#319: FEAR OF STEPPING FORWARD, FEAR OF BEING SEEN
I was reading Cats Pajamas, and she hit on something that I have been struggling with for years but often fold away into the back of my brain: fear of writing. I was going to say "the act of writing", but that act involves several contributing actions in chorus. It is not the pen-to-paper or the imagining-of-ideas parts of writing that I am referring to. It is the fear involved with creation's inevitable consequence, birth into the world.
When I first started writing at the age of seven, I wrote furiously at times, delivering forth pages upon pages of stories and poetry. As soon as I caught on to the structure of sentences, and by extension, the structure of the stories we read in our English readers, I took to it like some kids did to swimming or action figures or climbing trees. I continually amazed myself with how often my lead wore flat and I had to make the trip to the garage where we kept the old-school crank pencil sharpener nailed to a wall.
It never occurred to me that this writing was a product of some kind, a currency, that it could be given over to other people to read in books and magazines. The only thing that occurred to me was how fantastic it seemed that these stories full of people and places and things that had never existed outside my own mind before could and did become pages of smudged writing in my Hilroy notebook. The act of writing offered me the first real sense of freedom that I became consciously aware of.
I have been wondering when that line between public and private grew in. It must have been just before puberty. I started keeping journals around the age of ten. At first, I hid them and wore the little golden key around my neck as a badge signifying my newly defined internal life, but by the time I was twelve, the journalling became a much more serious matter. I graduated from the four-lines-a-day five-year diary with the tiny lock and key to the more mature cloth-bound journal with no restrictions on entry-length.
Around this time in grade seven, I had a teacher who took an interest in my writing. After a poetry assignment, she asked if she could see more of my work, and I was thrilled. I brought her three or four more poems, and after that I started sharing my poetry with her on a regular basis. This was the first time that I had ever been asked to bring my writing out of hiding, and I revelled in my teacher's appreciation. One afternoon, she asked me to stay in with her during recess. We sat together at her desk, and she pushed a magazine across the desktop. Do you want me to read this? I asked her. Look on page twenty-four, she said. She had a smile that held some kind of delicious secret between her lips. I flipped through to page twenty-four and looked back up at her. What am I supposed to be looking at? She pointed her finger at the top of the page. Having never seen my own writing in print before, I had not even recognized my own poem. My teacher had submitted it into a national contest in which teacher's submitted their students' best works, and I had placed and been published in a glossy magazine! Honestly, I was so surprised that she believed in me as much as she did that I didn't even take note of whether I had come in first, second, third, or as an honourable mention. I was elated and terrified, and I went home after school that day and cried quietly in my room. I don't think I even told my parents what had happened.
As a child, before the boundaries between public and private became more clear to me, I wrote for the fun of it. My mind did not make leaps ahead to consider what would happen after I wrote something, but when my grade seven teacher read my poetry and had it published, I suddenly realized that my writing could mean that there was an audience, that others would read it quite aside from me. Puberty came along with its overly strict sense of public and private, and I became highly reticent to share any personal writing for fear that others might see it. Writing suddenly became something that had the power not only to unveil my fictional creations but also to reveal things about me personally. I felt a lack of control in that act, and out of a fear of my privacy being breached, I limited myself to the basic diarizing of daily events with only very occasional forays into the apoplectic poetry of highschool.
With this diarizing of my pubescent life, I let the poetry and short stories slide away from me to a certain extent. Far less poetry and storytelling came out of my thinking, as I was too caught up with wildly fluctuating internal emotional and intellectual structures, spending any available energies I had repeating my mantra even this shall pass away (the line is from a poem I found that my mother kept) and struggling not to lose myself in the face of my first bout with what would later be diagnosed as something between schizoid affective disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.
Until recently, I continued to chalk my fear of writing up to my being afraid of what other people would think. I placed the origin of my fear externally, figuring that I must be afraid of outsiders' reactions to my writing. I thought that I had to overcome my fears of rejection and abandonment. Over the last few years, though, I have realized something: I am more afraid of what I might see in my writing rather than of what others might see in it. The question is not really whether I am good enough or not to succeed externally, because how we measure our external success in the world is decided by what factors we choose to measure it. Some might see external success as nothing short of having a novel on the New York Times bestseller list for over a hundred weeks, but others might feel ecstatic over a small corner poem in a literary magazine.
The question, at least for me if not Cats Pajamas, is about internal success. I am terrified that who I see through my writing will be less than I imagine her to be at even my lowest tide. My internal success is not guaged by how well I am received by others but by how well I am received by myself. If I write, and especially if I write a lot, will I be able to accept what is reflected back to me? Will I want what I see? Will my words come back hollow and flat? Publishing my work would be a solidification of that creation, in a way. Do I want to put that out there in the world where it will be forced into a shape on pages for others to read without having the power to pull it all back, issue my apologies, and slink away like a drunk from a bar after a bad night?
I am closer to accepting that now than I ever have been. I am much more able to look at myself squarely in the mirror these days without flinching at the first sign of doubt. Some of the monsters that I used to try to shush and ignore and explain away have transmogrified into much more user-friendly tools for personal understanding. Still, though, when it comes to sharing my creative writing, I feel like crawling into bed and pulling the quilt up to my eyes. Not me. I didn't do it. You can't make me. Fuck off. And that thing you read? Yeah, we're not related.
This particular medium, this weblog, has helped me come a long way toward feeling comfortable with putting my non-creative writing out into the world. Even though I don't allow myself to do so, it still affords me the option to take back what I second guess, which gives a level of comfort that I don't yet feel with my creative writing. Each time I revisit my fear of writing and of putting that work out into the world, I find that I am closer to where it is I want to be. This is the first time that I have thought about my fear of writing and have been able to visualize my feet on a path rather than envisioning myself as some shapeless floundering thing creatively. Discovering that I have taken three steps forward for once instead of wobbling to and fro over the same terrain is disorienting and eye-opening.
Now that I'm here instead of there, am I still allowed to mutter oh, fuck, yikes, don't read that once in a while with the quilt covers up over my nose?