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  • Susan May

Who's afraid of a little blank page?

Fear, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” Nobody needs to research the word to understand its meaning. We’re born with the understanding of it, as a necessity for our very survival. If not for fear, we would no doubt place ourselves in harm’s way often with serious consequences.

So it was with interest I viewed recently on a current affairs programme, an interview with a fellow they nicknamed the Bird-Man. He jumps off mountains with flimsy looking, parachute-type wings, skims across the hillside at 200km per hour, and then lands in the valley thousands of metres below. As if that wasn’t dangerous enough, he, and his other crazy mate, place helium balloons a metre above the edge of cliffs, then aim and fly into them for that little extra thrill.

In the documentary, one of the balloons had snagged on a stone and then only floated inches above the ground. So, of course, Bird-Brain-Man still needed to attempt bursting the precariusly low balloon. And in this case, he failed, skimming into the rock and hurtling off unconscious down the hillside.

Miraculously, he did live to fly another day but endured series injuries but he has the full intention of recovering and doing it again. According to him, he suffers from a disorder called counterphobia, a pathological phobia to confront things that scare him.

Now as much as I don’t want to hurl myself off a mountain—in fact, I get nervous walking down steps—I would like to get me some of that counterphobia for each time I experience the biggest thing that stands between me and writing.

For twenty-three years, fear was a seemingly impenetrable wall, preventing me from embarking on a writing career. And even now, despite short story competition wins, and a building volume of published work, it is still there—large and looming. An Exercise in Control

Thomas Keneally is clearly an accomplished author. He is the winner of the Man-Booker, Miles Franklin Awards, along with many others. He also enjoys the notable claim of having his book, “Schindler’s Ark”, adapted into an Oscar winning film by none other than Steven Spielberg. Certainly he should feel some confidence in his literary abilities.

Recently, in a fascinating interview, he was asked that, considering his fairly early success, did writing come easily and did he worry was there any time that the writing might not come?

He began to comment, ‘Writing is an exercise in control,’ and then he paused. I thought this incredible author, with such a legacy of prose, was about to extol the virtue of controlling yourself to sit at a desk day after day. That is the toughest part of the job right?

After a long breath, though, he said something that truly surprised me. Award winning, Thomas Keneally said, ‘Writing is an exercise in controlling your fear. Above all the fear that you are not a writer. And that doubt is always there. But we are addicted to writing. Writing is like dope. It’s like alcohol to the alcoholic. You can’t do without it and alcohol makes alcoholics miserable and writing makes writers sometimes miserable but writing delivers a sort of transcendence sometimes.’ Wow. Devil in my Ear

In my first year of taking writing seriously, that same fear sat next to me, whispering in my ear for every page I wrote. Sometimes it was so loud it drowned out all common sense and reassurances by my best first reader, Hubby. Even the wins in competitions and enjoying publication of my stories still managed to garner negative comment from my inner critic—he’s really quite malicious.

'Surely, there weren’t many other stories in the competition,’ he would say, or ‘The quality for this particular competition must be very low for you to win a place.’ I wouldn't even hang the award certificates on my wall. He actually made me feel ashamed. As confident as I would feel at times, it was seemingly his job to bring me down, crash me on that mountain I dared to skim.

Then there was that week, two years ago, where I didn’t dare read what I had written in a section of my novel. The memory of the writing, so punctuated with the thoughts that it wasn’t just trash but embarrassingly unfixable trash, paralysed me. That was the week I cried myself to sleep, couldn’t read, couldn’t write and decided I was never going back to it again.

But the addiction called and at the back of my mind was the feeble, lonely thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I thought if I just read one page and then put it away, then at least I would forever still the mad thought that I could be a good writer. The Demons

In the end, the writing wasn’t terrible and, of course, it was fixable, and I learnt a valuable lesson. Writing harboured its demons. Battling those demons was as much a part of the process as coming up with plots, inventing characters, and editing my drafts. Writing was a conscious and subconscious mind game.

Ah, so now I knew the rules, I thought. That nasty critic voice will not catch me, the oh-so-wise writer, again.

I was wrong.

Two weeks ago, I began a short story with all the bravado with which my experience has endowed me. It was an exciting idea and the first few pages captured the concept perfectly. I read them enthusiastically over the phone to Hubby, who cooed and ahhed at my brilliance.

That night I handed over the remaining pages eager to hear his thoughts on my work so far.

‘It doesn’t work,’ he said bluntly. ‘The sentences are choppy and the whole opening scene drags. I’d scrub that beginning.’

‘Oh, the whole beginning, doesn’t work. Are you sure?’ I said, puffs of ego escaping from every pore.

‘Yep,’ he says, ‘See, you always accuse me of bias but when it’s not good I tell you. So now you can trust me.’

And that was all it took to keep me from writing for two weeks; to even spin me into a little sadness that permeated my life. In the night, that critic voice crept back in hissing like a snake, ‘You really aren’t much of a writer. Whatever muse you had has gone and found a better writer. Give up. You’ll amount to nothing.’

For over two weeks it went on—critical voices, sadness, and no writing. But I’m a confirmed writerholic, and I couldn’t stay away. I opened the story file and stared at the screen as I took a deep breath. I didn’t dare read what I had already written.

The literary critic had amped it up a notch and was screaming that the well was dry and best forget about it. 'You will never write another good sentence,' was his final shot.

And I almost turned away. Barely Hanging On

One thought kept me there, hanging by my creative fingernails. If I didn’t write that day, then I may not write tomorrow or the day after, and the longer the gap the more fear would fill it. Then one day might the gap stretch wider than I could reach. And the thought that I would never experience that ‘transcendence’ again, was just enough to tip my hands towards the keyboard.

By now the critic was hysterical—I think I heard, terrible, disaster and horrific in the same utterance—as the first sentences left my mind and appeared upon the screen. Then, like magic, he was gone. And it was just the words and me again and I was back safe in my home.

Later as I read the passages to my hubby, he exclaimed, ‘Brilliant, truly brilliant,’ and I was once again wearing my coat of many bravadoes. I thought, why, oh why, did the thought of writing scare me for two weeks?

And I’ve thought a lot about it since, too, because this shouldn’t have happened to me again. I knew it would happen but like all writers, I’m counterphobic when it comes to writing. Sometimes, I even like the fear. It makes me feel all-conquering. So why did I lose my faith? Why, why, why?

Because it’s magic, you know.

Writing is pure magic and we are magicians who instinctively weave with all our tools. And because it’s magic, there is no true formula. It doesn’t come from knowing that if you add one plus one you will always get two. It comes, and it doesn’t come; and it works, and it doesn’t work.

Writers are even braver than the Bird Man. Even that Bird Man wouldn’t jump off a cliff if he thought there was a chance that his wings wouldn’t work. Sometimes, our wings don’t open. We don’t know what’s waiting for us counterphobic writerholics each day but we take our chances.

We face our demons. We write to fight another day because there is only one thing worse than bad writing and that is no writing at all. And a life without writing scares me more than jumping off a cliff with only flimsy parachute wings.

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