On the Value of Fear and Good Art

This post is kind of a response to something that Marie Loughin said in yesterday’s comments. Her statement, if you haven’t seen it:

There’s a difference between writing novels on an intellectual level vs adventure level vs personal level. I think the most personal are the hardest, because you add in an element of fear along with a deeper need to get it right.

So true, though what surprises me the most isn’t the fear of “getting it out there”, I’ve talked about some of the stuff in the novel with other people before and it’s jumbled enough that it’s not the literal truth; I’m not a sex addict or a dentist. I’ve never had a threesome with a subordinate or been arrested with a prostitute. Those are the surface details of the story that I’m writing, but there’s something rawer and closer to reality just beneath the surface, something that I’ll talk a little bit about as we go through future posts.

I really have two fears when writing this book; the first is of facing demons that I have locked away for one reason or another. This book has brought up previously-unrevealed emotions about events in my life, sentiments that surprise me as they spill out on the page but ring true for what I’ve gone through. I can see how a certain scene in a restaurant might form a dark mirror version of a situation that I found myself in just a few years ago.

It’s an interesting process, but as it went and more of these moments arose I found myself fearing what might get dug up next. Naturally, a great deal of trepidation came with bringing up not one but two of the most traumatic events in my life (in obscured versions of reality), the kind of trepidation that freezes you. I could neither go forward nor backward.

So that’s the first fear that I felt in writing this novel. The second is borne of a concern that I might inadvertently hurt someone that I care about. I have no desire to use fiction as a weapon, to hurt and besmirch others, even those who might have done bad things to me. This means that, as a scene evolves in proxy to a traumatic event, it takes very precise care to avoid implicating someone or reproducing something verbatim from the past. Character and plot are supreme for the story, of course, but those can be guided to some extent and must be guided if it’s in the name of protecting people.

This is a fear. Words have a great deal of power and have to be used wisely; I wouldn’t dare compare them to something deadly like a pistol, but the same principle applies in that when handling the “live ammo” of the past, you must have a healthy, respectful fear of the consequences.

In the end, fear drives good art. Fear of your own mortality, fear of the past, fear of the present, fear of what may never be. That’s not to say that fear is the only emotional driver, it’s simply a powerful one, and I respect it.

The States of Thingses

Apologies for the radio silence, wanted to give myself a full week to process the news. For those who missed the last post, last Friday my day job informed me that my department would be banished to oblivion and all of us had the option to compete for new internal jobs or take the severance package. I’ll keep my thoughts on the process itself to a minimum as I have no desire to burn bridges and understand that business does what it needs to do. I don’t believe this had anything to do with my abilities or the abilities of the folks in my department, nor do I think this was done out of any malicious intent. We just got caught in the middle of a bidding war for the company. It happens. I’ve been through it before.

That doesn’t mean that my emotions stayed calm. On the contrary. I had no idea what to make of things and what it meant. I went through the fatalistic stages of believing that this meant an end to my career. I imagined my wife and I ending up penniless and homeless (despite such a scenario requiring a disastrous series of events that are unlikely to occur). It all boiled down to fear, though. I actually stumbled upon this long-forgotten quotation from Dune the other day and it set off some thoughts, ones that I’ll talk about below:

“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 past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

This is never quoted in recovery circles (I’ve checked as part of my research) and yet it feels so important, as so many of the roots of addiction and mental illness lie in fear, the fear that drives us to avoidance. I realized that while I seemed to be obsessing over loss, this was actually a technique to avoid the deeper fear: fear of death.

As much as we ascribe endless complexities to the subconscious – and it is quite complex – sometimes its machinations are simplistic to the point of seeming dull-witted. Loss, for instance, often equals death in the subconscious, which is why we cycle through grief. And so the subconscious pushes this away through all manner of different techniques in order to survive. Chief of these techniques is anxiety, which is the anticipation of loss, a form of living in an uncertain future that avoids the challenges of the moments.

That’s an awful lot of navel-gazing to say that I’ve been afraid of death for most of my life, not just the adult part, and now that I’m entering some of the years where the reaper begins to walk behind, you my subconscious mind saw omens in a layoff that had nothing to do with death. Perhaps the impersonal nature of it triggered me so badly; I often see death as an impersonal foe, able to sweep thousands away with no thought or pattern.

So in some ways, a more personal layoff might have been better for me. Still would have sucked, but might not have been accompanied by such existential dread.

Today, things are a little better. My wife gave me a breakdown of our finances and our ability to survive on unemployment and savings for a good period of time. It calmed me. I have also realized that the the next chapter in my life may begin on the West Coast. Obviously I can’t predict the future, but I can choose whether I feel positive about it or feel negative and dwell in fear. One makes me feel okay and able to take on the challenges of the day and the other keeps me shriveled up in a ball and miserable. I know which one I prefer.

