How to Undo Fear: On Fear, Fearlessness + What’s In Between

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When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a social event and not know what to do, AND that there would be a social gathering and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a shooter at his high school, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

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In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford another car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.

 

When The Magic Moves: Putting Away My First Novel for A Second

FullSizeRenderYesterday I put away my first novel.

Packed up the printed drafts that I work off. Collected all the scraps, post-its, note cards, ideas scribbled on the back of receipts. I folded up the timeline and scene lists. I emptied the table I work on, and I arranged the entire life of my novel in a folder, and before I closed it, I cried for a few minutes. Said goodbye to my characters, to the world they’d been living in (the world I’d been living in). And I closed the folder. Put it on a shelf.

Literally, physically, viscerally put away my first novel.

I wrote the first lines—the first of only two things that have remained constant through this story’s different incarnations—nine years ago, in the back of my parents Volkswagen bus. I was fourteen. It would take me five more years of writing in fits and starts about this girl, Ana, before I started the Word document that would, eventually, become the first manuscript of my first novel.

This story followed me through high school, through college, through the first years of my adulthood. This novel was my writer’s rebirth. It was the rediscovery of my first love after I began to think I wouldn’t be a writer in my adulthood. It taught me small things, like how to use the Oxford comma correctly and what keystrokes turn formatting into automatic habit, and it laid the foundation for my written life.

This novel taught me about writing and rewriting, and about shitty first drafts and how all “all writing is rewriting.” It taught me to show up on the page, to force difficult characters forward, to write above all else. To not shy away from death or unlikable women. To be okay with the mess of creation.

This novel, which was never truly given a name, though it was called everything from “She Breathed Deeply” to “Overland” to “The Thing I’m Writing (?),” gave more to me than I gave to it, and I never expected thought I would put it away. Especially not when it was still unfinished.

I’m calling this “pausing,” not “quitting” my novel. Not because quitting sounds ugly, but because I don’t know if I’m done with this story or these characters. All I know is that I need time. I need a break. I need a new start. I’ve become the girlfriend who speaks in cliques, who needs to start seeing new people. My first novel has become the first love who gave me the courage to go out into the world.

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The decision to pause my first novel has been months in the making. At the start of the third draft (i.e. third full rewrite) this spring, I found myself paralyzed, unsure whose story I was telling. In any given scene, the perspective shifts between characters—I try to tell everyone’s story and can’t commit to anyone’s. I re-read the whole manuscript again, wrote narrative synopsis and character sketches, but still couldn’t figure out my story.

Is it the story of the family—everyone gets their share of the narrator pie—or is it the story of one girl? Do I have to make my other, equally beloved characters shut-up so Ana can take center-stage? If they are quiet, will she talk?

As I struggled with these questions, the work involved with reorganized the complicated, epically messy timeline became overwhelming. In the face of it, I turned away from the still not-started rewrite to write a short story. Then a second one, then a third. When I started writing a fourth short story in as many months, I realized I was practicing a highly productive form of procrastinating on my novel. I soldiered up and went back to it. More duty than love.

Still not started on the act of re-writing, I began reading articles about when it’s time to quit, give up, move on. Lots of “quitters are lazy,” “quitters aren’t writers,” “you never quit, you only finish.” Then I read this, about a novelist’s first novel, scrapped for something worth writing. Then a writer friend talked (emailed) to me about her decision NOT to quit her novel. I began to realize that this could be an option.

I could move on. If it was really time.DeathtoStock_Clementine6

I think most writers have that vague “next novel” lingering somewhere behind all the detritus of their current novel. For a while I’ve had two ideas. Each unformed, unstructured. Interesting, but not important. Diversions that I jot down a new note about every few months. They each had a Word document on my laptop, but they never held more than unfinished sentences and question marks.

Vietnam War? Brother in Vietnam? Male (maybe female? Not sure?). Girlfriend writes letters. Girlfriend breaks up with him. No girlfriend? Sister named Alice. Check out [book, documentary, historical document, newspaper article, etc.].

As I grappled with my First Novel (it became a capitalized thing), I had a scene idea for one of the two “next-novel-ideas” that I wrote down and expected to file it away. Then I had another idea. I bought a notebook to capture these details. Kept telling myself that I was working on the third draft of my First Novel. That I could turn to this Next Novel only when I finished my First Novel.

