Finding Inspiration in Fear: Explore Your Attic!
I can't tell you the number of times I've nearly stopped writing because of the crippling fear that the idea isn't strong enough, or that it is, but I've squandered it by making bad decisions along the way.
Even worse than performance anxiety is the knowledge that once it has been let loose in the world it will cease to be mine. I'll be exposed for the hack I am, and I'll never be able to take it back.
Far more potent, however, is the fear of never finishing it. The thought of coming to the end of my life with the story still inside me, untold, is even more unbearable to me. So I keep going.
Fear is the great motivator, the catalyst for every human action, whether positive or negative, the motive for every believable character's choices, and a terrific source of inspiration for stories yet to be told.
It is in our fears that we find the great truths.
If you're not frightened by the story you're writing, I guarantee it's because you've not yet explored the dark, swirling undercurrents of its truth and are merely skimming its sparkling, sunlit surface.
Ray Bradbury wrote in one of my favorite books on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, that we each have a "dark attic" within us, and that this locked, forgotten room of the soul is precisely where a writer can find his most useful, most personal, most primal material. Our personal fears are the key to our originality, and only by facing that "thing at the top of the stairs" can we ever hope to create something authentic and new.
In my attic is the ghost of my brother, who died when he was only eighteen, and my sister, who I lost at an even younger age. They look at me reproachfully when I waste time, as if to say, "If only I could have had the years you've had. What wonders might I have achieved?"
The theme of time, of how the past haunts us, of the finite and the infinite, run through everything I write and every decision I make. The fear of not being good enough, of being a disappointment to the parents who probably can't help but compare me to the untested potential of my ghost-siblings and wonder why chance took them and not me—yes, that is another monster in my attic, and a particularly vicious one.
As a result, my favorite stories are often those that explore the question of what constitutes a well-lived life. How much should we endure stoically before we throw up our arms and declare, "Life is too short for this!" and make changes—sometimes radical, even catastrophic ones—that quake through the lives of our nearest and dearest; but also audacious, world-changing ones that improve life for everyone (like Mrs. Pankhurst fighting for women to have a voice in politics).
Characters who yearn for a better life, who squeeze every last drop out of a single human lifespan, are the ones who most appeal to me, even if they meet tragic ends. And they usually do meet tragic ends. Why IS that? Is it a crime to have such a hunger for life? Yes, if it motivates characters to do things perceived by their community as threatening to the social order of life (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina). I can't think of a story where a character is successfully able to change the moral code of a society they're in conflict with. Not within their own lifetime. And there it is again - the problem of running out of time, or of being born in the wrong time, or of being ideologically ahead of one's time.
The most tragic characters are the trapped ones, like Newland Archer from The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, who is torn between desperately wanting to spend his life with the fascinatingly bohemian Countess Ellen Olenska (who stood for Europe's decadence) and his fear of exclusion from the suffocating, but comforting order of Old New York society. Even at the very end, when his wife has died, the world has loosened its stays, and no one would criticize him for seeking out Madame Olenska once more, he cannot bring himself to go to her. The question of why provides such fertile ground for discussion. That is the mark of a great book, and fear was its core.
So I dare you to explore your own dark attic to find inspiration for stories yet to be told, or a more primal source for the actions of characters you're in the process of writing about.
When was the last time you explored your attic? Why not go up there and rummage around? You never know - you may find treasure.