On Fear

March 11, 2019

I am not a fearful person. Last year, I was ill enough that I thought I would die; I made my peace with it. This experience was useful. It taught me what I find important in life. The certainty that I would die made life feel like a second chance, to be used more wisely than the life before. Fitzgerald said this wouldn’t happen; I’m American, and should get no second act, after wantonly wasting the first. It put things into perspective. If one doesn’t fear death, or value life, then one can’t really be threatened or coerced.

These past few weeks, though, I’ve been afraid. Or if not afraid, at least daunted and stressed. I am not afraid of failure. The easiest way to avoid failure is simply not to attempt anything. But that’s what I did for most of my life, and it’s self-evidently unsatisfying. It can only appear satisfying if one sufficiently busies and stultifies oneself into an inability to consider things as basic as satisfaction.

I’m daunted by how much work I have left to do, how much is left for me to write, and whether I can write it within the time I have. I’m sensitive, too, about how others view my progress. Friends want updates, when they really can’t understand the nature of what I’m doing. They ask the wrong questions about the novel I’m writing. The worst is “What is the story?” or maybe “What’s it about?” What I’m trying to write is like music, or architecture; to ask what it’s about is to show ignorance of the basic form.

I’ve read advice not to speak about writing; I am finding this is right. Others harbour the illusion that they know what writing is like, because they think they know how to read, though this ability in reality is rare and rarely exercised. But even if they’re well-read, words do strangely little justice to writing.

I’ve never felt this way about work before, because I’ve never done any work this difficult, or work in which I felt invested in the outcome.

Investment may explain the fear. If that’s the problem, the solution must be not to invest myself in the outcome, only to invest myself in the process. A process can be learned, while an outcome can’t. A process is simple, in a sense: it’s the application of effort over time. Anything needed on the way is gleaned by virtue of the effort. Whether the process can be taught is another question. It may be that each person has to learn it for him- or herself.

Writing is unique, and to be unique, it can’t really take input from others, and certainly not from those who have not created anything. A musician or a painter would probably be in a better position to give advice about how to write than would a reader.

In a way, whatever I needed to know before embarking had to be learned then, not now. If I take my own advice, then I need only apply myself to the utmost to this task, and proceed. And in this way losing my fear of work may be the same as losing my fear of death. It may depend on a sense that I’ve got a second chance, and that this is it: I have to use it.

I’m a talkative person. I will say what I think and what I feel. At the moment, I only really think about what I’m writing, and my feelings are wrapped around that too. This is a problem, since I speak to others, and others don’t understand what it’s like to write, but they think that they do.

It’s not that speaking about it does the writing itself any violence. The words, in a certain sense, don’t come from me anyway, and in another sense cannot be harmed by the words of others. But I do feel protective, defensive of the inchoate work itself, as if it were a child. And as if I were a child; I do feel that the part of me that writes is a child. I, in my limited ability to be an adult, just set up the conditions for the child.

The violence that comes in these conversations is a defensive violence, that comes from defending the defenseless against the incursions of the world. To be pacific, I must be silent. To suffer in silence. Which is what I’m finding hard.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.