Imagine with me: you’re making home movies with a video camera, or maybe playing with the little doohickey on your laptop. You get wrapped up in the fun of goofing off with friends and/or family. You laugh boisterously. You are loud, to keep your sister from making a point that would jokingly embarrass you. You interrupt. You cram brownies into your mouth with ferocious intensity. You squirm out of playfully constrictive hugs. The conversational tone veers into the somber, and you speak your mind honestly, earnestly, unfiltered, and without concern for judgment because you are surrounded by accepting ears.
Later you review the footage and you are horrified.
“Is that me? That’s what I sound like? That’s my voice?”
Your sibling nods. If you have no siblings, imagine your companion animal. If you have no companions, imagine your mail carrier.
“No. No. No it’s not. Shut up.”
Oh, keep watching. There’s more.
“Why hasn’t anyone told me I flail my arms like that? I didn’t even know I gestured when I spoke, I swear I didn’t. I look like I’m attempting flight. And what is this—is that me laughing? Have mercy.”
There is no end to the horror of discovering yourself as others see you, or at least your perception of how they see you.
I’d posit that the same thing happens when you step back and take a good look at your own writing. In fact, I touched on this subject in a previous entry when I detailed the first time I had such an experience. There’s a difference though, between watching your image captured in moving pictures and “hearing” your literary voice captured in static letters. A crucial difference, even.
Quirks are quirks, tics are tics. Crooked smiles and asymmetrical eyebrows and spaghetti noodle arms make you you, and they neither can nor should be changed. But the fluidity of one’s written essence, the nuance and richness with which you approach the process… these things convey skill, learning. Discipline. They have meaning, on a computer screen and in the real world. And so, even the simplest of musings can become a scale on which your intellectual heft is measured, even if others judge only subconsciously.
What this can then boil down to is a paralyzing fear of writing in ways that reveal fundamental shortcomings in one’s understanding of the craft, the human condition, the world—feel free to fill in the blank there.
I (we? All of us?) don’t want to sound ridiculous. Or uneducated. Or stupid, at worst, because really, how many people are above calling someone else stupid for any reason? Someone thinks I’m stupid.
Unlike noticing that your eyes blink at slightly different times or that you are doing a far worse job concealing your carb-fiendishness than you ever imagined, ignorance of the mechanics of life can and should be changed. Some of this is accomplished just by being alive I guess, but the rest probably requires the active, constant exposure of actually living, and wanting to know what “being” means for other people. This is especially true if you write. Right? Right. How else would you write about people?
But what, then, to do with the reality that we have gone this far with these words only to learn that the foundation of authenticity on which those words rest is so unstable that they crumble beneath the weight of our naïveté? What do you do with the burning of that embarrassment clawing at the surface of your skin, at the knowledge that your art betrays you? How am I supposed to move forward when I know I sound like that? Like I’ve got as much of a handle on the gravity of this material as I might have on, say, a working fire hose?
Congratulations! you say to yourself. You are poorly informed. You are arrogant. You are a little naïve. You are young. You are in some ways socially inept. You didn’t do enough research before you wrote that. You weren’t emotionally honest with yourself when you wrote that. You won’t really experience what you’re describing for another couple of years. You are forgetting what you learned in 11th grade U.S. history. You are forgetting to set the DVR to record Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Yes, we’re still speaking hypothetically. Hush.
So the “what to do” thing: maybe… just kind of be okay with it? I guess? Maybe?
Maybe there’s an art to learning to live with being seen, and likely being judged, for everything you are, actually are, and not the things you’ve carefully constructed as you grasp at the heels of the complexity and sophistication you aspire to. I say that because I just realized that the title of this post is unintentionally misleading. “Eliminating” fear. I don’t know if this is a fear you can really eliminate. If I knew how to do that I wouldn’t have written about it. I’m just typing to myself, thinking aloud on paper on screen. I think I’m learning that you can only learn to let go, accept that what you’ve produced is all you (and hopefully the best of you), and stop sweating the inevitability of plainly not knowing something. Do your best, and appreciate your psyche, place in life, and who you are in that moment for what it is.
So yeah, uh, I’ll let you know when I figure out how to do that.