Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE LAST SISTER: Debuts Can Be Scary (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

My debut novel, THE LAST SISTER, released earlier this month, right after I gave birth to my debut child. So, yeah, exciting times at the McKinney-Whitaker house. We're blogging about fear in October, and let me tell you, beginnings like these are both exciting and scary, which I'm sure you already know or could have guessed because that is not an especially profound observation.

I think most, if not all, authors are a little bit scared to let the world see their work. We might dream about being bestsellers, but deep down we know that comes with its own set of issues. (The more people who read you, the more people to ask who you think you are to go writing a book anyway!) If I'm the only one who deals with this, please leave me in blissful ignorance. Once upon a time, this story about a teenager in Colonial America who goes on a revenge quest for her family's murderers and falls in love with a highland soldier was just mine. Then a few trusted readers saw it. Then a few more. Then agents and editors and booksellers and reviewers and bloggers. Then everyone started asking me if I'd read OUTLANDER because I guess all those 18th-century highland soldiers are alike. (I haven't yet.) And now it's out there. Anyone can read it, and I have no control over who does, how they react to it, or what they think of me as a writer and a person afterward.

This is scary, especially the first time around. At least, I hope it gets better the more debuts you do. All I know is, that if I ever have another baby, I'm going to know not to buy clothes that go on over her head. 

Here's my playlist for the novel, because I do love a novel playlist. If you like the music, I bet you'd like the book.

Enter below to win a signed copy of THE LAST SISTER!

And if you'd like to read reviews, read a sample, or order the book, click here!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ebola: And Other Stuff You Probably Shouldn't Be Afraid Of

Unless you live in a cave, you probably know there's this disease called Ebola. It's very dangerous and often lethal. If you watch television news or have any Facebook friends who do, you've probably heard all sorts of dire warnings about the great threat that Ebola poses. (Side note: If you or any of your Facebook friends watch Fox News, then you've also likely heard how President Barack Obama is somehow singlehandedly responsible for the Ebola epidemic.)

Well, here's something you're not likely to hear on the television news shows: good news. If you have not been to West Africa recently and if you are not a medical worker who has come into close physical contact with an Ebola patient, then your chances of contracting this disease are slim to none. This, however, is not nearly as exciting as the threat of a deadly epidemic and so the television news shows continue to play their dramatic music and do their best to terrify their viewers.

Look, here's some nice non-scary flowers. Take a deep breath, relax. It's going to be fine.

I don't scare easily. Let me clarify that. If I'm watching a movie that has even a hint of suspense I'll close my eyes, hide under a blanket, leave the room or perhaps do all of the above simultaneously. If somebody comes up behind me and shouts "Boo!" I'll jump sky high and scream my fool head off. If a television newscaster tells me the end of the world as we know it is just around the corner, I'll roll my eyes and switch the channel to something far more entertaining, say, a documentary about watching paint dry.

Right around this time, two years ago every newscaster along the Eastern Seaboard was warning us about some hurricane that was all but guaranteed to obliterate the entire Mid-Atlantic Region. People began running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I, of course, rolled my eyes and watched paint-drying documentaries.

A few days before the storm that was supposedly going to end life as I knew it, I dressed up like a witch and went to a Halloween party. As you can no doubt tell from this photo I was in mortal fear and preparing for the apocalypse.

As it happens, the newscasters (for once) were right about that whole hurricane thing. It was called Sandy and they decided it was too big to be deemed merely a hurricane so they made up the word Superstorm (One can only assume that insurance companies worried about all those claims from people with hurricane insurance were behind this name change.) Technically, it didn't obliterate the entire Mid-Atlantic Region, though you'd be forgiven for thinking so if you happened to watch any news coverage of the storm. In my own neck of the woods, we lost power for a week and none of the gas stations had gas. For the second year in a row (the previous year snow knocked out power) the kids didn't get to have Halloween and we were forced to eat the food we had in our pantries and all that Halloween candy we'd stocked up on. It was annoying and frustrating, but still something short of the end of the world scenario that had been forecast.