I read about a gruesome, 1959 murder, and during my long commutes, I started to think about domestic violence and California. I found this podcast, and listened to twelve episodes on Charles Manson. I thought about the West Coast and how houses hold onto their memories. How people can be shaped by what they don’t understand.

I began to think about characters, and one afternoon, three of them came to me. Each with a name.

It’s hard to ignore a person with a full name.

Yesterday, I put away my First Novel and this morning, I typed out the first eight pages of my next.

Part of me does feel like I quit my First Novel too soon, for all my calling it a “pause.” Another part of me feels like a sham for calling my stories novels at all, because in my head, a novel is only validated when it is purchased by someone else. (Cousin to the popular lie that a writer is only a writer after they’ve been published).

The louder part of me is excited. Electrified. I’ve found a new story, and it’s on me. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I wonder if this is why. I’ve shut off the television to research a state I am not familiar with and an era I don’t live in.

I am barely comfortable admitting that I’m “on a break” with my first novel, and I am intimidated as hell by what I’m taking on with the next. All the fears I’ve ever had about writing are converging—what will I do if it’s another disaster, if it’s hard, if it loses its magic, if it’s never finished, if it’s never published, if I’m never published—but there is that thrill. It’s going to take me a while—maybe months—to get the feel for the place, to really hear my character, to find writerly momentum, but right now, it’s all magic.   Dark butterflies and fireworks.

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It’s this kind of coast that’s taking hold of my imagination.

Summer is for Books: A Reading List for Summer 2015

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Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remember—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question have you read all these books? Manages to miss this point. The tense is all wrong: No have you read all, but will you read all.” – William Giraldi

I love books. That’s vague and general and obvious to anyone who has been to my house, but it’s true. My books are friends to me. They’re bodies that occupy physical space within me and within my home. They are my comfort, and my solace. They’re chroniclers of my life and my interests, and they’re my oldest, deepest hope.

They also fuel my writing more than anything else. It took me three weeks to read Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons,  not because it’s a long book—my hardcover copy clocks in at 326 pages—but because the writing was so vividly, deliberately compelling that I could only read a few pages at a time before I was stumbling back to whatever it was I was writing.

As this new summer starts, or thinks about starting—it’s 50 degrees when I’m writing this—I’ve been trying to compile a “to-read” list for the summer. (What’s more conducive to summer fun than structure?) I want more to be intentional with my reading diet. I tend towards homogeneity—specifically, literary fiction novels written by white women, usually published between 1980 and 2010. If I’m not careful, and I only draw from this well, I miss out on the bigger world of diverse writers, forms, genres and stories. Therefore, I’ve tried to mix authors and levels of fame and genres and subjects. I’ve tried to draw heaviest from what’s already un-read on my bookshelves (because as much as I love the institutions of libraries, I love owning books that I read more), but there are a handful of books on here that I’ll need to go seek out.

To create this list, I also had to lay aside my stress over the number of books that have been written, and the number of books that I want to read, and the preciously finite time that life has given me. At times, when I was scanning my titles and scanning my lists and scanning other people’s books lists, I felt at turns hopeless, at turns maddened knowing that I will never get around to reading it all. I will finish this summer with unread books, and someday, I’ll finish my life with the same. It’s an impossible task set before bibliophiles. We will never read everything we want to read, and for those who collect books too, we’ll never read everything we own.

But that’s part of the beauty of books. Reading it all has never been the point.

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Summer 2015 Reading List:

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Every summer, I try to read a classic, one of those 100-books-to-read-before-you-die books. Last summer, my mom and I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and this summer, The Color Purple feels like an extension of that. Alice Walker’s love of Zora Neale Hurston led to her to reclaim Hurston’s nearly lost work in the 1970s.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

I’ve finally gotten the message: Marilynne Robinson needs to be read. I’ll start here.

Life Work, Donald Hall

This is a book that I know almost nothing about, but when I saw it on a book list, recommended by Rebecca Stead, I was so intrigued. Work is such a complex thing in our society—as we come out of the recession, it’s a miracle every time a young graduate gets a job. At the same time, it’s the thing that we’re always complaining about, or trying to get away from, or reading endless articles about how to balance it, manage it, enjoy it, maximize it, leave it, love it, and on and on. A book about the need to work, about industry being happiness, and vocation being joy? That’s something I want to know more about. 

