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FXXK WRITING DO IT—TWELVE LESSONS FROM TWENTY YEARS IN THE ARTS | LESSON 2: FOLLOW THE FEAR

September 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of Jay’s decision to become a writer. His gift to you all this celebratory year is DO IT – Twelve hard lessons on learning by failing, succeeding by accident, never giving up and saying FXXK WRITING all at the same time. You’re welcome!

 * * *

Compromise is the gateway to mediocrity. The writers you love and the ones who have moved the world did so because they created (consciously and unconsciously) works reflecting their obsessions without pulling punches.  They wrote knowing fear, but not being ruled by it. For writers, fear comes in two major variety packs.

  • Fear of failure: I will make art and no one will give a shit, it won’t be good enough, I will fail and everyone will point and laugh;

and

  • Fear of external judgment: your real and ugly self will be exposed, you will embarrass yourself and your family, the people at work will laugh at you; the world will judge you a weirdo creep fake and the shame you feel will lead to suicide/mental collapse/loss of marriage/end of the world.

The first is really subsystem of the second, so that’s our focus. Because I believe that fear of what others think is, in many ways, the barrier to work that has meaning or power. It may be the ingredient that separates entertainment from being art. Too much regard for the good manners of society has never made works that matter unless via irony and satire. The art that grips us by the short and curlys and forces us to take notice may be subtle, loud, perverse or elegant, but it rarely gives two-shits about what the neighbors think. And that attitude can help you grow. Example –

It is the dawn of a new century. After a year of writing dozens of shitty but fun short stories about slaughterhouse employees, people with stars in their belly, and Latvian terrorists with grenades for hands, I’d sold one tale for contributors copies and then . . . nothing but rejections.

I found myself at a Starbucks in Kingston, Ontario with my friend, Weird Ass Neil, an intellectual force of nature who loves horror, SF, and weird fiction and whose catch phrase, said in a low, intense growl while pointing a pointed finger, is-

“THAT . . . WAS FUCKED!”

He asked how my writing was going.

“Shitty. I’m writing about loners, orphans, and people without any kind of family history. It’s . . . dull.”

“Man, no family? Why?”

“I’m worried that if I do, well, my dad will read every father character as a commentary on him, ditto my mom, ditto my sisters. I’m worried about what they will think.”

Neil is about as subtle as a Death Valley Ice Cream Truck in June. “Dude, that gives a lot of power over your creative life to people that aren’t even in the room. You’re compromising to appease them before you even start and they likely will never read this stuff. How are you supposed to write new things if you cut off these important parts of your life? Sounds like a great way to write crap.”

Now that . . . was fucked.

Later, I read a great essay by David Morrell, creator of Rambo and a brilliant work on grief called Fireflies. Fear, Morrell argued, is working to hide the deep mines of important themes and ideas in your work. What you fear speaks to something you care about deeply. But you need to do some digging, you have to follow the fear, and you can do this by asking yourself “why?” and don’t stop until something is unpacked that speaks to you. I don’t have the doc where I did this “interview with yourself” the first time, but here’s a much neater simulacrum:

Why do you fear writing about family?

Because I don’t want to upset them.

Why would you upset them?

Because not everything about our family was super awesome

Why wasn’t it super awesome?

Shit. Where to begin? War trauma, alcoholism, insanity, death and grieving, kids against parents, old school gender roles, the attraction of fake violence and hating the real stuff, feminism vs. Playboy magazine, being the only boy in a house full of girls, being born after a kid’s death, fearing I’d die, too, just because I turned six, being told I was useless by loved ones, finding proof of that attribute at school, being surrounded by brilliant and talented people and having zilch to offer the world except cleaning my plate and maybe making someone laugh

Do you find anything here worth writing about?

… all of it.

Have you written anything about these themes?

No. I mean, some of it leaked out in the Latvian terrorist with grenades for hands story, but not really.

Why?

Everyone will hate me and I’ll be alone, like I was at home, an orphan in my own family.

Why does that scare you?

Because it will make a therapist’s prediction true – I’ll vanish into the streets and die. And that scares the piss out of me.

 * * *

Fear was hiding the stuff that made for my best stories: sex, body image issues, the tyranny of family history, people who live to serve and ignore their own needs, escaping into various forms of denial, the twisted nature of reality in different states of mind.

And when I confronted that truth I realized that fear was a compass whose true-north is being pulled to the sides because of fear of external judgment. Creativity suffers when it is ruled by said judgment of others.  But fear a particular kind of judgment? That can get your compass pointing at the diamonds around the coal in your mind.

William Blake warned that an artist must create their own mythology or become a slave to the influences of other people’s opinions. The samurai turned poet Basho noted that you should not imitate the great artists, but seek what they sought – the great themes inside yourself and write them your way. Be like the Brontes, Austens, Dostoyevskis, and Hemingways. Be like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Megan Abbot, Haruki Murakami, Sandra Cisneros, and other artists not ruled by the mythology of others.

Follow the fear. Fuck compromise.

Do it.

Jason S. Ridler

Jason RidlerJason S. Ridler is a writer, historian, and actor. He is the author of The Brimstone Files, and his latest historical work Mavericks of War was called a “visceral read that is also an important piece of scholarship” by Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes. He is a Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and teaches creative writing at Google, Youtube, and for private clients.

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