THE (SEMI-) GREAT FEAR & FAILURE EXPERIMENT OF 2012
By Kristen Forbes
My first instinct upon reading Yuvi Zalkow’s call for insecure writers to come forward and publicly share their fears and failures in a blog forum was to cheat. “You can all help me,” Yuvi wrote on his web site (www.yuvizalkow.com) “by blogging (or posting a video or image or audio) about your own fears and failures while I’ll be simultaneously obsessing about it during the week of my book release (August 13-17)."
Aha! I thought. Not only am I capable of writing on the topic of fear and failure, but I have in fact written extensively on the topic of fear and failure already in this blog post from two years ago. Not only can I help my friend Yuvi promote his brilliant book A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS, I don’t have to do any real work because I’ve already got this one in the bag.
What a scaredy-cat reaction to someone’s brave attempt to inspire people to speak openly and honestly about the real fears and failures that plague us in our real lives. It was almost as if I thought I could wipe my hands and say, “Hey guys, here’s something I wrote about this topic when I was 28 – but don’t worry, nothing scary has happened to me in the last two years, so I’m exempt from talking about any of this any more. Enjoy!”
Well, I’m not exempt. I didn’t magically figure things out in the last two years of my life and stop being afraid. I didn’t stop failing. If anything, the failures of the last two years were so epic, I’d be nothing short of a liar if I didn’t mention them. So let me start by mounting myself on the giant elephant in the room and saying in no uncertain terms that my last relationship, which coincidentally lasted two years, was a huge failure, mainly because of my inability to vocalize and address my fears and to instead allow myself to magically believe that a man who was never really interested in being with me would somehow evolve into a man who was very interested in being with me. If this doesn’t reek of fear and failure, I don’t know what does.
This essay, however, isn’t about the various and colossal ways I’ve failed as a girlfriend. This essay – and my life in general – relies more heavily on my failures as a writer, and sometimes as a human. To fully delve into this, let’s return to the year 2009. I was just starting the graduate program at Antioch University and I was bursting with shiny optimism and a sense that absolutely anything was possible.
And it was, and it always is. I was about to start work on a novel, something I’d only dreamed about up until this point. I was scared to start, but I started anyway. And while I am by no means an expert of any kind and I strongly discourage you from taking any of my advice too seriously, I will reveal this as Lesson #1: Let the fear drive you. Not knowing if I could actually do it, but trying anyway, was a beautiful thing. It was a freeing thing. It was exactly what I needed to get started. I was clueless, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t really care. I just wanted to start a book, and so I did. And this is the greatest thing fear can do for us. It allows us to step out of our own way, because we’re so convinced that we don’t know what we’re doing, there seems to be no loss in trying. And so we try.
The feedback I received from my first mentor was positive and motivating. It was so positive and motivating, I kept going until I made it past the brink of “Maybe I could try writing a book” to “I started writing a book, and now I have to keep going.” And though I was still scared shitless – and I’m still convinced this is a positive thing – I kept writing.
My second mentor wanted me to change everything. She wanted me to change the tense. She wanted me to change the point of view. The edits she suggested were grand and sweeping, and my immediate reaction was to curl up into a ball of fear. I was so afraid of losing my momentum. I was so afraid of getting so caught up in making such big changes that I couldn’t continue to move forward with my half-written story. But I did what I had to do: I addressed her changes. And unsurprisingly, I learned a lot about myself and my story as I did. I learned that there is always more than one way to write a story. I learned I didn’t have to be stuck. I learned I could change every big element in my book and all the small things would remain intact. And I guess that’s Lesson #2: Change everything. And by everything, I mean the things that scare you the most. The things you’re so attached to, you don’t think you can live without them. Dear Sugar would phrase this as “being brave enough to break your own heart.”
I changed everything, and then I changed a lot of it back. I kept my mentor’s suggestion for writing in the past tense, which was brilliant, but I returned to my first person point of view, which was the only way I felt I could convey this particular story. I took my newly revised version of the book and I hobbled toward the end of a first draft.
And that’s when the fear really set in. Because you see, I didn’t really have an ending. I never had an ending. I truly had no idea how to end this story. And my fear of being unable to end it, of getting so close to the end and then just blowing it, was so big that I let it consume me. Not only was I consumed, I was paralyzed. There was no way in hell I was going to figure out how to end my novel.
Lesson #3: Write an ending. Any ending. ANY GODDAMN ENDING.
The one I wrote was sloppy, stupid, silly, systematic, and shitty. And that was okay. Because by writing that ending, I finished the first draft of my book. And by finishing the first draft of my book, my fears and failures would start to dissolve and success would finally reach me.
That last sentence is the dumbest one ever composed. The fact that I truly believed it shows how green I really was. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: My fears were about to get so much bigger, and my failures so much greater, and thinking for a second that I’d conquered anything was absolutely ridiculous.