Here's my great-grandfather with some giant bugs. They're fake like most of what you see on television, so you don't have to be afraid of them, either.

The blatant fear-mongering that the media engages in is a not so subtle form of mind control. Those who succumb to the fear that the news shows are peddling will find that their thoughts and their actions change as a result of what they have watched. If you're reading this you didn't die of the Swine Flu or Bird Flu epidemic that was supposedly going to wipe us all out. You didn't die as a result of the nuclear bombs that North Korea or the Taliban never actually dropped on us. Granted, there are scary things out there, but most of the time the stuff the news shows get all alarmed about probably doesn't pose much of a threat to you.

People don't think clearly when they're afraid, and maybe that's why the media seems so determined to cause mass hysteria. Less afraid people might ask rational questions like, is having a healthcare system that's controlled by insurance companies a good idea? Or why do we still have above ground power lines in areas that are full of trees? Or maybe even why am I watching this ridiculous television news, surely there's a documentary about paint drying that I could watch instead?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cockroaches (shiver) On My Wall by Jody Casella

This morning as I was blearily making my coffee, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, SOMETHING skittering across my counter.

As I write this post, WHATEVER THAT SOMETHING IS is still there and I am waiting patiently for my husband to wake up and smash that something dead.

In the meantime, I am ready. With a plastic bucket. And some tape...

I could tell you about my fears. The usual. Scary movies. Storms. The big one: death. Or worse, the deaths of people I love.

But instead I would like to tell you about the summer I lived in a dumpy apartment in Memphis that was infested with cockroaches. 

When I moved into that apartment the summer between my junior and senior year, I was feeling very grown up. I had lived in Connecticut, which for the record, is 1250 miles away from Memphis. That summer I took two jobs. A very cool internship downtown at Memphis Magazine. And a super gross nighttime job waiting tables at Perkins Restaurant (I still have nightmares about this job. Most of these nightmares consist of a demented hostess seating table after table in my section and grinning maniacally while I race around like a lunatic trying to give everyone water. This was a directive at Perkins. You must greet customers by giving them water within 45 seconds.)

But back to my story.

I was feeling proud and independent and also, defiant with a dash of guilt. My roommate was a guy. Gasp. We were just friends but once upon a time I was a Catholic school girl, so it was a bit of a scandal (For more on THAT story, see here)

The night I moved into the apartment, I was with my friend Patti. We had finished setting up my belongings--not much--a suitcase, a futon, a plastic shelf with a few books--and had collapsed onto the couch, when we SAW it. A winged three-inch-long cockroach skittering up the kitchen wall.

At this point I had already had a few frightening run-ins with cockroaches. Let me say here that you will not find cockroaches in Connecticut. At least, I had never seen any. And certainly, you will not find winged three-inch-long cockroaches. So it was a bit of a shock the first time one of these lovely creatures FLEW at my face.

The one on my kitchen wall paused at face level.

Patti and I were both afraid to smush it. The fear, of course, is that it would fly at us and get caught in our hair. For a tense few minutes we--Patti, me and the cockroach--looked at each other and twitched nervously. Patti noticed a plastic cleaning bucket on the floor near the sink and she suggested that I pick up the bucket and run at the wall where the cockroach was.

"Trap it," she said. "And slide it down to the floor. Then you can step on it."

"Why me?" I asked.

"Because this is your apartment," said Patti, grinning maniacally.

I picked up the bucket. I ran toward the cockroach. I smacked the bucket on the wall around the hideous twitchy body. It occurred to me at this point that if I did try to slide the bucket down to the floor, the cockroach would likely fly at my feet and skitter up my leg.

Patti's next brilliant idea was to tape the bucket to the wall and leave it until my roommate, the guy, moved in and he could deal with it.

She scrounged around looking for tape. This was a sublet, furnished apartment so everything in it belonged to someone else. By the time Patti found the tape, my arms were hurting from holding up the bucket.

We taped the bucket securely and left it there. When the guy moved in a few days later and wondered why there was a bucket taped to the kitchen wall, I explained the situation and added that it was my hope that he would take care of the problem.