Oh, and on more practical matters, this obviously affects release schedules. Print version of Pathways is on hold until things become clearer. I just can’t afford the proofing process right now. I understand this will be a disappointment for a few folks, but I’ll keep you posted. I had briefly contemplated a “sell-out” moment of writing erotica in hopes of making money, but a few hours with a story convinced me that I’m not very good at it and even if I were, the passion is just not there. I’ve returned to work on Broken Wing, though it’s slowed somewhat with the other things going on. I’ll return to publishing soon enough, and I still write every day. That will not change short of death or terminal illness.

Anyway, just a check-in with old friends and new acquaintances. Hope all is well in your world at the moment.

Anxiety, Illness, and the Writer’s Life

I thought it might be time to talk about three things very near and dear to my heart lately. Anyone who’s read the site lately knows that I’m getting married at the end of the month in a big Las Vegas soiree-cum-vacation. Sounds like a blast, right? Well, just one problem: I’m utterly terrified of flying.

There, I admit it. Terrified. That’s the right word for it. The thought of takeoff – the engine cycling up, the bumps, the world going near-vertical – makes me shake in my boots. It’s not even the safety issues. I know that flying is one of the safest, if not the safest, ways to travel. I know that I’d have to fly daily for 21,000 years to hit the statistical odds of a crash (although how this comforts I’m not 100% certain as I’m quite sure folks who were in a crash didn’t fly that much). I’ve read all the stats, I can tell you how a plane works inside and out, and I’ve flown quite extensively. I know that, generally speaking, I’m incredibly safe.

Yet I’m petrified, and the closer we get to the flight, now two weeks out, the worse it gets, to the point that it’s interfering with my life. When the time comes, I know I’ll get on the plane and I’ll be fine. I have medication for that, but in the meantime, I’m struggling mightily.  I just hate almost everything about it: the speed, the cramped quarters, the all-or-nothing nature of it. I suspect, in fact, that that anxiety has contributed to my own, very bad, ongoing battle with asthmatic bronchitis.

So why talk about all this? Because it’s occurred to me that it has a lot in common with pursuing a writing career. Both involve a big leap of faith, and courage to overcome the fears that haunt you. When it comes to writing, those fears may seem more mundane: am I good enough to make it, why is my story special, should I even be doing this, am I fooling myself, etc. The thing is, I think there’s a direct connection between those feelings and the feelings I get when I think of flying. Both are unnatural, both are things that can easily be avoided, both are about taking risks to expand and live a fuller life. We could have chosen a closer, “safer” location for our wedding, but it would have missed out on having such a fun place, her family being able to attend, and a lot of great memories.

So I’m going to face down my fears – I haven’t allowed them to run my life to this point and I’ll be damned if I start now. That goes for flying and writing. For awhile there I considered going to traditional publishing because it seemed safer (and the benefits sounded like ones I wanted), but rationally, I think staying indie is the right choice for me. I’m still working through this one and need to weigh the overall pros and cons, but I can see that fear was driving some of my decision-making, and that needs to be removed from the equation.

Does fear ever take the wheel in your career? How do you handle it?

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Make the Music: Chapter References in The Corridors of the Dead

This post marks the end of The Corridors of the Dead week, and the bonus material for the book. For those who come here for my writing posts, they’ll start up next week. This little detour has given me time to build up a store of ideas once again, so even if these aren’t your thing, we’ll have more of the old stuff in the near future. But for now…

I’m crazy about music. No kidding. I have an enormous collection of music, ranging from Classical to Jazz to Rock to Country to Hip Hop. I discovered the connection between music and my own writing back in my early teenage years, finding that different songs fit different moods. I’ve talked about this before on my site, and found that a lot of other writers have a similar experience.

For regular readers who are also music fans, you might recognize many of the titles that I use for posts; they’re almost always pulled from a song title or lyric that I feel applies to a post in some oblique fashion. I’ve learned that it’s how I relate to titles of any sort, and I’ve carried it over to The Corridors of the Dead, where each chapter title is an oblique reference of some sort. I thought it might be fun to take a look at the chapter titles and offer either a musical sample or some sort of information on the reference. Of course, not all chapters are references, so I’ve left out those which are not.

Oh and some of these titles do represent spoilers, so proceed with caution.

Chapter 1 – Strange Things are Afoot

The book begins at a Circle K, so it only seemed appropriate to throw in this Bill and Ted reference.


Chapter 2 – Got No Room to Breathe Continue reading