First Aid for Fear

by Linda DeMers Hummel

February 2014

In my childhood two worries consumed me — bear attacks and appendicitis. They were long shots at best, since my neighborhood barely had a squirrel, and appendicitis never got any closer to me than the boy across the street, who was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Although he recovered in a few days, I knew it was just a matter of time before appendicitis came looking for me, too.

When I became a writer, different worries met me at my desk every morning.

I worried about my personal essays being too personal. I wrote about my brother’s suicide and why my grandmother cried at Sunday dinner but agonized over wording that wouldn’t upset my family or friends. When I wrote about how it felt to be a mother of teenagers in light of my semi-wild college years, a friend felt moved to call and admonish me for “putting all that out there.” I had to decide if it felt better not to write. It wasn’t much of a fight. So I gave up that worry.

I worried about other writers’ successes, as if there were a special room somewhere for writers who had “made it,” and the more of them who took up space, the worse my chances got. My fears kept whispering that my clips weren’t strong enough, and I’d never break into their elite club. My voice wasn’t distinctive. My modifiers dangled from time to time. The list went on. But so did I.

On an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, an editor from Newsweek called to say they’d be running the My Turn column I’d submitted. Another fear down, and then it was time to fall right into the next one.

Essays were one thing, and I knew I could construct them and sell them. But unless I was going to be the next David Sedaris (and clearly I wasn’t) I needed to write feature articles to get ahead. I worried that if I got a magazine assignment and had to work through a manuscript with editors, I’d be uncovered as a complete amateur. I kept worrying but kept writing query letters. And then one day, Cosmopolitan called, accepting my article proposal and giving me an assignment for more money than I’d made the previous six months.

For three seconds or so, I was elated. My editor wasted no time, however, telling me how important she was and that she’d never heard of me. I signed the contract and set out to write five thousand words. Every morning the fear that said, “You’re not ready for this,” popped up between the Caps Lock and Tab key, coming right at me between the eyes.

When I submitted my draft, the editor who was too busy for me called. She explained that all drafts went through Helen Gurley Brown first, and that she had Ms. Brown’s notes in front of her.

“Are you ready?” Ms. I’m Too Busy for You asked. I said I was but I wasn’t.

 “She feels your writing is smug, sanctimonious, and small.”

In her one-minute wrap up, here is the rest of what I heard: “Kill fee. Best of luck.”

I sat with a glass of wine and licked my wounds for an hour. I had put my wares out there for a big league editor who said, in so many words: You pretty much stink. What if they were right? I could stop writing and do something else that didn’t involve spreading my ego out on a chopping block every time the phone rang or mail appeared in my inbox. But what if they were wrong?

I told myself that now that I had that over with, I’d be able to face the rest of the calls and emails from other editors who’d also never heard of me. So I did, and I had successes. And some of the biggest flops of all time.

For me, the best way to meet my writing fears is to slide right into them and slosh around for a while. I let them entice me into their trap, fall in, and wallow if I need to. Fear is part of writing, but if I let it win, I’d forever be looking in the trees for bears, or worrying about appendicitis that never came.

Linda DeMers HummelComment