He didn't really like this idea, and the bucket remained where it was for the rest of the summer. Some nights when I returned home from Perkins and collapsed on the couch in my smelly greasy polyester uniform, I'd look at the bucket on the wall and shiver. But mostly, I forgot about it and went on with my life.

I wish I could say something philosophical and deeply meaningful here. Something about accepting our fears. About independence. About stereotypical gender roles and the killing of insects. About cruelty to all of God's creatures.

But I've got nothing.

At the end of the summer my roommate grew a pair and carefully removed the bucket from the wall. The cockroach was still alive and twitching. I screamed. My roommate expressed surprised.

He opened the door, and the cockroach flew off into the night.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Writing the Fear Away (Amy K. Nichols)

On my desk is a framed quote by Marianne Williamson titled "Our Deepest Fear". A friend gave it to me a couple of years ago when we were both embarking on creative journeys. You may have read it; it's very well known. Here's how it begins:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? 
This quote knocked one of my biggest fears between the eyes with a two-by-four. I thought, Hey, she has a point! Who am I not to be brilliant, talented, and all those other things?! And I rode a wave of courage all the way through finishing a novel, getting an agent, and signing a book deal. Woohoo! Fear conquered!


My debut novel comes out two months, and a new fear has cropped up. It isn't as immediately terrifying as sending a query letter or waiting for news while on submission. Rather, it's more subtle, whispering in my ear as I check email, catch up on Twitter, lay my head on my pillow at night. It sounds something like this: What if no one notices? What if no one cares? Despite getting good reviews from Kirkus and PW, this fear is nibbling away at me. At times it feels like a selfish fear, a very indulgent, good-problem-to-have kind of fear. (Even writing this post about it feels kind of ugh.) But just because I dismiss the fear as frivolous doesn't mean it isn't there, or make it go away.

It's a pretty awful thought, all this anticipation and preparation ending up being for nothing. It touches on a lot of my worst insecurities about not being good enough. Actually, not so much being inadequate as being invisible. Inconsequential. Obscure.

But obscurity is a double-edged sword. Emily Bronte once said, "If I could I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results." Aldous Huxley said, "I'm afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery." Not to put myself anywhere near the same league as Bronte or Huxley, but I wrote my debut novel before I was concerned with agents and editors and publicists and websites and social media followers and, and, and... Obscurity is where good work is done. When I'm on deadline, I shut out the world and go in my cave and write until it's done. I become obscure.

Seems obscurity and writing go hand in hand. And writing is what this gig is all about. Perhaps the answer to this fear is enough obscurity to make good art, and enough attention to not feel like a complete failure. Write until I write stories that get published. Write until I publish something that resonates with readers.

I know my fears will never go away entirely. There will always be something lurking there, kicking up my insecurities, keeping me unsettled. My hope is that the answer to all of them is writing, because that's where you'll find me: in my cave, writing my fears away.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fish, Tornadoes, and Failure--my fears, then and now (Stephanie Kuehnert)

Holy wow, this has been a great month so far for YAOTL! This theme has really brought out some incredible stories and truths. I mean, Jen’s list of fears is hilarious and awesome, Sydney’s post about the masks we wear as authors is on point, and Kimberly’s post about wanting to take off the mask (and wishing everyone would) and her fears about not being brave enough rang so true for me. Overall, everyone has been so brilliant that I barely know what to add to the conversation and at first I couldn’t decide—fears or masks! I was going to talk about using my characters as a mask—Emily from I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone was totally the girl I wished I was from her musical talent to her tough girl attitude to her long, straight, black hair (mine is frustratingly wavy)—and what it feels like to take that mask off now that I’m writing a memoir, but I realized that I already sort-of covered that in this post over at my own blog about what I has surprised me so far about memoir-writing. So check that out if you wish—the long and the short of it is while I don’t mind being honest about my experiences, taking that mask off and facing the more embarrassing or shitty sides of myself is pretty damn uncomfortable—and I’ll focus on my fears here.

Over the years, some of my fears have changed and some have stayed the same. For example, compared to my childhood, I’ve definitely become a wimp when it comes to reading and watching horror.  Like a lot of my fellow bloggers, I was a Stephen King addict as a kid. At twelve, I had no problem with scary books or movies, but then in my twenties… this is so silly, I saw The Ring and was freaked out for an entire week! Since then, I mostly stick to humorous Buffy and Supernatural type horror, and I have read genuinely scary things (like Amity by Micol Ostow which I adored and talked about on Rookie here) during my lunch break!

Spiders. Yeah, that never changes. Always have been terrified, always will be. And I’ve noticed a lot more spiders in the Pacific Northwest since I moved here last year. And they are bigger and uglier too! But there are a lot less mosquitoes than there were in Chicago, so I try to deal… As long as they are outside my apartment. When I found one just hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the living room like it had tried to build a big cross-room web, I completely freaked and called my husband to take care of it, then lectured the cats for not doing their job.

Tornados and big storms. This is another one I’ve had since childhood. Growing up in St. Louis and Chicago, that air raid/tornado siren went off A LOT (even though it was often set off by thunder and lightning) and I was always the first one to race down to the basement. In fact, when I was little and started to see the signs of a major storm coming, I’d load up my doll’s carriage with all of my prize possessions—Music Bear, Blankie, my favorite book of the moment, I’d even put my hamster in his ball and put him in there. This fear both deepened and changed during my last couple of years in Chicago. Despite my tornado fear, I’d loved thunderstorms, but suddenly thunderstorms in my area would be accompanied with torrential downpours which would flood my basement. Like one storm was so big and bad, we got FEMA assistance to fix things! So I’d say this fear actually turned into a real adult trauma. So, you might be asking, why the hell did you move to Seattle? Doesn’t it rain all the time there? Yes and no. Our winters are rainy (a big perk over Chicago snow and cold, which was not a fear of mine but definitely another adult trauma), but it’s basically this constant mist. Downpours and thunderstorms are rare—people get really excited about thunderstorms here and hopefully I will, too eventually, but the trauma lingers a bit even though I’m on a second floor apartment that obviously doesn’t flood. Tornadoes are not an issue at all in Seattle, but now I get to have a new major disaster fear: earthquakes! And I am seriously sweating that one. Just the other night I was lying awake worrying about what I’d do if my cats got hurt in an earthquake. Sigh. (They’ll hide, right? They’ll totally hide and be fine. Please reassure me.)

Fish. This was a fear that developed when I was eighteen or nineteen, living in Wisconsin, and made the brilliant decision to swim drunkenly across a lake in the middle of the night with my friend Kevin, who was a total jokester. We got to the middle of the lake and he remarked, “Boy, I bet the fish out here are enormous. They could probably take off a toe or something!” And suddenly I realized I was in the middle of a dark-ass, freakin’ lake and ginormous fish were probably lurking right by my legs, possibly even touching me or preparing to eat my toes like Kevin said. I panicked. It’s a miracle I didn’t drown. Instead I swam my ass back to shore as fast as I was capable with Kevin chuckling after me. Probably a good thing because I was exhausted and if we’d actually gotten to the other side of the lake, I don’t think we could have swam back. I’ve refused to do more than wade in anything that might contain fish ever since… so basically I’ve been relegated to pools. The ocean is extra terrifying because of sharks and stingrays, etc. (I also almost stepped on a jellyfish and then realized I was surrounded by jellyfish in Maine when I was ten, so it’s surprising this fear didn’t happen sooner.) But GUESS WHAT? I faced that fear just this month! My husband and I went to Hawaii and he really wanted to go snorkeling even though he’s not a great swimmer. I decided that I was more afraid of my husband out in the water alone than I was of the fish (even though our first outing was with a group) and I also didn’t want to miss out on whatever he might see so I braved it and…. It turns out snorkeling is SUPER COOL! Also if I can SEE the fish, it means that should they come too close (or should they be a shark or something, OMG I’m still afraid of that!), I can totally swim away! We don’t have our underwater pictures developed yet, but above is a dolphin swimming next to the boat we snorkeled off the side off.

Failure. I was a straight-A student and a perfectionist. Like even when I was a stoner punk rock kid. I’ve always taken failing—my definition of which is “not being as good as I think I should be”—really really hard. It’s led to a lot of misery in childhood and in adulthood. I still beat myself up for things like my eight-year relationship with an alcoholic which of course failed and wasted a lot of time and money. I’ve also beat myself up for my books not selling well enough and the five years that it took me to sell this most recent book—and the manuscripts that didn’t sell during that time—were total hell. Tears. Pain. Ugh. Again, it might be more trauma than fear. But I’m working on it. Being kinder to myself, more forgiving (that relationship was a placeholder for meeting husband, right? And I worked hard to write and promote my books, I did my best). I’m also working at not setting such impossibly high standards that I’m setting myself up to fail. I can fear spiders all my life (and sharks and earthquakes) that’s fine, but I don’t want to fear failing so much that I don’t try. Fortunately, it hasn’t really gotten that bad, but I’d like to make sure it never does.

The Future. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with failure (and also time, which Joy wrote so perfectly about here). For the longest time, I’ve feared not knowing what will come next. Will college work out? (It didn’t the first time around.) Will this book sell? (Some have, some haven’t.) Will I end up losing everything if I move across the country without a job? (I didn’t.) Sometimes I get so freaked that I become obsessed with horoscopes and tarot because I just want something or someone to tell me that it will turn out, it will all be okay. I wish my life was a book and I could just peek ahead (even though I try to avoid ever doing that with books). This is another one that I’ve gotten better at, though. Especially since taking that big leap and moving last year and seeing it pay off so well. Life is for living, not for fears of failure or the future. My friend Marcel, who passed away a few years ago, once wrote a list of his rules for life on a paper towel (that pretty much sums up how amazing Marcel is), and this is number one:

I look at that every time my fears are threatening to hold me back and tell myself, take the risk and love, achieve, live!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Gift of Fear

By Yvonne Ventresca

You know that uncomfortable feeling you get sometimes, like when an overly friendly stranger offers help you don’t want? Or the sense that you shouldn’t get into an elevator with someone, even though you can’t explain why?

This fear can be a asset because our subconscious picks up on details that alert us to danger. One of my favorite nonfiction books is The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker.  He provides many stories of survivors who, looking back, realized it was their intuition that alerted them to a dangerous situation. Intuition, he says, is “the journey from A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way. It is knowing without knowing why.”

Yet we often try to downplay our fear. What if we’re wrong about the danger? We don’t want to look silly or seem alarmist. We don’t want to possibly insult a stranger by not getting in the elevator. We don’t want to see rude.

But if our intuition is telling us otherwise, de Becker argues that rudeness is the last thing we should be worried about. Being afraid can save us from harm.

De Becker says, “No animal in the wild, suddenly overcome with fear, would spend any of its mental energy thinking, ‘It’s probably nothing.’ Yet we chide ourselves for even momentarily giving validity to the feeling that someone is behind us on a seemingly empty street, or that someone’s unusual behavior might be sinister. Instead of being grateful to such a powerful internal resource, grateful for the self-care, instead of entertaining the possibility that our minds might actually be working for us and not just playing tricks on us, we rush to ridicule the impulse. We, in contrast to every other creature in nature, choose not to explore -- and even to ignore – survival signals.”

Have you ever experienced helpful intuition? Have you ever acted on a fear and been grateful for it?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Not One but Four Fears

by Tracy Barrett

I faced not one but four fears when I was planning to quit my day job and write full-time, and I posted about them on the blog that I kept during my last year as a college professor.

I considered calling these fears “four areas of concern” or something similar but I decided to be honest and admit that I was afraid, so I stuck with my original wording. Here’s the list as I wrote it then:

1.     Financial (the obvious): Paycheck, benefits (health insurance is the biggie), plus all those benefits you get that you don’t think of until you have to pay for them yourself. For me, the most important of these will be gym membership, discounts at various stores, consulting jobs that won’t be available to me once I’m no longer affiliated with the university.
2.     Psychological: Part of my self-definition is “I’m a college professor.” Will I feel something missing when I can’t say that? Also, at all but the most abysmal jobs (and my job is far from abysmal), you get strokes. You do in writing too, but writing is also a lot about rejection—rejections from agents and editors, bad reviews, critical emails from readers. Will they hurt more when I don’t have the comfort of students saying nice things to/about me, and colleagues telling me I do a good job?
3.     Social: I know that a lot of my work friendships will end when I’m no longer in daily contact with people. If you run into someone in the hall, it’s easy to go out for lunch together. Will I make the effort to call people? Will they make the effort to call me? How will I make new friends?
4.     Writing: This may sound weird, but will I actually write less? I’m never as productive over the summer as I think I’ll be. Will that be true when I’m on constant summer break? Or conversely, will I forget to give myself time off, and write all the time? Another issue is that I write for young adults. Where will I meet young adults, if not in the classroom?

It’s been more than two years since I taught my last class and I can report that I’ve survived.

The financial part is a challenge but it seems that every time I start to panic I get a royalty check or a school visit.

The psychological worry has evaporated.

The social aspect remains the biggest issue—we moved away from the university area, where most of my friends live, and are on a quiet dead-end street where I’m unlikely to run into people. This relative isolation has made me more proactive about calling friends for lunch dates, and I rely on my writer friends even more than I did before. And my new neighborhood is very welcoming—less than a week after we moved in, I was in a book club with people on my new street.

Interestingly, I find that I’m not spending much more time on writing than I did before. The difference is that I feel much less stressed about it now and can take time to mull things over while walking the dog or dragging branches off the yard after a storm. And I’ve taken on some other writing-related tasks—increased responsibility with SCBWI, writing book reviews, becoming more involved with publicity for my books.

I think that a lot of the relative ease of my transition was in identifying these fears and addressing them in my last year of day-jobbery. If I’d been laid off or otherwise forced out before I was ready, it would have been a lot more difficult. If you’re contemplating leaving your day job, I hope you start planning early—it makes a big difference!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Author Masks by Sydney Salter

I like this cartoon because it reminds me of the AUTHOR masks I often wear.

I sort of wish that I'd kept track of the number of times I've been asked to locate the bathroom for a bookstore patron versus the number of books I've signed. Books are winning, but not by as much as I'd like. Yet, I smile through every lonely signing, trying to manage that balance between friendly and desperate. Maybe I should bring a puppy? Candy obviously isn't working.

And I hate myself every time I avoid a fellow author's smiling mask at a bookstore signing.

The Things Are Good Mask appears when I run into acquaintances who know that I write, but don't hear the nitty gritty daily details. Happily--and inevitably--they ask, "How is your writing going?"No matter what, I smile and nod, "Good. Good."

Sometimes a litany of all that is NOT good runs through my head, manuscripts submitted and ignored, rejection letters received, chapters deleted, rewrites rewritten, doubt, doubt, and more doubt.

But I also feel weird about going into specifics about the good stuff. I wrote a kickass paragraph yesterday. A teenager wrote me a really cute email. I finally solved the issue with Chapter Six. Someone that I don't know wrote an awesome Amazon review. I got a good rejection letter. Maybe I think it all sounds too small. And no one except a fellow writer understands the paradox of good rejection.

The You've Got Four Published Novels Mask makes me feel the most guilty. "I know, I know." I nod and smile. But inside I'm always thinking of the fat yet-to-be published manuscripts padding my file cabinet. I want those published too--and the next one and the next one and the next one that I write.

Many wonderful writers I know are still waiting for that first book contract, and I remember how that eager ambition feels (because I'm not sure that feeling changes so much after publication). So I smile my Grateful Author Mask and encourage the pre-published to keep writing!

Yes, I've had some success as an author, but I want more.

Watch out puppies!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Day the Abnormal Becomes Familiar

Once I had kids, all my other fears (of which there are many) slipped down a notch. Yes, I am absolutely afraid of getting bit by a snake or a giant hairy spider. But now I'm more afraid of the kids getting bit by one. Once you have little people, you are forced to wear your heart outside of your body and that leaves you kind of vulnerable--fearful.

But it's my understanding, that particular neurosis, is kind of a universal condition for parents, making it a not so unique thing to write about today. Instead I thought I'd talk about wearing masks. I figured I'd mix it up and give you something a little different. But as soon as I began to examine the "mask" I wore most of my life, I realized that when I condensed my behavior down to it's most basic parts, I'd hid my true self out of fear. So, I guess I'm supposed to talk about fear after all.

What a simple but deep concept--hiding your true self out of fear of what other people might think of you. And even though it is such a basic thing, my instincts tell me that people repressing their uniqueness is probably as prevalent as parents wanting to wrap their kids in bubble wrap in order to get a good nights sleep. And if that's true, the question becomes...why are there so many of us who afraid to be transparent. Why is it so hard to give up the mask?

If everyone's unhappy, doesn't it make sense to all fix it together. But maybe the underlying problem is that no one trusts that we're in this together. Everyone thinks they're alone. Maybe it has something to do with hitting critical mass. When enough people take off their masks, even in the face of an unwelcome audience, there eventually comes a time when the abnormal becomes familiar and it's acceptable to be yourself. But for now--no one's sure-- so we all wait. Because we don't want to be wrong. And so the cycle continues.

But I don't want it to. Because maybe my fear of masks has become bigger than my fear of what someone might think I look like without mine on.

Does that mean I've ripped off my mask? Have I revealed my true self to the world? Have I been brave enough?

Maybe not exactly, but I'm trying.

I'm not sure I can claim to be completely free of my mask, but I do picture it jauntily propped up on my forehead where everyone has a clear view of my eyes. I've dared to take a peek around and I like what I see. Of course, there are still days when things get rough and my mask has the tendency to slip back down and close me off. But something is different now that I've glimpsed things in a new way. Instead of giving up when I get bumped around, I keep writing, because that's how I find the true me. And I like her. And I'm even almost okay with everyone getting to see her--sometimes.

Perhaps my second biggest fear is not being brave enough. Not doing enough to ensure there will be a day when the abnormal become familiar and it's acceptable to be yourself. But, be the change you want to see in the world, right? Move that mask.

Do you wear a mask? What keeps it in place? Have you tried to tug it off? What happened when you did?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Time is Slipping and Other Foolish Anxieties

Beyond my typical fears—snakes, rodents, spiders, bats (are bats rodents? All I know is that they creep me out)—it’s less tangible ones that grab the most purchase in my brain. Fear of failure is one, although I try to use it to motivate me and honestly, I know that my biggest successes have mostly come after failure/falling on my face/really mucking things up. So failure has become less a fear than inevitability of the journey.

May sound strange, but time is a big fear for me. As in: I’m afraid there won’t be enough it. Afraid that in the limited amount I’ve got (whatever that might be, and once you climb over 40 you admit that you have no clue about that but probably you’re not immortal, so you better stop watching Bravo and GET GOING), I won’t achieve/attempt/see/experience everything I want to. Sometimes, that’s sort of paralyzing—like a too-big restaurant menu. When I see one of those, I become clueless. What do I want? Salad? Soup? That werid-sounding eggplant thing even though I know up until now I've hated eggplant? What if I pick something I hate? Yeah, I know—insane, right? Just pick. But sometimes it’s hard and the chatter in my head reminds me that I don’t want to be like a certain relative who shall remain nameless, who always ordered the exact same thing because “That’s what I like.” Which meant the only Italian dish she’d ever eaten was lasagna. And while that’s comforting, I suppose, and easier for sure, I get itchy thinking about living like that. 

So it spills over, you know? This time thing. And I want to write all the books RIGHT NOW. And travel to all the places and see all the stuff in those places, and participate in all the events, and OH NO! I didn’t get asked to be on that panel? Don’t they know I might get hit by a bus tomorrow? The worst kind of internal noise. The kind that turns vacations in death marches while I check items off the itinerary. "Hurry! We have to see the Big Ball of Twine. I think it has a gift shop."

Still, I know the fear, like my failure fear, has prompted some good choices. Three years ago I realized that there simply was not enough time in the day for me to successfully balance teaching 175 secondary English students, write one or two books a year, promote and travel for those books, and also live my life and be present for that life with my family and friends. So I stopped teaching full time, and took the scary income hit that came with that. Sometimes I miss it. But I don’t miss spending eight to twelve hours almost every weekend grading papers.

But I find other ways to angst about filling my time as completely as I can. Is that a good thing? Possibly not.

I’m not the only one thinking about this. Check out this article from The New York Times.

It would be easier to just be afraid of ghosts.

Only then what would I have written about?

Speaking of which, have I mentioned that my next book for Soho Press, IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS (Spring 2016), is about a girl, a boy, a fountain of youth, and what happens when you're stuck at 17? So I guess the idea of endless time has been on my brain for other reasons as well. My editor's too. For my birthday last week, he sent me a book called IMMORTALITY. (I didn't tell him that when I first pulled it out of the box, I thought it said IMMORALITY. Which is an entirely different subject.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pennywise, Spandex shorts, and things that go bump in the night -- Jen Doktorski

After reading Stephen King’s IT in high school, I had to sleep with the light on for a month. I also refused to use the bathroom sink after dark—fearing what might call out to me from the pipes—and developed a serious aversion to clowns.

Growing up, Stephen King novels weren’t the only thing keeping me up at night. Nuclear war, The Exorcist (and exorcisms in general), and several Twilight Zone episodes vied for the attention of my overactive imagination in the wee hours of the night. I often needed to fall asleep with the TV on or headphones in my ears.

Fear is one of the topics were blogging about in this spooky month of October. Mine have changed as I’ve gotten older mostly because they’re more grounded in reality. I had a writing professor in college who said that real life is often more interesting than anything we can make up. I would submit to you that real life is also scarier than fiction. Pennywise the clown has been replaced in my psyche by things that can actually happen or have happened already. I find my new set of fears difficult to talk about and even harder to write about. But at least fiction allows me to place my characters between myself and those fears—to wear a mask as I try to sort what scare us both.
For this post though, I thought I’d keep it light and share with you my run-of-the-mill fears—the kind that make me laugh and keep the big ones at bay.

Fears like…
Running out of coffee. Followed closely by running out of wine and toilet paper. I tend to stockpile all three.

School picture day. For the past six years, I’ve organized the photographing of 550 students ranging in age from three to ten at my child’s school. The process has sent more than one brave parent running.
Laundry. It never, ever ends. Tell me that’s not a nightmare.

The guy in my fitness class who wears spandex shorts from 1986 and cropped tops from the same era. Neither offers ample coverage or support.

And along these same lines is my 90-year-old neighbor who bares his milk-white legs as he sports only a bathrobe and slippers when he walks to the driveway’s end every day around noon to retrieve his newspaper.
Spider crickets. I encountered one of the gargantuan hopping creatures in my kitchen one morning. Trying to whack that thing with a broom at 6 a.m. was like battling Smaug. I’d post a pic here, but it would only give me nightmares. Google them if you’re curious. Be warned. They ain’t pretty.

The scale in the doctor’s office.
Public speaking. I’ve got to give a 15-minute speech at Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus conference in two weeks and I’m already practicing deep breathing exercises.

George Clooney's marriage and Derek Jeter's retirement. Both must signal the end of the world, right?

Social media. Some day aliens from distance galaxies will come to assimilate us, and they'll know exactly where to find us.


Donald Trump’s hair.

The Honey Boo Boo mom’s feet.
Scraping the seeds out of a pumpkin. Though I love just about everything else about pumpkins including carving them and their faux flavor in my latte.

Missing a deadline.
And finally…

Reviews. Particularly from The Magazine That Shall Not Be Named.
What are some of your fears? Big, small, or silly I’d love to hear them.