Archive for category Fears

Does This Story Suck?

Mediocrity sucks.

I hope, at this stage in my writing life, I’m not submitting anything truly horrible. I think I can assume that much. But I fear mediocrity, because I’m fully aware I can’t recognize it in my own work.

When I edit myself, I catch outright errors. I recast awkward sentences. I read out loud (or mutter to my laptop while sitting on my couch) and make changes whenever I stumble in my reading. (If I get confused while reading my own work, what horrors might others experience?) I make sure the plot makes sense. I walk around inside the characters, so that their actions ring true. But only rarely can I tell if my work is any more than competent.

I finished a novella last autumn, thought it was all right, but wasn’t super in love with it. At some point though, you have to stop fiddling, so I sent it out. Six months later, it was rejected, but with a note that it had made it to the final round of consideration, and they hoped to see more from me.

Really? I reread the thing. It was better than I remembered. This is good!

I have also reread published stories. Some wear well, and I’m really pleased. Others make me cringe. I won’t say which ones!

On occasion, I have written something I knew was good. These rarities tend to be stories that are relatively easy to write, unlike my usual grinding process. Most of the time, writing is a grind, and I am working in the dark.





One of the Last Cave-ins Caves In

I had to join Facebook. I couldn’t put it off any longer. My friends I see regularly had to tell me things second-hand that they all already knew, and that made me feel un-hip and out-of-it. Ditto my friends who live far away, only worse. I found I couldn’t comment on online news stories without being on Facebook. Heck, I couldn’t even vote for Next Food Network Star, because I was not on Facebook.

It’s been a week now, and I’m still figuring out how it works. I’ll be figuring out what to do with it (other than vote on Food Network shows) for some time to come.

The question of how to use the technology has become less challenging than why do I want to? I’ve answered the why of Facebook, but now I am led to a deeper how question. Apart from its basic workings, what combination of time spent on the app and use of tools offered by the app will maximize my experience and make a positive difference in my life? I mean, I could spend all day noodling around, looking for people, changing my privacy settings, fretting about my profile picture, etc.

And should a girl who is emotionally incapable of dragging-and-dropping a profile photo onto a page without going through a major dither-fest even undertake to ask such a question?

I can be quite the ditherer. I fret, I weigh, and I have trouble coming to a decision. The world is just too much stimulation for me. I don’t dither about everything, but I dither about enough to throughly complicate my life. I do okay with menus. Menus offer choices, and I can make the choice between, say, chicken and beef. Choices are defined and numbered. Possibilities, on the other hand are vague and limitless, or nearly enough so as to be indistinguishable. Facebook is the most recent new thing in my life offering vague and limitless possibility.

While a choice might be much better, a little better, more-or-less the same, a little worse, or much worse, than an alternative choice, a possibility can always be trumped by something more–more powerful, more elegant, more cool, just plain different. It is nowhere on the spectrum, and has no central position. It is like trying to GPS the Milky Way within the Universe.***

How can I live up to the endless possibilities of Facebook?

I can’t. And when I pull myself up out of my dithering fog, I observe that the people who Just Do It, like the ad says, have more fun. They put on their shoes, and stomp on in. They waste time. They make mistakes. They step on things. They go on. Here I go, blundering in.

I’ll wear these.

***Yes, that is a very nonsensical statement.

Photo: Mine

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Loving The Weird; Being Curious About It, At Least

My dad took fairly frequent out-of-town business trips when I was a child, and he would always bring me back a souvenir. I don’t remember what any of them were, except for one. That gift was a book, secondhand, the original Guinness Book of  Superlatives, published in 1955. I have a feeling it was a desperation move for him…he needed something for me, and a used bookstore was all that was available.

Well, I loved it, and I pored over it for months. By that time, the book was three or four years old, and I pestered my dad for a new one, with updated records. The book would become The Guinness Book of World Records, but it wasn’t yet, and there weren’t new editions every year. Oh how I loved reading about the largest multiple birth, maximum number of fingers and toes, largest human, smallest human. Yes, it was gruesome in spots. A little like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. I was less interested in superlatives in the inanimate world, like the longest road, or bridge, or whatever. Contests were okay, like longest beard or fingernails, because that had the aura of the crazy and grotesque about it. I don’t recall if they had categories like “longest egg toss” or “youngest person to bicycle around the world,” but for some reason, I was least impressed by anything you had to really try for and put a lot of effort into. I liked the naturally weird, not so much the unnaturally difficult.

I was always attracted to oddness, because although I looked normal on the outside, I felt quite different on the inside. I knew from an early age that I was something of an odd duck, and so I searched the world (via the Guinness Book of Superlatives) for confirmation that my peculiarities weren’t that odd after all.

As a young child, I didn’t know it wasn’t unusual to be weird only on the inside. I thought I was the only one in the world. I thought you at least had to dress differently, as the beatniks did, in order to be different. I learned in adolescence and young adulthood that internal weirdness is a human trait waiting to be discovered in everyone.

When I was in my early twenties, a friend told me her boss’s husband had died in a car crash. The boss was doing okay, my friend said, in part because she believed the violence of her husband’s death would cause him to be catapulted into a higher spiritual realm. I laughed out loud, then clapped my hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but what an amazing thing to believe!”

By my laughter I did not mean I looked down on her boss for that belief. I meant I was amazed and somewhat delighted by the it; I had never thought of the possibility that an accidental, violent death could improve the quality of your afterlife. Who knew, maybe it was true. Considering all the violent ways there are to die, it seemed like good cosmic justice. The truth/untruth of the belief was irrelevant; either way, it was an expression of faith I felt needed to exist. I appreciated her having the belief.

John Lennon was always my favorite Beatle, because he was the weird one, the one whose ideas, hit or miss, never failed to intrigue, and usually got him in trouble. Once he and Yoko got together, they fed each other’s weirdness, and we were treated to Bagism, the Toronto Bed-In and other such spectacles. Silly and mockable? Kind of. What elevated their actions in my eyes, though, was the reaction against them. Not laughter or simple scorn, but deep, deep anger and hatred that didn’t match their actions at all. Lennon and Ono were doing performance art as social commentary, and this pissed people off mightily. I couldn’t wait to see what they would do next. I would never be able to do what they did, and I appreciated that they had done it for all of us.

Thinking differently from all around you is not something you can force; rather, it’s something you can’t help, that singular way you look at and believe the Universe. It’s not something you strive for, like egg tossing; it’s something that’s just there, like your stomach or your fingernails or the dirt beneath your fingernails, only it’s magic.

In Speculativemartha’s Book of  Superlatives, I would include, among others and in addition to the above, Beatrix Potter, Abraham Lincoln, Julia Child, Jesus, Samuel Clemens, Phillip K. Dick, Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Steve Jobs, Georgia O’Keeffe, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. Weird ones all. This list I’ve given is partial, and doesn’t include any among the living. In the living section, there would be many more, including myself, my family,  friends, and neighbors, and I would probably include you, the reader, as well. With your permission, of course.

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Connie Willis No Cure for Insomnia

While I was reading Connie Willis’s Hugo Award nominated 2-part novel, Blackout/All Clear, I began having trouble going to sleep at night.

Sleep problems are fairly unusual for me, and when I do have trouble, it is usually caused by jet lag or some kind of extremely unsettling issue going on in my life. Neither cause applied here. Neither issue applied here, and it was clear to me that the problem was the book.

Blackout/All Clear is a time travel novel (inconveniently in two parts) in which some historians from 2060 Oxford, England go to World War II and the blitz to study up-close the lives of people in wartime Britain. They become concerned–in spite of assurances to the contrary–that their actions might change the past, and therefore, the course of history.

And here was the problem:  Connie Willis’s protagonists, every single last one of them in this book, spend the bulk of their time fretting, fussing, and trying to fix or avoid ruining the course of history. They run all over London dodging bombs while doing so. These are not your typical men and women of action. Instead, they examine their every little action, worry about every possible discrepancy between what is supposed to happen–how many casualties there are supposed to be in a bombing for instance–and what they experience in their time travels. It’s absolutely solid plotting, because after all, WWII was a close thing for England. Looking back, it’s difficult to see how they avoided getting invaded and taken over by Hitler–and that’s exactly what Connie Willis’s protagonists are concerned with. Any little thing one time traveller does might be the the flap of a butterfly wing that allows Hitler to win the war.

Lying in my bed at 1 or 2 A.M., staring at my shadowed ceiling, I know I am safely ensconced in a timeline in which Hitler lost. I am not really concerned that the novel’s protagonists’ worries are somehow true. No. It is their worrying alone that worries me. Connie Willis’s characters think like I do. They think way too much. Like them, I fret that my actions are somehow wrong, will somehow cause unknown harm in unknown quarters. Unlike them, I often let my fears dissuade me from action, which is why I am a real person and not a protagonist in a novel, ha-ha. But like them, I am thoroughly distressed that I never seem to have enough information, that information doesn’t match up like I want, and that I sometimes screw things up for the best of intentions.

