When I was a little kid I was pretty fearless. I lived in Florida and could catch lizards and frogs with the best of ‘em. As a teen I constantly tried to find excuses to tag along on my brother’s camping trips with my dad and their friends. The one trip I loved to go on was the rappelling trip. At this point in my life we’d moved way north to Illinois and the closest cliffs were in Wisconsin at Devil’s Lake. It was a four or five-hour drive each way but when I stood at the edge of that cliff with my harness on and a semi-reliable adult belaying at the bottom, fear was the last thing on my mind.
By my third or fourth trip up to Devil’s Lake I sure felt like a pro and honestly I was almost as experienced as any of the boys up there. So when it came time for the first group of rappellers to scout out a safe path back up to the top of the cliff, I was eager to be one of them. As far as I can remember, the trip down the cliff was uneventful, fun but nothing mind-blowing. Then it was time to find a way back up. I followed the two older teen boys up a rocky path, happy to follow their lead. But it didn’t take long for the path to turn into a series of small cliffs.
I scaled the first cliff just fine. I still can’t believe we were dumb enough to do this without gear but, yeah, we were. As I got to the second cliff, I was having a more difficult time finding hand holds and the boys I’d been following were nowhere to be found. When I finally made it up to the thin ledge at the top of cliff number two, I looked up. Cliff number three was straight up another twenty feet and I suddenly knew I would never make it to the top. I was a fourteen year-old-girl with no rope, no helmet and no real rock climbing training. I was standing thirty feet up on a cliff with no way to go up and no way to go down. I was stuck.
When I called out to the adult at the bottom of the rappelling wall he came over and I could tell by the tightness in his voice that he didn’t know what to do. All I remember him saying was— “TURN AROUND AND COME DOWN.” And I did. I turned FACE OUT from the wall and took a step down. Then I fell 30ft to the forest floor.
How I landed on my feet I’ll never know, but I did. I rolled another twenty feet down a hill, propelled by my fall, narrowly missing trees and rocks that could’ve easily ended my life. When I finally stopped rolling I had gashes up and down my jeans, a very swollen ankle and a man who was sure he’d just watched me fall to my death. The poor guy was positive I was dead. Spoiler Alert: I wasn’t.
Now I can look back and see how stinking lucky I was. I came out of that whole experience with a few cuts and some severed ligaments in my right ankle. I also came out of it a little more mature and a lot more cautious.
In writing we often talk about fear as our enemy and I get that. I understand how fear can paralyze you, make you question every word you put on the page, make you feel like you should just give up. Fear is the antagonist to creativity.
Here is when I say the big BUT. What I learned from my little tumble at Devil’s Lake is: Fear is also useful. Just like I should’ve been afraid to climb those cliffs without the correct safety gear and training. I should’ve looked for another way up. I should’ve slowed down and really listened to the man trying to help me at the bottom. Then maybe I would’ve understood that he meant for me to stop climbing and get the heck off that cliff in the safest way possible, not to turn face out and take a blind step into oblivion.
In writing we need to be open to these good kinds of fear, the ones that warn us we are going off the cliff or in the wrong direction. We’ve all met the writer that thinks the first thing he/she puts down on the page is the best. It’s tempting to think we don’t need to edit. That we don’t need to fill plot holes or develop characters fully. It’s easy to think that it’s different for me.
It’s not different for me or probably any of us. I learned that very quickly when I decided that I was going to take my writing really really seriously. I asked one of my friends to edit and critique a short story I’d written. He had a degree in English and I respected his opinion. I BEGGED him to be honest. Oh, he was honest. BOY was he honest. When he returned the story it was so filled with edits it made my eyes cross. They were good edits, helpful edits but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that at first they made me wonder if I was a writer. See—downside of fear.
It took me a few weeks to be willing to try again. I took the story and threw most of it out and started from a whole new angle. Then I spent hours rewriting it and rewriting and doing more research and then writing some more. What came out the other end was SO MUCH BETTER. That’s when I learned that as long as I don’t let fear STOP me, I can use it to guide me.
Am I really saying to be afraid? No, not really but in writing I do use that nervous, gurgling feeling to keep me focused and humble. I use it to remind me to listen to those that have been through this before. Most of all I use it to inspire me to turn out the best finished product possible because I never want to start climbing a cliff only to fall off half way through ever again.