Fiction and Fear

"Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realized that they are more afraid than we are. On a day to day basis, they have more fear. Not of being dumped into cold water from an umiak, not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful. A central Eskimo shaman [...] answered, "We do not believe. We fear." -Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Q: Given that fiction writing isn't a typical activity for those whose day to day lives are prone to sudden cataclysmic events, and that writing usually requires, if not comfort, at least a degree of safety, the question is Do fiction writers fear enough? Are they too insulated? Would you be willing to share the kinds of fears that inform or influence your work?  (02.13.16)

Sometimes I wonder if all my stories aren’t about fear, in one way or another.  I find myself drawn to explore the lives of people who experience the world as a strange, alien place, people who, at the point at which the reader meets them, are on the edge of a crisis of some sort. I’m prone to high levels of anxiety myself, so perhaps that’s me leaking into the stories, influencing my characters. The fears that I explore in my stories sometimes have their roots in aspects of my own life experience, other times they’re my dark imaginings, prompted by my sometimes rather bleak world view. So to the question ‘do fiction writers fear enough?’ I’d say I fear plenty. More than enough, actually. I wouldn’t mind fearing a bit less. Daily life presents all kinds of opportunity for fears to manifest themselves. And there’s no way of insulating ourselves against life, no way that’s fool-proof anyway. I’m never altogether sure whether fiction is a way of dealing with fears, or indulging them. Perhaps it’s a means of exploring them. For all my sense of fear, I do experience that place between the first word and the last word of a story as a safe place, even if the subject matter is dark.

All authors overcome one fear the moment they become published: the fear of the unknown. You just never know how your words will be received, or if anyone will read them at all. In some ways, I think that's more extreme than skydiving. Thankfully, there's less chance of bodily harm (especially for us clumsy people).
        Every time I confront the blank page, I'm really facing my own demons. My experiences shape my stories, whether I do it consciously or not. This is downright terrifying sometimes—especially when the fears I explore in my fiction come to life in my own real world. Writing has taught me how to face my fears and acknowledge my feelings, and has reminded me that there's always hope.

We live in a culture of fear. We have far too much information about every disease that could kill or maim us and their blow-by-blow progression, about what is happening on the other side of the world, the state of degradation of the planet, every step of aging, miseries that we have not even had time to make our own, and that we might never encounter.
        I don't really agree that people in primitive conditions fear life more than we do, we just have the audacity to believe that our lives matter more, and that somehow we will be safer than they are.
        Any writer has more than enough fears to draw upon, either real, imagined or observed. I wrote a story called The Death of Fear precisely because it's when we accept that things out of our control can happen, and that these things might even hurt us, even kill us, that we begin to be truly bold in our writing, in spite of having too much access to other opinions, in our lives, in our thoughts.
        Truly.

Fear has to be managed and analyzed. I think many people manufacture false fear, for what reasons I'm not sure. This fear is no good. Fear that today might be your last, if managed, can encourage a person not to waste their talents. I work to get past the fear that people will think my creative efforts foolish or stupid. Fear that elected officials and others in positions of power take advantage and abuse their power is a good fear if we aren't paralyzed by it, good if we analyze the fear and then act in ways to make sure our fears don't come to fruition.

Fiction is the place where we can experiment with demons, examine them from a safe distance and dissect them while they're frozen in our pages. That being said, we have to know the demons first before we write about them effectively or believably. 
        For me, the germ of fiction is rooted in the fear of a real or imagined experience. My most recent fiction explores my primal fears of losing my daughter and the intrusion of the supernatural world into "normal" everyday life. Watching those fears play out in the relative safety of fiction is how I work through the fear-- it's narrative therapy. 

While I agree that living with fear could enhance a fiction writer's ability to create believable stories, I don't believe it's a necessity. A vivid imagination doesn't depend on one's surroundings. J.K. Rowling wasn't a prodigy child wizard who attended Hogwarts, but she was able to harness her imagination to create vivid tales that readers wanted to believe. 

