One of my favorite scenes in the recent film A Wrinkle in Time, was in the cave of the Happy Medium. The visuals were stunning and the idea of a place with constantly shifting ground, where your state of mind could keep you in balance is a great metaphor for life. Especially for me right now where I find myself courting anxiety as the tasks pile high around me. Sometimes even as I’m succeeding at completing them at a healthy reasonable pace, I’m still looping anxious thoughts through my mind. (Serenity now.)
What made this scene even more memorable is that before Meg is able to successfully focus on (and find) her father, she has to release her anxiety and fear. She whispers to the medium, What if my father doesn’t want to be found? And he replies: “It’s okay to fear the answers, Meg. But you can’t avoid them.”
It’s okay to fear the answers, but you can’t avoid them.
This speaks to me on so many levels. One thing that fascinates me about writing is that writers have the ability to fear their own work. Especially when writing into the unknown (which is, like, always). Being seasoned as a writer does nothing to prevent a writer from freezing up, pausing the process, or procrastinating. Knowing how to write doesn’t stop it. Knowing what to write doesn’t stop it. Even when I have enough ideas to take me to the next step, I can be overtaken by a stubborn unwillingness to write. Writing can be very much like moving through the happy medium’s cave. The ground beneath you is the next sentence your write, and the next. When confronted with moving ground, it’s natural to think, what if my next step leads me to a sheer drop? What if my next step leads me to the back of a blocked cave?
Depending on what follows the question, “what if” can be the language of imagination or of fear. When I calm my mind and leave aside the “what ifs” that lead me to catastrophe, I move forward. When I court the “what ifs” that lead me to dead ends, I am paralyzed with hesitation. It’s my job to manage those fears so that I am always skating ahead when I face the page.
It’s a very human instinct—I fear the answer, so I won’t ask the question. Head in the sand, thoughts on lock-down, avoid, avoid, avoid. The problem with avoiding the answer is that the questions don’t die. They don’t dissolve. They just keep circling the drain, building up anxiety and blockages, holding back progress when it’s time to break through.
So, yes, we writers may stop writing to avoid the answer to what’s next in the story—but there’s a larger fear looming behind the fears focused on the plot. The larger fear is a soul fear. It persists, even after you write something you love. The larger “what if” is about our very identity as writers. What if I succeed at writing this story, this novel, this essay; what if I complete the task that I put my hand to and I’m no good? Writing is one of those acts that requires ongoing and constant validation. Whatever focus and determination that is required to successfully complete one project has to be gathered all over again for the next piece of writing. Writing requires a double consciousness—your ability to complete whatever you’re working on validates your ability to write. What happens next in any project you’re working on literally determines your identity and value as a writer. The answer we fear at the other side of any work is that we’re not good writers, in fact, we’re not supposed to be writers at all.
A bold and hysterical statement to make over a stalled story, but that’s exactly what we do. While we’re meant to be grappling with our stories, we’re grappling with our entire identities—our right to call ourselves writers.
What’s comical about this is no one can discover their strength in one paragraph, in one moment, or even in one story. Who we are as artists grows over time. We answer the question of our identity with each new piece we write. That’s what makes it impossible to use any single piece of work to answer the question of whether or not you’re a writer. A writer’s worth, talent, and body of work is cumulative and it takes time to build it.
No matter how long you’ve been writing, the questions linger. Are you a writer? What kind of writer are you? Are you any good? Well, here’s the great cosmic joke: You have to write to find out.
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam.