The Writing Muse: Fear

A few days ago, my 4 year old son came into our bed at 6 AM and snuggled in between my wife and me. This is a fairly regular occurrence for her, but I’m usually out of bed and gone to work before he wakes up. When I am there, he likes to snuggle right up against me, take my arm, and wrap it around him. It’s pretty sweet (except that it means we’re also getting woken up at 6 AM).

But on this particular day, he leans in to me and says “Daddy, I’ll always remember you when you’re gone.”

Ack! How do I respond to that?

“Buddy, I’m not going to die for a long time.” I don’t add the “I hope” onto the end. I’m thinking it, and I can tell by the way my wife maintains her silence, that’s she’s hoping I don’t say it. There’s no use in getting him anymore worried about the possibility than he already is.

“Stan Lee is in his nineties.” he says. Stan Lee, for those of you who don’t know, is the guy behind the Marvel Comics like Spiderman and Ironman and the Avengers, shows which my son is addicted to.

“That’s a lot older than I am.” I say.

“Yeah. One. Two. Three.” He starts counting.

“Fifty two years older.” I say. And that seems to allay his fears. He gets out of bed a few minutes later and heads for the computer to watch the shows Stan Lee has created. My wife and I giggle nervously and we both wonder exactly what was running through that boy’s head.

But I know what it was. I know it because I’ve had those same thoughts a thousand times before, both when I was a child and as an adult. After my kids were born – twins who arrived five weeks early on a very traumatic night where there was way too much blood and a rush to the NICU for my son – I could work myself into tears driving my exhausted self home from work, just thinking about what I would do if I had lost my wife or one of the kids, or what they would do if something happened to me. What if something else happened to one of those kids? What if one came down with a debilitating disease? What if one was kidnapped? Or lost in the woods? What if climate change made their lives brutally hard, where food was scarce and gangs roamed the cities? Would I be able to protect them? What hard choices would I have to make? Would there be a time I would have to choose to save one, but not the other?

I think most parents have these exact same fears. But I’m a writer, and perhaps these fears get magnified because my mind amplifies them until they either cause complete paralysis, or until they evolve into something else: a story. I take my fears, and I put another character in my shoes. Perhaps a stronger man. One who can solve the problems, or who reacts better under stress. The fear is the same, perhaps even jacked up a bit. But the reactions of the hero are too. They do things I can’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t. And in doing so, allow me, as a father, a husband and a citizen to relax just a bit, and to continue to function.

Fear, when it appears in my life, becomes a muse. It inspires me to see the “What ifs?” and to make them into a “What then?” I turn that fear into a story, and if I’ve done it right, I engage the reader’s fears as well, and that grips their hearts and tightens their chest so they can’t breathe until they turn the page. And the page after that, until the end of the story, where they can finally breathe again. That connection with those fears, hit or missed – a function of pace and characterization and setting – separates a good book from a great book, and it’s one writers cannot overlook.

The good news is that I have enough fears that I will never lack in ideas for stories. The bad news is that I have to live with those fears until I write them all down. And even then, they don’t go away. They just step aside as the next one takes over, and the next story evolves.

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