At some point last year I realised I had become afraid of too many things. It wasn’t rational. I don’t know how it began. But this is how it ended: I started running, which meant I strengthened the body of which I had become too protective. I ran without company, which meant I learned to enjoy time alone. I ran down deserted pathways, which forced me to confront jeopardy. I ran beyond comfort, which meant I faced up to pain.
Many authors live with fears and one of my roles as an agent is to acknowledge their fears and to defuse them; to chase them away. One of my authors in particular is often caged by anxiety. I write this for her.
Someone once told me this theory: We’re all born with a cloak of invisibility. The cloak keeps us hidden from pain and misfortune. That is how we feel, most of us: as strangers to unhappiness. And some of us keep our cloaks wrapped around us most of our lives. But once a person experiences violence, or pain, or grief, they lose their cloak of invisibility – they are revealed, naked, vulnerable. And after that, it seems to them that the bad things can find them more easily, and pierce them more fatally. In this way does a wounded person fear – no, know – that they will experience violence, or pain, or loss again and again and again. Whilst others wander on, cloaked, thinking: It won’t happen to me.
That’s what real fear is: it isn’t a dread of possible outcomes. It is a sense of known outcomes. It is knowing, what the worst thing will feel like, and experiencing it already. A person who lives in fear of failure, feels as though they have already failed. A person who lives in fear of loss, experiences loss daily. When we feel real fear, we do not predict pain, we experience it. Living with fears is disabling, distortive, self-punitive, and yet so many authors do just that. Authors fear loss of their career, their income, and predict it constantly. Writers feel exposed and vulnerable in their public lives: their work is reviewed on public forums, their attitudes and demeanour scrutinised. As a result, they fear and expect rejection and when it comes they fall on it like an old enemy familiar enough to have become a friend.
And then there is the fear triggered by the work. To write fiction – to create art of any kind – you have to open yourself up to feeling emotion in uninhibited, unrestrained ways. Without embarrassment. Exuberantly, passionately, absolutely vulnerably. How frightening! And yet, to do this, to write well, you have to inhabit those emotions without consideration of risk or danger. Without fear. How many times do I urge my authors towards confidence? To shake off anxiety? Only then do they write their most ambitious, most honest, most emotional, best, work.
Do you see the little stone in my picture? That stone was named Possibility by someone wise and kind. Their job was to help me to conquer a specific fear. They held out a bowl of stones and invited me to choose one. They told me that I could carry the stone in my pocket, and every time I experienced my fear, I could touch it for comfort. The comfort was: it might not happen. I could be wrong. Anything is possible. Even though I experienced my fear as inevitable, and pre-experienced it daily, this idea that I knew my future was a delusion, and a miserable one I needed to shake off.
All of the stones in the bowl were polished grey and smooth except this one jagged little black rock. I chose it immediately because it reminded me of myself, sharp stone in your shoe. I wanted to learn to love my rough edges through touching its rough edges. I like that my stone is free-standing, that it is interesting from many different angles, that it doesn’t need to be polished to be beautiful. I wanted to press its sharp tip into my finger when I held it in my pocket, so that I could read its message all the more clearly; so that I could feel my fear and its cure as a little pain.
It worked. Every time my fear fell on me, I touched my stone, and felt the Possibility of being wrong, of my fear being groundless, of different outcomes. Possibility has reminded me that, far from knowing what is to come, I can’t know. Anything might happen, anything is possible. In fact, if I try to know what is to come, I will limit my life in unwelcome ways.
Dear Author, as a novelist you are far better equipped than I to visualise all the wonderful things life has in store for you – the different paths you might take, the opportunities that lie in wait for you, the versions of you. And you have a big enough imagination too to pre-experience the joy in finishing your novel, the pleasure in seeing it published, the pride when you receive the praise that is always yours, the comfort of family and friends when your little book makes its way into the world.
Dear Author: find a stone that takes you back to yourself. Touch it every time you are inhibited by fear. That stone and this blog are dedicated to the endless Possibility that is your future. To you, so that you remember to write – to live – without consideration of risk and danger.