I’m not often a person that is scared of new things. I will say yes to something new, at least once, and give it the ol' college try. Sure, I have some nerves going into anything new. First night of class at Harvard and I was a bit anxious (a solid B grade, by the way). Going to a tech conference on my own? Of course I’ll make friends. Meeting a friend’s coworkers at a bar? Sure, I can hold my own. However, two Sunday nights ago, I sat in a small classroom with a dozen other people and literally shook with fear. My face hot and red, my fingers quivering, the paper I held whipping about like a flag in a hurricane, my breath like a clump of sand that I chewed and choked on, unable to swallow. What prompted this fear, you ask? Reading the first page of my very raw and problematic novel.
Since this is the year of pushing personal boundaries and fulfilling the stories I’ve told about myself, I signed up for Novel In Progress at GrubStreet, a Boston creative writing center. Sometimes, you just know you can’t do a thing on your own. Maybe it’s running a marathon or learning to code. Maybe it’s baking or drawing or fixing a car. Maybe it’s meditation or white water rafting. Whatever it is, you need a little help. For me, it was—it is—writing a novel. I need help. These characters have lived in my head for the better part of a year. I know some of their quirks, I know the big plot points, I have listened to their own fears. What I don’t know is how to put their stories into a cohesive whole. I don’t know what works and what doesn’t. I don’t have a group of people that I can talk to about these problems or the woes of being a writer.
Now, there are more than a few classes and articles online that may have helped me. I’ve read more than my fair share of books on the craft of writing, the novel-building process, creating the habits to bring one’s novel to life. I learned though, for me, in-person classes are more effective at accomplishing a goal. Having to be at a physical location, to show up and be present, is a thousand times better than sitting behind a screen interacting with faceless names. The fear is largely gone when I’m behind a screen and I think fear is a good indicator of growth. There is something intangible but wholly invigorating to interacting with your fellow humans in the real world. It exposes you. I believe in the power of words but I believe even more so in backing up those words with my presence. Plus, there is that whole spontaneity of live, in-person conversation that isn’t available through forums or comments.
It is with this thinking that I signed up for class. On that inaugural day, we read the first page of our novel, introduced ourselves, and explained what our book was about. My words thick and viscous, coming out of my mouth like black tar, dribbling onto the table that shook under the earthquake of my fear, barely explained what my novel was about. I tripped and fell flat, metaphorically speaking, and threw my hands up in frustration. I do not quite understand why I was so scared or so unable to talk about my story. Perhaps it’s because this work is mine, these words are mine, these thoughts are mine, laid bare, like walking naked down Commonwealth Ave. There’s nowhere to hide. To be a writer, to share the world inside my head with visitors to the page, has been a dream of mine since I was a wee one. This class may just prove that I’m a hack and that I’ve wasted thirty years pretending to be a writer.
Yet I need to know. I need to know what it’s like to finish a novel. Maybe I abhor this whole process of writing. It’s a real possibility. Until I do it, it’s an unknown. And so I push through my fear, push through the burning shame sprouting like a field of red poppies on my cheeks, and vomit out the words I have written. I will ask what works and what doesn’t. Do my characters have a chance at being part of someone else’s life other than my own? I just need a sliver of…of what? A sliver of talent? A sliver of a good sentence? What? What is it that I need? I do know that whatever I am looking for is far stronger and more important than this fear, than this temporary discomfort. Fear is a big motivator, isn’t it?