What I think about after a day like today is what makes me . . . afraid? Worried? Worried; I like that word better. Afraid makes me sound like a wuss. Worried. . . I'm only mildly anxious (even when I'm anything but).
Let me explain.
I'm doing this guest post for the Horror Writers of America blog, and so I get these questions. Of course, one of the questions is about fear, and more specifically what frightens me now as an adult versus what might have frightened me as a kid. I'll tell you what I told them: when I was a kid, I wasn't scared of very much except being alone, in a dark house, late at night. I think it was the stillness that got to me. So long as there was some kind of white noise—a fan, say, or some steady drone—I was fine. But once it got ~~quiet~~, every bump and creak used to freak me out. I hated windows without blinds or curtains; who the hell knew what was out there, looking in? So, of course, when I babysat, I made sure every light was on and the TV just loud enough so that when the homicidal maniac came through the door, I wouldn't hear him until it was too late. It was a wonder no one docked my pay to cover the electric bill.
One thing I didn't mention, though, was that I was afraid of disappointing my parents. It was just this global amorphous concern, and it completely freaked me out. When you're a kid, you work hard in school to tell the teacher what you know--and to please your parents. So, not pleasing them, making them upset or not want to have anything more to do with me . . . scared me. In my house, if you didn't please a parent, you got one of two things: either a very LOUD talking-to (accompanied by other very LOUD and UNPLEASANT things)--or you got the freeze-treatment. It wasn't just that you were letting yourself down (in fact, YOU, as a kid, usually weren't in the equation). No, no, you'd disappointed your parents. You'd hurt them. So you worked very hard at becoming competent; you studied harder, learned more, did more than other kids.
This may explain why, as an adult . . . I crave silence. I like being alone. My circle of friends is small. I protect myself. I love the dark. So, go figure.
Still, honestly, nowadays, very little freaks me out. I wasn't even all that worried for or about my kids, although I do remember turning all ninja-mom when some bozo spooked one of my girls. Guy was lucky to leave that grocery story with his teeth. (Another true story: big old wasp—we're talking something with BOEING written on the side—landed on my baby's shoulder? I bare-handed that sucker, threw it down, ground it to paste. My husband's eyeballs about fell out of their sockets. Then we all went back to our burgers.)
In part, I think my tolerance for the horrific is because of my past life as a doc. You know, hang around the emergency room or a psych ward or women's prison for a while, and you see some pretty terrible stuff. Now, it's true: I really don’t want to be held up at gunpoint; I don't think I'd care much for, oh, drowning, being strangled, or knifed to death. A stiletto pointing at my eyeball would be right up there on my freak-out-o’meter. (Come to think of it, maybe all those times I put my poor characters in those life and death situations, I’m really trying to work through things. You see, this is what comes of being a shrink. You navel-gaze a lot. You think about the impact of your parents in your life. Then you go see a friend or talk to your husband who tells you to get a grip.)
But, in reality, I guess there comes a point where, sure, you can be scared, but if you don’t do something, you’re dead. So if I get scared, I work on getting competent. A little anxiety is not a bad thing, by the way; anyone who doesn't doubt herself before trying to tell a story is a fool.
At this point, the things that freak me out all revolve around things that make me mad (and sad) because there’s no way I can become competent. Climate change and mass extinction are right up there. Scare the bejesus out of me because I know there’s very little I can do except scream at politicians and be as environmentally responsible as I can.
Today, though, I've felt a tad incompetent, and from the get-go. The book's not coming together; the cake was a disaster (okay, not totally; it was scrumptious but not pretty); I can't, for the life of me, see how I'm going to pick myself up from this mess. It does no good for my ever-tolerant, ever-patient husband to remind me that I am ALWAYS like this when I write a book; that I am ALWAYS convinced it is drek; that I ALWAYS flail.
For the moment--this instant, tonight--I feel incompetent, and that freaks me out. There is no help for it; I'm not some movie star, like Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond, who can watch old films of herself when she was once someone.
All I can do is remind myself that I have been competent; I know how to do this (this being write a decent story); and if things aren't coming together today, they either will tomorrow or the next day or at some point when I figure out why they're not.
Someone once asked me if there was ever a story that defeated me. I've written a blog about that, actually; and the short answer is yes and no. Of course, stories defeat me; they humble me all the time; they take me down a notch or two; and sometimes, they punch me in the nose and laugh as I stagger and bleed all over the keyboard because, to their mind, I've no business in the ring to begin with.
But the one thing I have always done is get back in the ring. I have always fought back, and I have always learned new tricks to best this beast.
There's this great mantra that Frank Herbert put in the mouth of Paul Atreides as he's being tested by the Bene Gesserit in a trial of mind over feeling, and it's worth repeating here:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone, I will the turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Wish I'd written that. If that's too melodramatic for you--but, you writers out there, you know what I'm talking about; fear really will cripple you--then try this one for size. It comes from an essay by Alexander Chee who wrote a fine piece about what he learned from Annie Dillard (a fabulous writer; her best work, to my mind, is An American Childhood, a book that still has the ability to make me cry):
What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.
So, I think . . . it's time: time to call it a day, time for a good night's sleep--and time to cut myself free and let my story find me . . . tomorrow. Because I'm blessed with a tomorrow.