Writing about fear, image of category 5 cyclone Yasi, which hit Mission Beach in 2010

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Writing about fear:
Why it will energise your writing

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“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou.

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We recently celebrated the mid-autumn festival here in Hoi An. For weeks my neighbourhood was abuzz with the hypnotic sound of fierce drumming as the children practiced for one of the year’s most exciting events, Tết Trung Thu.

During the week of the Harvest Full Moon, each evening my yard filled with excited kids in colourful costumes, performing wild dragon and lion dances to chase away evil spirits.

The performers and musicians came accompanied by grandmothers running after excited toddlers and parents lifting babies up to the rearing dragons. The youngest kids were both scared and curious, they shrieked and ducked, but never cried.

It made me think how this was also a ritual in making the youngest members of the community look fear in the eye and become acquainted with it. All the while knowing that a large, loving, community stands behind it, holding space and catching the child should it fall. But it doesn’t. It just ducks and then runs back for more.

And that’s the attitude writers have to take.

As writers we must befriend our fear

We must look fear in the eye and befriend it. Writers live with many fears. There’s our fear of sharing our writing, which is close friends with our fear of criticism and the fear of rejection. Then there’s our self-doubt, and, first and foremost, there’s our fear of writing down the story that hurts.

But where it hurts we must go, because that’s where the energy is.

I see it all the time in my writing groups. Writers will skirt a topic, saying that they’re writing a book about, say, time travel. Then one day when I pull out the writing prompt “Write about what scares you a little …” the real story they’ve been wanting to write all along bubbles to the surface. The story about being scared to fall in love again after the death of a first spouse or the secret story about an illegitimate child.

We carry many stories inside. Trust me, the story you are scared to write, is the story that will  engage your readers.

Writing about things that are scary and uncomfortable is one of Natalie Goldberg‘s rules of writing.

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“Go for the jugular. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Otherwise, you’ll spend all your time writing around whatever makes you nervous. It will probably be abstract, bland writing because you’re avoiding the truth. Hemingway said, ‘Write hard and clear about what hurts.’ Don’t avoid it. It has all the energy.
Don’t worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh, but not die.”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

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Writing about fear: what sharing my writing taught me

I recently shared a few key scenes of my memoir about grief with a writing buddy. I was nervous, because I’d written about some of the most painful moments in my life. The day I was told that my husband was now terminal. The morning after he’d taken his last breath. The scene when I am about to hack into his inbox, driven by the quest to know the truth.

My friend’s reaction surprised me. They were great stories, she said, but she couldn’t feel my fear. It’s as if I’d edited out my deepest emotion.

And so I sat down and I wrote a chapter about what was truly the scariest night in my life. It wasn’t the first time I’d written about the night, three weeks after the funeral, when I was ordered to evacuate my home ahead of a category 5 cyclone. But each time I write about  the night I sheltered in pitch darkness for 12 hours, listening to the monster storm tear apart the landscape around me, I reconnect with raw fear. I write from a place of pure primal emotion.

Describing that moment of  waking up to the  devastation of an entire community, my writing voice has an energy that makes my readers listen with baited breath.

When I wrote about cyclone Yasi during my writers retreat, it took me right back to the fear. It released a creative energy that helped me to re-write the scenes that had left my writing buddy, weeks earlier, asking for more emotion.

I re-wrote those scenes going right where the fear is. It was hard. Really hard. But when shared it to my writers group, I knew it’s also some of my best writing. It’s honest and it’s raw.

My best tip for you this week:

Go where the fear is. It’s where the energy is. It’s what will give your story dramatic tension and what will engage your readers.

Just like the toddler who befriends fear watching the dragon dance over and over again for a week, as writers we must go near our fears unafraid and write about it again and again.

Make sure you have a community

My support network is not the extended Vietnamese family, it’s my community of fellow writers. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. Don’t share your writing, with your spouse or your best friend. They are not your support network and they will not give you the feedback you need to grow as a writer.

Share your unpublished writing, that first draft when you dare to go near your fear, share it with those who really know how hard it is to write about what scares you.

If you don’t have a writers group in your local area, join my online group..

Here is a writing prompt for you.

It’s a favourite in my writers group. It never fails to dig up something really deep and it never fails to produce a story worth sharing..

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Write about what scares you a little …

Set your timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping.

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I’d love to hear from you. Please join me in the comments.

What are you afraid to write about?

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1 reply
  1. Christine
    Christine says:

    Thanks Kerstin I’d forgotten about the ‘fear factor’. That post really said it all especially about the lack of fear surrounding us. I won’t share my writing but will use this prompt and see where it takes me. Cx

    Reply

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