April 7

Being Fearless

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

― Frank Herbert, Dune

In any creative endeavor, fear is often the main obstacle to overcome. Even for someone who – as in my case – has been writing for years, I still find myself daunted by a clean, white page. It’s like standing on a cliff overlooking dark water. I know I can jump in…I’ve done it hundreds of times. But I’m still hesitant, unsure, anxious.

Sometimes it isn’t the first line or paragraph that gets me. I may already have that written out in my head. But once I get that on the page I have to take the next step into the unknown. Where is the story going? What are my characters going to do? What’s next? These are the little fears that make me pause.

It’s gotten better over the years. The more I write, both in volume and frequency, the easier it is to face my fears. It doesn’t take me as long to realize that I’m hesitating and force myself to push through. But still, the fear never really goes away. It’s always there in the background, waiting to push on the brakes, to slow my progress. Knowing and understanding are good defenses. I know my fear, know that it exists, and I’m able to face it, to acknowledge it, and that gives me the strength to overcome it.

I know I shouldn’t hesitate when I see the blank page. I should embrace it, knowing that I’m about to fill it with scenes from my imagination. I know I should be excited, ready to tell a tale, weave a tapestry of words, but there’s that pause and I think about it.

And that’s really where the fear originates, in the mind. Creativity, for me, is about spontaneity. I don’t like to over think a creative endeavor. In fact, I find that I’m most creative when I don’t think about what I’m doing, when I let my instinct, my inner voice, take over and guide my hands. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing freehand or typing away at my keyboard, letting my mind run with an idea always provides better results that a well-thought and mapped out story. I’ve learned that too much thinking, too much planning, ruins a story. It saps the creativity out of it.

Besides, I’ve also found that letting my mind improvise takes me down unexpected paths, down alternate alleys that I hadn’t considered. I can remember sitting down to write one story with a basic premise in mind, a start, middle, and end. But I let myself go at the beginning, just following my main character as they followed the path I expected them to go down. What happened was that after a few paragraphs my character did something I hadn’t considered, and this led the story down another avenue. What I ended up with was a really good story, but not the story I had envisioned.

So it works out for me when I let go, don’t overthink, and in doing so, I can avoid fear. Fear, as I noted above, comes from the mind, from over thinking. Too much thinking brings up too many options, too many “what ifs”.

Fear can be an obstacle, but it doesn’t have to be. Fear in any form – fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of trying something new, fear of the blank page – can never be completely eliminated, but it can be recognized, accepted, and overcome.

RB

April 1

Raymond Carver

I’ve been working my way through a copy of Raymond Carver’s collected short stories. I had read a handful of his stories when I was in college and I found a writing style that I wanted to mimic.

That’s the thing with writers, especially when we’re still trying to find our footing…we feel a connection with certain writing styles and try our best to write the same way. Initially, I wanted to write like Tolkien. Then later, in my teens, I wanted to write like Stephen King (I’ll write about him another time). In my twenties, it was Carver.

Carver reminds me of Hemingway. Both used an economy of words when writing. They didn’t go into great detail about the setting or the way a character looked. They gave you a basic palette and you could fill in the rest with imagination. I can appreciate that restraint.

But the same applied to the stories themselves. They weren’t overly complicated, but they made you think, touched you in unexpected ways. “Cathedral” is probably his most famous short story. A blind man visits a married couple, the wife goes to bed, and the two men stay up drinking. The night culminates in the sighted man helping the blind man draw a picture of a cathedral.

It’s a simple story, but in between the lines one can read so much. To me, the story is about discovery, about taking down barriers, about not judging people until you get to know them. The protagonist in the story, the sighted man, goes through a change. He resents his wife’s relationship with the blind man, is uncomfortable with the blind man’s presence in his life, in his house. He doesn’t know how to conduct himself, feels awkward, just wants it to be over with. But after getting to know the blind man he realizes that this is a human being, a person with wants and desires and feelings, and they bond.

That was Carver’s way. I see his stories as vignettes on life, snapshots of broken people, dysfunction, the results of bad decisions. They aren’t necessarily sad stories. Some are, but most feel like a peak into another life, another moment in time.

To be honest, I also see Carver’s writing as having a masculinity to it, much like Hemingway. Not to say it’s dick-lit (as opposed to chick-lit), but most of the stories are from a male point of view, the men drink and smoke, the women are housewives or work as waitresses. I don’t think it’s intended misogyny. Carver was first published in the late nineteen-fifties and was extremely productive in the sixties and seventies. His stories are a product of their time. Much like reading Mark Twain. The language in the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn novels weren’t intended to be offensive or to marginalize a group of people, it was the language and mentality of the time.

I’ve almost finished the collection of Carver stories. The last bit is a collection of essays he wrote on a variety of topics, so that should be interesting. But reading his work still inspires me to be economical in my writing. I’ve moved beyond trying to write like him. I have my own voice now, my own style when it comes to short fiction, and I’m happy with it. Reading Carver is reminding myself of something that inspired me, that showed me another way to tell a story, and that stories don’t have to follow a specific structure. Slice of life, real people, keep it simple. That’s what Carver has taught me.

RB