New York Times  Bestselling Author

What are You So Afraid Of?

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In the past twenty plus years of writing fiction, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder why I write about particular topics and revisit particular themes. I grew up a fearful person, something I’ll post about at greater length one of these days. I think I’ve conquered most of my fears (with the exception of wide open spaces–shudder), but I find that I continually write about characters who struggle with their fears and who, by the book’s end, have finally managed to lay them to rest.

That’s certainly the case with my work-in-progress, The Lies We Told, in which Maya, a doctor, has been afraid for her physical well being ever since witnessing the murder of her parents when she was fourteen. It’s also the case with Keith in my current novel, Secrets She Left Behind. Keith has always had a fear of heights, but ever since he was burned in a fire, he’s feared fire as well. Of course, I put him to the test on both fronts during the course of the story.

Back in my days as a therapist, I was trained to view fear as a primary emotion, with other negative emotions being secondary to that fear. Anger is a perfect example. Think of the last time you were angry and dig deep into that emotion to learn what was really going on inside you. I bet you’ll discover that fear was the underlying emotion. A good example is the woman who loses sight of her child in a grocery store. When she finds that child, she shakes him and yells, “Don’t you ever do that again!” She looks angry, but she’s actually terrified. Fear operates under many guises.

I think authors tend to write about the things they need to gain control over, whether that’s loss, anger, betrayal, inadequacy, or simply a tendency to have one unsatisfying relationship after another (all of which, in my opinion, can be tied back to fear). In our stories, we strive to have our characters overcome the things we struggle with ourselves. I love that vicarious thrill of having my characters triumph over their demons.

If you were a writer, what demons would you be trying to lay to rest?

15 Comments

  1. brenda on July 23, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    My fears from my young adult years-none came to fruition but losing my mother (I hate that word “losing”…she died too young.) My fears now are those of most mothers and grandmothers-unspoken but known…Always about “losing” someone…really nothing else…

  2. Diane Chamberlain on July 23, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Clearly, you are the brave one here, Brenda! I don’t think I’ve ever had a blog post go more than 24 hours without a comment before. Bravo. (and yes, I can relate to those fears).

  3. Patty on July 23, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I read this yesterday & it got me to thinking about way too many childhood fears & this morning in the shower I realized a very specific fear. The fear of someone coming to my door, literally my front door, right now, in my adult life, but the fear was established in my childhood, and the reason made me want to leap out of my body and disappear and then I realized I have been trying to hide behind my door & be unseen & disappear my whole life, & to always fly way under everyone’s radar, and for the most part I have accomplished this. Your blog on this subject brought me this realization and I thank you for helping me realize the cause of this fear. It in no way removes the fear but it does allow me to understand it. Thank You!

  4. brenda on July 23, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Re: 24 hours–don’t you think we read this and don’t want to face our fears??? Putting them on paper i. e. email makes them real…reading them in a book helps us to relate.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on July 23, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Wow, Patty. Thanks for sharing. I love your interpretation of how you’ve internalized that childhood fear, and I bet you’re spot on. Your comment prompts so many thoughts it me, though. I am so tempted to get up on my therapist’s soapbox here! But I’m only going to get up on, say, a milk carton instead.
    I’m not a big fan of the sort of therapy that helps people understand where their fears or dysfunctional behavior comes from, for exactly the reason you site: you still have the fear, even though you now understand its roots. Of course, this is a controversial stance. There’s certainly a benefit to therapy that looks back at our childhoods and helps make sense of it all, but over the years, both as a therapist and a client, I’ve come to believe that the behavioral approach is more effective at getting rid of the fears and other issues that get in our way. It’s ever so much speedier and it works. And contrary to what the contrarians might say, it lasts.
    Patty, I am absolutely not saying you should do a thing about your fear. Sometimes our defenses are just what we need, and flying under the radar may be perfect for you. These are simply some thoughts for you, or anyone else, to consider if you want to change.
    Hopping off my milk carton now!

  6. Diane Chamberlain on July 23, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    So true, Brenda. Could I have picked a heavier topic for a blog post??

  7. ronnie on July 24, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I didn’t respond right away because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to really hang everything out there like a big matzoh ball but here it goes:
    I am afraid of everything! It started when I was about 6 years old, then I had a few panic attacks then it became anticipatory anxiety. I am now in my late 40’s and even though I don’t have actual panic attacks anymore I still suffer from anticipatory anxiety. I am afraid of not being good enough, people not liking me, confrontation, feeling closed in not being in control,and I can go on and on and on. My middle name should be “but what if”…… I’m even sitting here afraid to press submit, should I?

