Vanquishing Fear Through Your Curiosity
Some stories beckon us, sing to us, and we excitedly follow them as if opening the door to a festive party. Other stories are fraught with a foreboding sense of danger. As you approach them, you encounter an uncomfortable uncertainty, the forbidding chill of a discomfiting dare. You fear entering the story. You fear that you lack the ability to pull it off.
It’s easy to shirk away from writing things that are frightful. It’s easy to get scared by possible ridicule, social rejection, or by emotions you’ve repressed for years. Fear overtakes your mind like a tsunami’s wave. It crashes into your thoughts and can literally sweep away your creative impulses. You fear what you might be. You fear what you are.
Fear twists the needle of your compass in a different direction — away from your creativity.
Fear twists the needle of your compass in a different direction — away from your creativity. It’s so sneaky that it can sidewind its way into your thoughts when least expected. It fabricates, bullies, and cajoles, dampening your willpower, your resolve, and your very belief in yourself.
But only those who challenge their fears continue. The dustbins of history are full of people who conjured disaster fantasies and stopped creating. You have to find a way to dissolve your fear, to flip a switch and turn it off.
Be the predator, not the prey
I once talked with a soldier who had to clear large areas of Bagdad for land mines during the Iraq war. A single wrong step could end his life. He told me that he had to condition his mind to be like a predator hunting for food — because the predator is in charge, curious, attuned to scents and signs. If he allowed fear to take him over, he’d become the prey, and when you’re the prey, your fear constricts all your senses and thoughts and incites the irrational. You can only think of your fear, and you become literally consumed by it. And then there’s the cruel irony: when you act out of fear, your fears tend to come true.
The same principle applies to your story. If you embrace the wide-open lens of your curiosity, your curiosity becomes like a super power, a laser that can pierce and melt any fear. Your curiosity allows you to inhabit your “inner wolf” and pursue your story with the keen senses of one in pursuit.
Some stories will wend through the darkest of paths, and genuine moments of terror can arise — because fear is, in fact, a product of the intensity of the creative process. A writer so often writes in states of dissonance, feeling his or her way through levels of discord and uncertainty, aware of the threat of perils ahead, and perhaps even more conscious of threats arising from within. Every story enters into shades of uncertainty, but it’s in those piquant, disquieting moments of precariousness where the challenge and heart of the story reside.
People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to take risks in their art.
It’s paradoxical, but you can find expansiveness in such uncertainty. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it in Letters to a Young Poet, “I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”
If you love the questions, fearful as they might be, then you proceed with curiosity; you decipher foreign tongues and follow the portents of your imagination.
So curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. The cat lives a rich life because of its curiosity.
We write to discover and give voice to an abiding mystery, and to explore such things, we often have to risk discomfort and proceed through tremors and agitations of fear. It’s only when we’re uncomfortable — when we’re challenged by new surroundings, new experiences, new thoughts — that we grow. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to take risks in their art.
What’s comfortable swaddles you like a baby. You’re warm, you’re safe, and warmth and safety are good, but after a while you realize that comfort induces complacency. Comfort can dull the mind’s sharpness, dim the lights of your imagination. If you shy away from the disquietude that questions present, you’ll miss so many unexpected paths. As Alice said in Alice in Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser! Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!”
Don’t let your fear shut your telescope. There’s so much to see in your story if you remain curious, if you trust that moments of uneasiness don’t arise to restrict but to open new pathways. Tolerance for uncertainty is the foundation of your art. Uncertainty serves to sharpen a writer’s skills and determination, not to blunt them. Uncertainty gives us the questions to write our stories with. Trust in uncertainty as a pathway to expand your story.
Try This: Rise to the Ultimate Challenges
List the books, songs, or artwork that have challenged you and made you grow? Did they confront you in some way, make you uncomfortable? What makes you uncomfortable or afraid in your own writing? How can you approach your discomfort with curiosity?
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.