Here’s what happened next, and it’s the dumbest thing that could have happened: I fell in love with a writer. I fell in love with a writer who loved my writing. I fell in love with a writer who was convinced I could sell my novel, and equally convinced that other people would want to read it. This writer had small suggestions for me for how to improve my work, but mostly he had encouragement and pride and an unwavering belief in my abilities as a writer.
And that’s when I really lost my shit. I let his voice creep into my head. I listened as he told me that I could do something – I could really, really do something – with this clunky pile of papers I called a manuscript. You have to keep going, he told me. You have to go all the way with this.
I realized I had made a horrible mistake. I had duped a wonderful man into believing I was something I wasn’t. I had convinced him that I knew what the hell I was doing, and that I had the ability to write a successful novel. None of these things were true, and now I added the guilt of tricking him into thinking I was better than I was onto my list of inadequacies.
His expectations of me were so beautiful and so high, I though the only proper response was to completely freeze up. So I made glorious excuses. I conveniently landed with a mentor more interested in working on short stories than a novel, and I used this as an excuse to shelf my book for six months. Of course, in the end, shelving my book for six months really was the best thing I possibly could have done for my book, but that’s not why I did it. I did it because it was convenient, and I did it because I was scared, and I did it because I wasn’t ready to live up to the expectations others had of me.
Lesson #4: Run away.
Eventually, I’d have to return to my damn novel. Which I did, with my fourth and final graduate school mentor. And he was not at first terribly impressed, which is exactly what I needed to drive me. Had he loved me from the get-go, I probably would have crumbled and quit. Instead he forced me to work harder, and this was just what I needed. After I worked harder, however, and he decided that he did in fact like my writing, the fear set in again. During this time I was encouraged to start querying agents and sending out my manuscript, and I was once again convinced that there had been a terrible mistake and people didn’t realize that I had no idea what I was doing and no business pretending that I did.
On some level, I needed someone to tell me I was awful. (Is this why I started so many ridiculous fights with my boyfriend? Maybe. I can’t even begin to tell you why I do half the things I do.) I only know that the more confidence others showed in me, the more scared I got. But I’d reached a point where my fear didn’t really matter anymore. Some wonderful people compiled some wonderful lists of some wonderful agents and I would have been incredibly fucking stupid not to take advantage of all this wonderful-ness and try to get my book out into the world. Which I guess counts as Lesson #5: Just do what you have to do, fear be damned.
The first agent I queried liked the book but was scared of the subject matter. The second agent I queried loved the book and requested a rewrite. We talked about contracts. We talked on the phone: her in New York, me sitting on the sidewalk outside a sandwich shop in Phoenix, Arizona. I was so, so, so close to having everything I’d worked so hard for. And because I was so, so, so, so close, I got scared. Really scared. And because I was so scared, I wrote a really hasty rewrite. A safe rewrite. And I convinced myself that the only person I should let read it before sending it back to the waiting agent was the man I loved, the man who loved my writing, the man who believed in me so much that all he could do was suggest a few small changes and say, “Go for it, babe.” Which was such a colossally terrible idea and such a great opportunity for me to get mad at him over nothing while simultaneously getting mad at myself for not being braver and better. And the second agent hated the rewrite, and none of the agents I sent it to after that were terribly interested, either.
And then I let the very worst kind of fear set in: the kind where you convince yourself that it’s okay to give up. When you say, “I knew I wasn’t good enough all along, and now the universe is allowing me to quit.” When you ignore the fact that all four mentors at your graduate school thought you had it in you. And both of those agents you first sent your manuscript to thought you had it in you. And all those kind people who read your writing in workshops at grad school thought you had it in you. And that man you loved so much, who probably never really loved you but certainly always loved your writing, thought you had it in you.
I let that fear set in, and I’ve been living in a version of that fear ever since. I’ve made up a lot of stories to bide my time. One of those stories is this: I now work at a retirement center, where I do activities with seniors. I run the Book Club there. I adore the ladies who attend. It is my favorite day of the month. We’ve read a lot of incredible books, and I love hearing the way they break books down. And I listen to them carefully, and I respect their opinions. And I know that this group of women, mostly in their nineties, would universally hate my book. I know this for a fact. There is too much sex. Too much swearing. Too many drugs. It’s too dark. It’s too, too, too. I know my grandmother would hate this book. I know that part of me would be ashamed for my grandma’s sake to have this book out in the world. And because I love grandmas so much and because I know the grandmas of the world will hate my book, I let myself use this excuse, this crutch, this FEAR, to keep myself from trying to keep sending the book out.
This, in a nutshell, is how I’ve allowed my life to become such a mess. How I’ve allowed my fears to dictate my choices, and my failures to justify my fears. I’m not particularly proud of the last two years of my life, though I have a finished novel and a dismally failed-but-still-wonderful-for-the-memories relationship to show for myself. When I first saw Yuvi’s post about failures and fears, I thought: I know a thing or two about this. And I do.
But here’s what I don’t really know: How the hell to get out of it.
Lesson #6: What now?
This essay was brought to you as part of The (Semi-) Great Fear & Failure Experiment of 2012.