On redefining our relationship with fear

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“Inspiration without action is short-lived. The middle, even when it feels frozen and immutable, is always in motion. Things align and release beneath the surface that can only become visible with time and attention. If we rush a thaw, we risk a mudslide. A flood. A washing away of what we want to keep as well as what we want to let go.”

In On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block, Laraine Herring describes the moment she transitions a class of writers from battling some of their deepest writing fears to connecting with them. These are the fears that freeze inspiration at a writer’s core. Fears that no one will read what they’ve written — or that their kids will. The words of external naysayers internalized as voices of inner critics. Financial limitations. The fruitless investment of time.

I’ve felt every one of the fears above — and I could add many more to the list.

I’ve been reading Herring’s book in the first days of the new year, keenly aware of my own book whose shape and form are still shifting and evolving. Each step further in my explorations continues to reveal new paths to venture down, as if I’m wandering a subterranean labyrinth, a network of imaginary caves. There is a palpable sense of descent into the old memories in this space — things I’ve apparently buried.

The demands of the December holidays have kept me away from the work, and I’ve craved the stillness I need in order to attend to all that is in motion, as Herring says, beneath the surface.

Now, as I finally settle into this season of introspection, various fears from Herring’s list are emerging. She likens these fears to wildly flapping bats, each carrying a unique and personal message to the writer it haunts. My greatest fear in this moment: that the ember of an idea I’m nursing in my cave will disintegrate the moment I bring it to the page, leaving nothing but cold, dead ash. That without its light, I’ll lose my vision of the story and end up with a bigger mess than I left Iowa with.

In her class, Herring invites her students to question their fears — not to defy their reality or banish them from existence but to query them for guidance. To allow the fears to convey “their precise messages that resonate only with their intended writer — their beloved” (italics hers).

In my recovery period after graduate school, I was finally able to see my blocks as guides. But to see myself as the beloved of those guides is a profoundly beautiful idea I had not considered. That they come not only with their offerings of wisdom but also kindling in the middle of the freeze — or the darkness.

I wasn’t sure what kind of “middle” Herring was referring to in the initial quotation above when I encountered it in the preface. The center of ourselves? The middle of a story arc? The part of the writing process where we’re no longer starting but not yet finishing? It seems to be all three, and more — later chapters in the book, which explore but remain open-ended in defining this territory, are devoted to practices for connecting with the messages the middle provides. I’m adding a few to my own tool bag to supplement the established ones in my process keeping me in conversation with the work.

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It is easy to be hard on ourselves when we are stuck. But I have forced the kind of rushed unblocking Herring cautions us of, and Herring is right. The washing away of what I wanted to keep the first time I tried to write this story was the cost of needing to be done in order to finish my degree. This time, I am allowing the work to happen at a pace informed by my guides precisely because my fear — their concern — about my story’s disintegration is what will come of moving too quickly.

That said, an alternative message within my fear is that putting words on the page doesn’t have to mean making a running start. That the slow burn of my idea, now that I’m committed to exploring my cave, is exactly what I need to nurture with measured breath and adequate air — so I can use its glow to find my way out.

Consider a fear or block you’ve become aware of in your work. How does its message shift when you receive it as one from a devoted guide? Why are you the “intended writer” Herring describes for this particular message? What small action can you take to honor the wisdom you’ve allowed to surface by receiving this message? Share your thoughts with me by clicking the button below.