Friday, June 17, 2011

Facing the Fear

On a warm spring day this year, my daughter opened a canvas camping chair and settled in to read a book in the shade of our small front porch. That evening, instead of hauling the chair back to the garage like she should have, she pulled up on the four corners of the chair back and seat front, collapsing the chair up into a vertical bundle. She stood it in the corner next to the front door and then went into the house.

A week later, we noticed the nest.

A mama Bewick's Sparrow had discovered the hammock-y nook that the seat bottom created, sheltered on all sides by folds of stiff canvas. She'd deemed it the perfect spot to nest, and before long we spied six speckled eggs atop a bed of woven twigs and straw.

Try as we did, remembering to use an alternate exit from the house proved difficult, and the regular traffic of neighborhood kids ringing the doorbell in search of playmates increased with the lengthening days. Each time someone drew near, Mama Sparrow took panicked, sputtering flight, several times smacking into the porch eaves in her haste to flee.

Then one day, she just never returned. Without her attention, the abandoned eggs succumbed to the elements, their precious contents surrendering to the chilly spring air.

As a novelist I am like that Mama Sparrow. I build a story nest. I outline on paper, weaving character sketches with plot points, constructing something tangible from the ideas floating in the quiet safety of my imagination. A new project excites me; it consumes my waking thoughts. As I wash the dishes, the characters speak. When I fold the laundry, scenes play out. Driving the car, I see setting landscapes rise on the horizon of my mind. All the eggs are laid. Nothing left to do but roost and write.

Something happens to me at this point in the project. I get spooked. I stare at the blank screen. I begin the first chapter, but wind up scratching the first scene. I start over with a different character, or put him in a different room, outdoors, three days before, one month later...

I give myself time off. Sometimes, I'm told, stepping back from the project gets the creative fires burning again. I try anew, and the same thing happens. I jump back again in panicked, sputtering flight.

And I've learned that when I flee often enough, the fragile ideas sense impeding abandonment. They cool off and perish, like unattended eggs in a nest.

For whatever reason, I don't struggle this way with my short fiction. And I question whether I'm just being stubborn in my desire to write a novel. Then I recognize, again, the fear lingering in-between the words in that sentence. The urge for flight is strong, but my love for writing and faith in the process must be stronger. 

And the moral of this story is this: Story ideas, like any artistic inspiration, must be acted upon in the heat of that initial, stimulating enthusiasm. How many times have you been driving down the road and a brilliant idea for a character comes to you? And how many times have you later gone to your computer to write about her, and her essence has evaporated from your mind like mist in morning sunlight? Writers can't put off inspiration. Not for a busy schedule, not for lack of sleep, and certainly not for fear.

[The above article was originally published on June 15, 2011 in my monthly newsletter at]

As I face my fears and embark on my second attempt at a full-length novel, I wish all of you the same inspiration and perseverance for your current writing endeavors that I'm beckoning for mine.  Write on, friends!