The Chronicles of Fear: Solitude, Glamour, and Joyce Carol Oates

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Photo credit: Joe Sass

When I first introduced myself to the readership of Today’s Author, I said I would write about fear; specifically, the fear that comes with the prospect and the act of writing. I believe that all writers experience some variation of fear when they write, though perhaps fear is too strong a word for some; call it anxiety, frustration, despair, whatever suits you. Some may experience fear in the absence of something to write about; some experience fear in the presence of something to write about; some in the revision stage; some all the way through. My own fear manifests in different ways, but most often appears when looking at a blank, white Word document, the persistent cursor flickering in and out. Waiting. Many ideas have withered and died in the face of that blankness, before even one letter has blackened the page.

When thinking about fear, I am reminded of something my dad once said: “Imagine what the Markussens could do if we just had the confidence.” This statement has plagued me often, especially at the maw of the blank page. It’s a depressing thing to say in some ways, but it also goads me, pushes me. It’s a challenge to find this illusive confidence. But I do wonder if my personal fear about writing has to do with confidence or something else? Am I afraid to do the hard work? Am I afraid of being anti-social, from removing myself from company to write? What creates the fear? What keeps it fed and flowing?

So, I decided to find out what other writers have to say about the work of fear in their own writing.

Joyce Carol Oates, who has been publishing for over 50 years and was thrice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, said this in a 1997 interview with the Academy of Achievement: “Creating out of one’s imagination is solitary. And I find that it’s fraught with anxiety much of the time. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. I think people who are artists will be artists. And some of them will have tremendous psychological strain.”

Solitary. Anxiety. Psychological strain. Not the most encouraging words to describe one’s profession. And yet she writes. Consistently and successfully. So, let’s look at these ideas one at a time.

“Creating out of one’s imagination is solitary,” Oates tells us. It’s no secret that our society is addicted to the idea of connection. The idea. Not necessarily the reality of connection. Be that as it may, our phones and our computers insist that we are and must continue to be connected. We must interact. We must sync up, link in, comment, pin, and give thumbs up ad nauseum. This is being connected; this is being social. So, writing demands a disconnection from all of that, as well as the actual face-to-face interactions we may have. It requires solitude, a removal from society. This is the first scary part of what Oates is saying. The second is implied: that when we write, we write from our own minds, and therefore we have only ourselves as critics. We are the only judges of our own work. For those of us who judge ourselves harshly, the idea that we will be the only judges (even if only initially) is enough to paralyze us. And so, “anxiety” is born. Questions arise: Is what we are writing important? Is it too controversial, or not enough? Is it boring? Is it redundant? Have others done it better? Does it have value? Does it matter?

Does it matter? In other words, what will the world miss without it, and by extension, without us? And this takes us straight to the gates of “tremendous psychological strain.” It’s funny, but it’s not.

In the same interview, Oates goes to say: “We work on things painstakingly and fastidiously. We have all sorts of emotions like despair, frustration, dissatisfaction. Once in a while, we’re satisfied for five minutes. Anyway, this product comes out, and then people react to it in ways we can’t even anticipate. They think it’s glamorous . . . The glamour is the illusion.”

Oates was commenting not only on writing, but also on the creative process of other arts, like theater and film. Three things strike me here: the idea of fleeting satisfaction with our work, the (unpredictable) reaction of others, and the realization that creation is not glamorous. All of these strike a chord in me, but it’s this last one that seems somehow the most troubling. What we see of anything—a novel, a poem, a film, an album, a play—is the end product. The polished and packaged product. And it is glamorous. We know nothing of the struggle and the process, and even if we do, it’s reframed in a sort of heroic and noble narrative. We imagine the author, with a hand to brow, staring out at an angry sea, lamenting the editing, the rethinking, the revising, the scrapping, but we imagine it all infused with such purpose that it remains glamorous. And the reason this is troubling to me, and ultimately problematic, is that I do not see this glamour in my own process, and in that absence, I wonder what I’m doing wrong.

Silly, perhaps, but that’s fear for you: it’s not always rooted in reality. As I grapple with and reflect on fear in these posts, I hope to tease out the roots of this fear, and to learn from writers I respect. In the meantime, what do you think? How/when does fear pop up in your creative process? And how do you give it the boot?