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In 1822 the Spanish government appointed Miguel de la Torre captain general of Puerto Rico, arriving on the island in December 1823. The following year he was also appointed governor of the island. La Torre's main concern was preventing a rebellion on the island. Carefully controlling the government, he instituted a policy which he called "dance, drink and dice" (baile, botella y baraja, similar to the Romans "bread and circuses"), implying that a well entertained population will not think about revolution.
        It is said that Puerto Ricans are considered to be one of the merrier people in the world. In this moment our country faces one of the worst economic crises in history due to the awful financial administrations in the past years, taking us almost to bankruptcy. The unemployment rates are above the clouds, yet you still see people everyday in bars and restaurants, partying all day long! Fearless we are, or maybe careless, but our cultural and historical background supports this kind of behavior. We try always to find a better side of things in a unique way, that's part of our identity. 
        When I began writing three years ago I KNEW NOTHING (and I still don't know anything) AT ALL. But looking to the brighter side of things I began writing and I've written a piece in almost every genre. Not saying I'm good, but fear is not part of my vocabulary and it's a genetic/cultural/social trait in me. We learn only after making mistakes and trying. 

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I can't speak for writers in general, but sometimes I think I fear TOO much. In other words, if I start worrying about what someone else will think, or how my writing will be perceived, I freeze. I tend to write pretty provocative stuff -- not provocative in a sexy way, but provocative in that people tend to have strong feelings about one or more of the elements of my stories. I write that way because after years of working as a psychotherapist, those are the elements of the world I see. I'm fascinated by the choices we make, how we come to our conclusions, what motivates us, what other people might have done differently. I like to explore that in my writing, knowing that my protagonists might stir up feelings -- not always positive feelings -- for my readers. I'm rambling as I think and type, but long answer short... my experience isn't usually being too insulated, but rather being too fearful.

Do fiction writers fear enough? Honestly, I think we are some of the most fearful people that exist.  We may not  live in areas where we’re constantly threatened by disastrous events, but you know, even things that might seem small to others can be cataclysmic if those things  mean something to us personally.
        Writers fear all kinds of things.  We’re afraid of departing this world without having left anything of ourselves behind, we’re terrorized by the feeling that we aren’t good enough, we fear rejection and failure.  And those nagging fears can be huge, even debilitating.  And maybe that’s why we write fiction, so we can work through that stuff.
        I used to be a really anxious person, always conjuring up the worst that could happen. But with my writing, I can explore those fears on the page.  I’m currently working on a screenplay, a horror story. And this is where I put all my worst nightmares into characters and situations, and face up to them. Most are too personal for me to share, but here’s one that’s just a phobia: I’m terrified of basements. So guess what shows up in my screenplay? 

I doubt I've ever read an interview with a writer where they didn't confess to "impostor syndrome" - I have a feeling that's the most common fear among them! It would be interesting if there was some sort of textual analysis that could uncover the more genuine terrors lurking beneath all the pretty proses. I'm sure there are some genuine nightmares hiding in between the lines! Mine are pretty easy to spot. Just look for the bullies and you'll find little me, running away as fast as I can.

I think there are basically two kinds of people: people who know what's in the hot dog, and people who don't. People who know what's in the hot dog may still eat the hot dog, but their relationship with hot dogs is going to be complicated. I guess the point is, in the urban Anglosphere, you have to care and put forth effort if you want to be aware of what your environment's doing. Either that or you have to be the kind of person who can't stop noticing things. These people seem to have it tougher between the ears, and maybe fiction writers are these people more often than average. All in all, having the option of, or really, having to opt-in to noticing what's going on around you is strange. 

image (top): Persistence in the face of impending doom by Thales
#:  Barry Lopez, narrative therapy, Miguel de la Torre, Danielle McLaughlin, Blake Jamieson, Arctic Dreams

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