Moving Beyond Fear

Our fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge if we explore them.
—Marilyn French

I saw floating colors during the in-class essay, though I don’t remember Gatsby’s green light among them. I can still call to mind the tension of that sophomore-year English final in 1996. I’m seated in that chair, the pencil tight and slippery in my hand as it scribbles in the blue examination book, but I’m also standing behind my younger self. “It’s just the beginning,” I want to say—I can see that now. Instead, I slip fully into that moment. What I experienced then, I still want to understand.

The space of the high-ceilinged cafeteria seems to hunch over me as I hunch over the table, intermittently aware of the persistent scratching of other pencils. I’ve read Fitzgerald’s novel carefully, underlining whole paragraphs, filling up the margins with notes. Nonetheless, about halfway through the exam, I feel the bottom drop out from under me. I’ve rewritten and rubbed out the same line so many times, it seems as though the eraser will soon punch through the paper—and the specter of all the remaining empty pages looms up at me and turns the mundane world of final exams into a smeared kaleidoscope of flowing colors. Breath sweeping through me in gusts, I drop my pencil and leave the exam, sobbing.

I now look back on that day, from a distant mountaintop, as the pinnacle of my angst. Never again would anxiety overwhelm me so publicly, but overwhelm me it did, behind closed doors, despite the steps I took to ward it off—what I might, in those days, have called my process. I knew so little then and wanted so much. I guess that’s what we mean when we talk about beginning.

Process then meant strict self-control. If I lost control, I believed, I might also lose the ability to write, to express what I wanted, to move forward in life. Armed against that possibility, in the days leading up to a writing session, I permitted myself to read no book apart from the one assigned, so as to thoroughly focus my mind. It was a painful sacrifice since I loved to read and would otherwise have taken refuge in books of my own choosing. I drew up elaborate outlines, studded with textual excerpts and notes that I’d transcribed. I spent up to an hour alone in my room—the only place I could write—agonizing over just the right title. I’m sure I didn’t actually collapse in tears during every writing session, but it happened often enough that I remember it. I also remember what followed: I found my way into the piece. I drafted and revised it. And when I finished, relieved and exhilarated, the writing felt like mine, even though the forces that created it never did.

I enrolled in graduate school with the fervent, mostly secret hope that deadlines would force me to deal with the enduring anxieties of the present. What changed me, however, was not journalism school, though its rewards were many, but writing all the time. The more pieces I wrote, the less each individual piece meant in itself. The more time I spent writing, the more comfortable I became with how much each individual piece did matter during that sacred period in which I worked on it. And over time, I revised my own process in the same way I would a story. All along, driven by my own stubborn desire to continually advance, I’d been learning how to revisit a piece with new eyes, as though from a different slant of self, so I could then rewrite what had seemed just right each previous time. With each new layer of work, new layers of words accumulated and extraneous layers fell away, like waves flowing in and out. I served the story, and process finally served me.

Not everything has changed: Behind one wall of my childhood room lie cardboard and plastic boxes replete with old assignments. On my computer, I keep drafts of everything. Somewhere I still have that in-class essay that I eventually went back and finished writing.

I didn’t know, for a long time, why I held on to them—papers that so little resemble what I enjoy reading or what I now want to write. Now, though, I think I understand. I keep those pages because they mean everything and nothing; because I loved them and hated them for exactly that reason; and because they were the beginning—but then again, so is every fresh page.

This article is excerpted from The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication © 2013, by Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

Sierra Prasada, a Washington DC-based author, journalist, editor, and teacher, is adapting Dan Millman’s best-selling novel The Journeys of Socrates into a...

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