  8. Diane Chamberlain on July 24, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    You were very brave to hit “submit’, Ronnie! See? You can do it! I know you have a lot of company with that list of fears. I can relate to the “hating confrontation” part, which is why my first drafts are often very low on the conflict-o-meter. I just want everyone to get along, but that doesn’t make for much of a page turner. Even right now, 12 days before deadline, I’m working out ways to pump up the conflict. My big fear is being boring (along with wide open spaces, horses, aggressive dogs, bears, losing people I love and computer crashes).
    I was a child and young adult with panic attacks, like you were. One of my many big fears was hospitals. I’d avoid visiting people in the hospital and couldn’t even go into the waiting area without having a panic attack. After Little Zan died (previous blog post), I pictured a scene that never happened: the hospital social worker helping Zan’s family in the ER. I was working at a youth agency at the time, but I decided I wanted to BE that social worker. I started behavioral therapy to ditch the hospital panic, and within a few months, I was a hospital social worker. It is amazing what we can overcome when we’re motivated!
    That general anxiety you speak of is a little harder to address, but you could start with this: whenever that “what if. . . ” goes off in your brain, counter it with “so what?” and see what happens.

  9. ronnie on July 24, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Its funny you mention hospitals. First panic attack at age 6 was because my mother had been in the hospital about 3 months and my grandmother wanted to surprise me and sneaked me in to see my mother. My great aunt was the look out and the nurse was coming so they hide me in the closet. Need I say more? I was petrified my mother was going to die because they didn’t prepare me to see her with tubes coming out of her. Then I was afraid I was going to be arrested for being in her room, then came being afraid of being closed in somewhere……yada yada yada.
    I had mentioned on a past blog that I was going for my MSW and a concentration in medical social work, well I too used to have a panic attack every time I walked into a hospital. Finally in my late teens I went to my next door neighbor who was a psychologist and said I think I need help and she said “what took you so long!” She referred me to a wonderful woman who helped me start to live again. I can function “normally” the “what ifs” and the avoidance are always there but most times I do say “so what”.
    Now explain this one: when I quit grad school for social work, I was going to go back to school to get my maters in library science. BUT I WON’T TAKE A BOOK OUT OF THE LIBRARY! Do you know where those books have been?
    I think this has been a very cathartic experience. Diane are you going to bill me directly or do accept my insurance?

  10. Diane Chamberlain on July 24, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    What a horrible experience to go through as a child! Fraught with many phobia-inducing moments. Yikes! I think you’ve managed to overcome a great deal. It’s so funny about the library books. I don’t mind that you have to buy my books new, though. You can hang onto that little quirk if you like.

  11. ronnie on July 24, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    I did get your out of print books from a used book place which is just like a library. I put them on my book shelf and I hope after some time I will forget they came from someplace or someone else and will actually able to read them. Can you put books in a sterilizer?

  12. Lindsay on July 27, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Since I do write, I have noticed a connection amonst my main characters that I believe can be connected to myself as well.
    They’re all closed off from connections with other people to avoid being hurt. Independent to a fault I guess I could say. And I think there’s truth to that with me but it’s exaggerated in my characters in differnt forms. By the end of the book they’re able to let people in and have healthy relationships with others.

  13. Lindsay on July 27, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    basically i think i have a fear of losing people close to me for whatever reason so i have ahard time letting people get close and that comes through in my characters.

  14. Diane Chamberlain on July 27, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    This is EXACTLY what I’m driving at, Lindsay. Your characters are working through the same issues that you’re working through. I wonder if their inability/reluctance to attach to other people makes it difficult for the reader to sympathize with them, though? That could be a problem. What do you think?

  15. Lindsay on July 28, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Hmmm I do see your point. Since, as I have mentioned before, the first draft of my one story (which i refer to as NJAS) was posted online on a site where people can comment on your work… I remember that my main character, Annabelle, was “frustrating” to some of my readers for her inability to let in a certain character. I think overall the readers understood why she was being that way, she just drove them crazy. I think my character in my newest writing has more blatant reasoning for being so shutdown to emotion/attachment so maybe she wouldn’t be so frustrating to readers? Hmm, definitely something to ponder.

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