Ordinary Sins, Jim Heynen

Not only was this book written by a man who I’ve known my whole life, and who is very dear to my family and I, it’s also a genre I rarely read, and one that I don’t think I could ever write. Flash fiction. Ordinary Sins is this impossibly slim, impossibly elegantly slim book that gets overwhelmed by the bulkier tomes on my shelf. It’s indicative of the stories themselves: Jim packs the full force of human life into these miniature packages. In a few hundred words, he brings alive full people, with fully formed lives. It’s a skill and a talent that I want to learn.

This summer, I’ll be reading this—probably in one sitting.

The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton

I’ve held off reading this book until summer, because even though I’ve never read it, there’s something about The Outsiders that seems quintessentially summer to me. It has always seemed like a book written for that singular lonesomeness of warm nights and empty time and the confused, on-rushing adulthood on which adolescent summers are founded. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I’ll finally understand the full force of Stay gold, Ponyboy. 

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

This will actually my third time through this most-beloved book. I want to re-read it to answer this essential question: Do I really like this book? Because after two readings, I’ve never been convinced that I do.

Before Janeites come to club me to death with Austen’s own books, let me explain. The first time I Pride & Prejudice, I read it immediately after reading Sense & Sensibility. I loved Sense & Sensibility, and when Pride & Prejudice wasn’t a replica of Sense & Sensibility, I didn’t like it. The second time I read it, I was a bratty fourteen year old, and really liked being able to say I didn’t like this book that every other well-read girl my age seemed to love. (I told you I was a brat).

Because neither reading was a fair reading (and because I want to stop getting the death glares from people when I say I wasn’t a fan of Pride & Prejudice), I’m re-reading it this year, giving myself a third chance to appreciate a classic.

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Samaritan, Richard Price

This book is tied with Tiny, Beautiful Things as what I’m most excited to read. I watched The Wire this winter, and have never seen anything like it before. I was captured, and compelled, and broken by the television show, and when I learned that the writer who wrote some of the most brutal and powerful episodes wrote novels too, I almost ordered his entire bibliography on the spot. In the interest of fiscal responsibility, adulthood, etc., etc., I did not do that. I only bought this book. I’m reading it to get a fix of whatever it was that gripped me about The Wire. 

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, Rob Lowe

Celebrity/cultural figure memoirs are my brain candy. They’re my beach-read, my chick-lit, my romance novel, my hide-under-the-cushions guilty pleasure read. About once a year, I let myself read one of them, because, like real candy, these books are perfect when they’re an indulgence, and they’re very bad for me when it’s all I read. Also, I love Rob Lowe. (Sam Seaborn! Chris Traeger!)

Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

I, and every other woman mature enough to read Strayed, love her. I read Dear Sugar (inconsistently) when it was still an anonymous, internet column. I, of course, read Wild (and saw the movie, and saw her speak, and got my books signed, and hunted down every podcast on iTunes featuring her).

I’ve read a handful of these letters before, and I even carry a copy of “Write Like a Motherfucker,” but this is probably the book I am most excited to read. I control my consumption of Cheryl Strayed like a mother controls a child’s consumption of candy, because I want to savor her words. She writes with this hard, heavy beauty that does my writing good, and does my soul better. 

Volt, Alan Heathcock

There are two reasons I want to read this collection. One, is because even though I write short stories, I rarely read them. Two, because when I listened to Heathcock read from his collection four years ago, I was blown away. The passage he read (something about a fire, I think?) was elegant and violent and haunting, and I bought the book immediately. I don’t know why in the world it has taken me so long to come back to it.

The War of Art: Break Through Your Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield

I’ve started this book a handful of times, and each time, I’ve felt so helped by the compact wisdom that Pressfield doles out, I’ve stop reading it in all my newfound, enlightened empowerment. I have a feeling that if I read past page twenty, I’d get a whole lot more out of it.

This list feels both too short, and too ambitious, and I’m walking into June 1st, Torrie Jay’s decided start date of summer, knowing that I probably won’t finish all these books, that I’ll probably go off my list and read something else, that I’ll probably buy more books that I end up reading. Whatever else is true, this will remain: “Books, like life, make life worth living.

What about you, what are you reading this summer?