Connie Willis does this thing with characters and quotidien details of their lives as well as any writer I know, including mainstream writers. Her future people flub about just as we do. They have the wrong color skirt. They miss appointments. They get flustered and don’t know what to say. Her historical people are just as good. They manage to be both heroic and petty, generous and selfish, wise and shortsighted. The book falls into the science fiction category, but its heart and soul is that of an historical novel. Reading this book, I felt as if I had personally travelled to 1940’s wartime England, and not so much at all to 2060 Oxford.

Sleep issues aside, I loved this book. After I was done with it, I went back and reread To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was struck by how similar the theme was, how worried those characters were about changing the course of history, even WWII as well. The difference was that To Say Nothing of the Dog was unrelentingly comic, and therefore caused no sleep disturbances. I rested easy in the knowledge that the characters’ worst fears would not come to pass, and that all would come right in the end.

Oh yes, and then there’s Doomsday Book, another emotional ride in the Willis time travel universe. I’ll reread that again soon, too, as well.

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My life has not been rich in physical danger. Danger has not sought me, and I have not sought it. I avoid undue risk wherever possible. I am mildly acrophobic. The one or two times I thought might be in immediate peril, my reaction was one of dead calm, and determination to do what I could to maximize my safety. No heart racing, no stomach fluttering, no queasy knees.

Every day, I drive around my megalopolis, on freeways and surface streets where fatal accidents occur with some regularity. Generally, I am not afraid at all. Every now and again, I have a genuine close call–never my fault, of course–and I cuss and say to myself I can’t believe what that guy just did and then I carry on. The incidents are common enough that I usually don’t even mention them to my husband later on. I don’t think about them later either; I do not fret about what might have happened.

And yet, my life is marred by fear. Not fear of real stuff, happening right now, but fear of what might happen.

“People wish to learn to swim and at the same time to keep one foot on the ground.” – Marcel Proust

Mr. Proust is showing us an excellent example of the effect of fear in our lives. Learning to swim expands our possibilities, allowing us to go on a boat without worry, or to jump in the deep end, and swim to the side. On the other hand, we might sink. Water might fill our lungs. We could die. Worse, other people at the pool might laugh at us because we’re such doofusses for not being able to do such a simple thing as swim. Polls show that fear of death is routinely outranked by fear of public speaking (i.e. public humiliation) in most people’s minds.

It’s worth noting that most children learn to swim pretty easily. They have enough trust in to believe that the water will hold them up. I have two friends who did not learn to swim as children, and in spite of attempting to learn as adults, neither has succeeded. I think they have somehow developed a core belief that swimming is impossible for them.

“A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.” – Arab proverb, possibly, but also credited as Chinese idiogram

In our pre-verbal and early-verbal years, we have various frights–loud voices, scary shapes, dreams–that we cannot name. Not surprisingly, adults around us are often oblivious to what we are feeling. For instance, as a three-year-old, I had an unaccountable fear of women’s peep-toe shoes. I only know it was somehow connected to airplanes. I did go on an airplane flight at three, to visit extended family back east. Yet I remember enjoying that flight. I loved it, in fact.

“Only your mind can produce fear.” – Anonymous

I see why no one claims that one; it’s sort a duh realization. We need to worry to bring on that stomach-in-the-throat, bowel-gushing, hand-trembling paralysis. Worry requires taking what has happened to us in the past and projecting it into the future, without understanding the connection between our past and our present.

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie

But had Madame Curie understood radioactivity more thoroughly, she presumably could have avoided dying from the effects of it. At the same time, she couldn’t possibly have gained the understanding of radiation without exposing herself to it. Even if she had been fearful, she couldn’t be aware of what, exactly, she needed to fear.

Looks like we’re stuck. We need fear, but it mostly just holds us back.

“Fear is the most damnable, damaging thing to human personality in the whole world.” – William Faulkner

I agree.

News flash: While writing this, I solved the peep-toe-fear mystery. On that childhood visit back east, I was bitten by a dog. Not mauled, just bitten, and not the dog’s fault. It was bad enough for me to remember though, and bad enough that I can still find the scar on my hand all these years later. Anyway, I think, when we boarded the plane to come home, there was a woman across the aisle from us wearing peep-toe shoes, and I believe I became concerned that an animal could come along and bite off the exposed toes.

Try explaining that to an adult.

“…Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration…” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

Listen to Mr. Herbert, for he is telling us the truth.


Be Afraid. Very, Very Afraid.



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