Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been writing short stories with the hope I can eventually get them published in literary magazines. It’s been a hard, fruitful, frustrating, interesting, anxiety-ridden and rewarding time in my writing life, and I’ve come to rely on outside sources to keep me on track and inspired.
These can be anything from excellent short stories, Oscar-nominated movies, an episode of Mad Men, an episode of Chef’s Table, an article in The New Yorker to even going to a good yoga fusion class. Anything that leaves me feeling inspired and re-centered by what other people are creating.
This led me quite quickly to Writer’s Digest, a website that includes publication sources, access to writing webinars and general tips about everything from plot creation to character development. It’s a great source because it makes you feel more grounded in a writing community, instead of just sitting at the dining room table alone writing into space.
On the website several months ago, I came across a list of 10 questions you should be able to answer about your main character. The goal is to know your character extremely well even before you start writing so he or she is believable and your story stays focused. The list contains questions like, “What is he/she obsessed with,” “What is his/her biggest secret,” “What is the one word you would use to define him/her?”
Yesterday, I was working on question 6, which is “What is his/her biggest fear?” I started making notes, trying to think about things through the lens of my latest character, a mom who is on vacation with her family. And then it occurred to me to direct this question toward myself. What is my biggest fear?
The answers came very quickly: My number one fear is that my husband will die. My number two fear is that I will never get published and all this work has been pointless.
It was interesting to me that the answers came so fast, surfacing like bubbles from a deep fish: bloop, bloop. I’ve always hated that I’m such an indecisive person, cowardly, really, about making big, important moves, just letting the chips fall where they may. I’ve been this way about my education and career, I’ve even been this way about my infertility, copping out and saying if it’s supposed to happen, it will happen.
But here were two big answers about my life that I didn’t even think to second-guess. I live daily, sometimes hourly, with the fear that William will get sick again. I dream constantly that my writing gets rejected or gets published or that I need to get a real job.
So I texted my friends Julie and Sarah the same question, curious to see what they thought. And then I asked my husband. Julie had an answer and shared it with me, but said it had taken her a long time to figure out what it was. Sarah said she’d tried to respond to the text but had so many fears she couldn’t identify the biggest one. William, reluctant at first, gave me his answer and then changed it and then said this was verging on the edge of being too “self helpy” for his taste.
But I stand by how fascinating the question is. Except for Julie, everyone I asked has never thought to ask it of themselves. I’d been asking it of my characters for six months and it never occurred to me to direct it inward.
Julie says to acknowledge fear somehow feels weak. But once you have identified what you’re most scared of, what happens to it? Does it deflate? Does it lead to a roadmap for how to get rid of it? Do you understand your motivations more? Do you understand other people’s motivations more when you know their fears? Are you at risk of being too reductive? Is this too self helpy?
I look at my biggest fears and I see it can go both ways. When it comes to my fear about William getting sick, nothing can budge that. That is as engrained in me as my bones and there is no roadmap for getting rid of that puppy. So there is no point in thinking about that more than I have to.
But the writing thing. The publishing thing. Acknowledging that. Does that help?
I’ve written a book and a bunch of short stories in the nearly three years I’ve been writing fiction full time. Other than to friends and family, I haven’t sent out anything to anybody. Why? I know I’ll get rejected because rejection is part of a writer’s life. And when I do get rejected, what will I do then? How will I write then? It’s hard enough carving out something in a generally sunny void. What if that void is then wallpapered in rejection letters? I’m a coward, let’s remember. I’ll give up. Won’t I?
But if I never send anything out, it’s actually impossible for me to ever get published. So … what am I waiting for? I’m protecting nothing.
Anyway, it’s been an interesting mulling that I wanted to share. Maybe you’ll gain some clarity from it too. For now, I’m going to sit at my computer and think. And maybe, just maybe I’ll finally send something out.