“It’s like American Idol, only, you know, with writers,” said my friend and fellow writer. I blinked at her in time to the dull somersault of my brain.
“It sounds—“ I began.
“Kind of neat, right?” she said.
“—like blood sport.” I finished.
We were talking about this year’s Boston Book Festival, a really cool event that brings together authors, publishing houses, and lit lovers of all shapes and sizes to celebrate the suffering, but sweetly and stubbornly enduring, book. The book is the Keith Richards of the arts/culture territory: around since the dawn of time with no signs of quitting any time soon. The BBF is great. Anytime people gather together to lose their minds over books and favorite authors and to truss up their kids in costumes depicting characters from their favorite children’s book is a win on my score card.
One of the panels this year was something called “Writers’ Idol.” The way it worked was like this:
Three literary agents act as panelists.
Writers submit an anonymous, 250-word sample of an unpublished manuscript, any genre, fiction or non-fiction.
Two readers take turns reading the submissions and if an agent hears something to make them stop, they raise their hand. Two or more hands raised meant the reader should stop so the agents could critique what they heard in detail.
Not for the thin-skinned! Real commentary, from REAL agents! Leered the description on the website. No shit. I could hear Simon Cowell in his British snark, “Shakespeare would happily have taken your pages….to wipe his arse with. Cliché. BOR-ing. I mean, just awful. Terrible.”
I had some concerns.
My friend had attended a similar event at another writer’s conference and assured me it wasn’t that outlandish, but the elements of public spectacle and brutal honesty were in play, so you never knew what was going to happen.
I remained unconvinced.
Any creative’s work has to stand up to scrutiny—from 8-year-old critics, from friends and family, from the market forces, and from God-like taste or industry makers—not fair, but it’s the only system we’ve got. My writing has to rise or fall on the same tide. There was something about the this particular event that felt, as it was presented, less about fair or reasonable critique from industry insiders and more about courting the potential for humiliation and nastiness to satisfy our depressingly permissive tastes for public ridicule.
Even though it was anonymous, I passed.
Even though they stressed that due to the amount of submissions they could not guarantee everyone’s would get read, I passed.
Even as my other writer friends gamely ponied up writing, agreeing to attend together so we could all support each other, I passed.
I felt smug that I didn’t “need” to put myself through that kind of situation; I was pretty sure they wouldn’t offer anything insightful or helpful anyway. I was not going to be fooled into exposing myself for someone else’s amusement. Been there, done that: ever hear of seventh grade? I told myself these things and believed them like a revivalist preacher believes the snakes won’t bite .
But the truth was, I was just scared.
The truth was: I chose Fear.
I gave Fear the keys; I stopped at Dunks and bought it a supreme-o-dunkocino (half-caf, double shot of espresso, I know how Fear takes it); I put the top down and turned the tunes up; I held the hand of Fear Thelma and Louise style.
Fear—the kind that keeps you from chasing dreams, seizing opportunities, having experiences, or living the fullest, most complete expression of yourself—is a choice. I’m not talking about the fear that arises in situations largely out of our control, about “being afraid,” which is something entirely different. Being afraid is finding yourself toe to toe with the Zombie apocalypse or getting trapped in an elevator with Donald Trump (that toupee, man, I just. don’t. trust it.). When you choose Fear you choose the opposite of growth. You choose something that makes you feel smart and in control, when really that’s the lull of hypothermia setting in, it’s the cocoon of medication against risk or reward, against the responsibility to participate in life.
Kids, don’t be fooled: Fear is a motherfucker.
Because what was the worst that could have happened? They would have liked my writing? They would have offered something I could use to improve my work? They might have suggested it would make a better book than a short story? The horror. The terror. Truly.
Elizabeth Gilbert said recently, “Your fear is the most boring thing about you.” She’s right. And isn’t THAT the thing we should be worried about, that we inadvertently spend our lives dressed head to toe in Fear thinking its chic like Chanel when really it’s as dull, uninteresting, and uninspired as everything in the GAP.
I am not proud of choosing Fear, but sometimes you need to feel the quicksand beneath your feet to know it’s not where you want to stand and maybe next time, you’ll remember the unsteady ground, the sucking soil, the sour taste of defeat in your mouth, and you’ll find the strength to make a different choice.