of flying.

2014 has been an awful year in aviation: over 760 people are dead in commercial airline crashes as of the 28th December, not counting the breaking news story on Flight QZ8501, the AirAsia Airbus 320-200 which has just gone missing on its flight between Indonesia and Singapore. I am following the news and Twitter in the same state of suspended, obsessive horror that I followed the MH370 crash with. Even though deaths on commercial airlines are rare – 900-ish people in planes in 2014 vs 1.24 million car-related fatalities every year – there is a special sort of horror associated with airliner crashes. I cannot begin to really imagine what those people went through.

And of course, I travel tomorrow morning: catching a flight from Seattle to LA, then another from LA to Melbourne, Australia. I’m going back to Australia to look for a part time real-people job so that I can work on getting my books finished and published without worrying about digging around for freelance work. And I’m terrified. Terrified of flying, terrified of what I’m going to find (or not find), terrified of leaving my girlfriend in America, of the change, and of the uncertainty.

However, I have roamed the world for 3 years now, and taken every flight that I’ve needed to take. I sit there shaking in my seat, wondering if this will be the one where I end up dying, and try to work through the anxiety. Because that’s what fear is, I think: something to be worked through.

Flying scares me. Submitting to agents scares me. Fear of failure and fear of success are real things… but I think we have to overcome our fears.

My thoughts are with those who have likely perished on Flight QZ 8501, and their friends and families.

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