I love listening to writers talk about the craft. That’s where my Seven Questions Series came from. That’s where my blog came from—and certainly the motivation behind today’s post. Our guest author, Trevor Dodge, contributed a short story, “Real World Reject,” to The Night, and the Rain, and the River, a new anthology my small press just released. The launch party is at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 6, at Powell’s City of Books here in Portland. You’ll be hearing from more of these twenty-two authors in the coming months, because I have invited all of them to contribute to my blog. We’re excited to share Trevor’s thoughts on fear and writing to kick off this series and to celebrate the launch of The Night, and the Rain, and the River, edited by Liz Prato.
Fear and Making
By Trevor Dodge
Write About What Terrifies You.
This is advice I see and hear a lot as a writer. It’s advice I give out myself, to my own writing students. I’m guessing this advice sticks because to write is to somehow become or already be someone who is predisposed to being terrified. To being afraid. Maybe us writers are just afraid all the time, or should be, or something.
The things that terrify us, that we are afraid of, they make good stories. I don’t think anyone really would argue with that. Being afraid, it’s something all of us can get with, whether we are writers or not. Something we can all understand. “I’m afraid” or “I’m scared” is always going to catch someone’s attention, is always going to be an invitation to listen. That’s not anything particularly revelatory or revolutionary to say, and probably not even really worth saying. So I guess I’ll keep going, past the part that’s really not worth saying. Maybe it’ll end up at the part that is worth saying.
So I’ll keep going.
I don’t want to talk about what specifically makes us afraid. What I want to talk about is what writing does with that, how writing is an action that navigates fear. Being afraid, it is a state of almost pure arrest. It is a state where our senses are ablaze and tuned to the entire universe all at once, when every change in environment, no matter how minor, gets recorded and measured and shipped up to the brain where the recordings and measurements await action. What’s It Gonna Be, Boss? The fight/flight thing is a shorthand to analyze why we react and act the ways we do when we are afraid. Which is to say, in another set of words and syntax, to understand better what makes us human.
The writer, she experiences fear. She is temporarily arrested by it. In it. Her senses are ablaze. This does not make the writer unique, this being in a state of arrest, because the writer is not unique in this, not by a long shot, because everyone experiences fear. Which is maybe why writers always tell other writers to go to that place of fear and try to bring something back. I use the word try here on purpose because sometimes, let’s face it, there’s nothing really to bring back. Sometimes, there’s nothing in that place but the fear. Fear, again, it is a state of arrest and heightened senses. But most of all, fear is a place, and a for-real place at that, where what we don’t know isn’t just present and upon us; fear is a real place where what we don’t know, and our knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, it’s a knowing that is a kind of suffocating, is a kind of drowning. Uncertainty is what I’m talking about now. Uncertainty, it is the epicenter of fear, a kind of knowing that is terrorizing. It’s the paralysis of uncertainty that puts everything on the knife’s edge of fight and flight.
What I’m saying is that the not knowing, the uncertainty, the very core of fear, it is about being right at the cusp of action. Of making. This is the place where we stand and fight as warriors or we take flight as a flock of birds. These are actions. These are where the making of something lives. This is why other writers are telling us to go to this place, because we will quite literally make something as a result of our going there. And if we are brave enough to bring it back with us, bring back the thing that we have made there, we not only will have the thing, but we’ll also for certain have a story to tell about the journeys there and back, and we’ll be rewarded by everyone who has paused long enough to listen. Because that’s what we do ourselves when someone brings something back from that place. We listen. We will always listen. Telling a story is an action which exists one step past the place of fear. And so is listening. Tuning our senses to a story is not the same thing as experiencing the full assault of fear, where the whole world is spring-loaded. The writer, to bring us back the story from that place, she has already taken at least one full step past the fear. To listen to that story is not to step back there with her, because she is not herself stepping back. To tell a story is always to take a step forward, and when we listen to a story, we also take that step. This is what allows us to listen to things horrific and terrifying, and not out of some mode where we step down into another saying, something along the lines of Well, That’s Just A Story.
The story, see, it has survived the fear. And as storytellers, as listeners, as writers, our actions always step through the fear and then forward. The story, it is not the place of fear. The place of fear, see, it isn’t just uncertainty. It is inaction itself. It is that paralysis and arrest with senses ablaze. That is not the place where stories live, where making lives. It is the place where stories and the making begin, but not at all where they reside, and certainly not where they end.
What I’m really trying to say here is this: Be More Than Afraid. And but also: Don’t Be Afraid of Being Afraid. That thing about birds of a feather flocking together? It’s true, you know. And that other thing about the pen being mightier than sword? That’s also true. But you know these things are true. That’s why you tell stories. And why you listen to others tell theirs. It almost sounds like a choice, doesn’t it? The truth, though, is it’s not. We cannot live in fear because fear is not a living place.
Let me rephrase that.
We do not live in fear. Living is acting, is making. Fearing is solipsism, is and will only ever be itself. Your story is not your fear. Your inaction, though, most definitely is.
Yet another way to say this, and to tell yourself this, is to pick up one of those coffee mugs at The Rumpus, the one that says Write Like A Motherfucker, the one that captures the advice of our dear friend and fellow writer Cheryl Strayed, who has certainly had more than her fair share of fight and flight. Us writers, us motherfuckers, we do notlive in fear. We live through it, and we bring the story back with us. Fear can feel like death because death is the ultimate form of inaction. So as long as you aren’t acting, as long as you remain in that state of arrest—as long as you aren’t writing—you feel like you’re dead.
But you’re not. You’re alive, motherfucker. So write, motherfucker. Write.
Trevor Dodge is the author of two collections of short fiction (The Laws of Average and Everyone I Know Lives On Roads), a novella (Yellow #10), and collaborator on the writing anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing. He teaches writing, literature, and comics studies at Clackamas Community College and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. He lives in Oregon City and also online at trevordodge.com.