A day ago, a friend asked me, “what is your biggest fear?”
I can’t typically answer that. When it comes to existential questions that want quantitative answers – what’s my [insert comparative word here] [insert mental or emotional process or list here]? – I’m not your gal. I’m a navel gazer, sure, but kind of a stupid one, with a tragically short memory. If some revelation about my own inner workings happens to stick, it’s by miracle of luck and timing, or it’s because I’ve repeated the same behavior enough times that even I’m annoyed by it.
So the question yesterday brought me up short. What I’m afraid of changes by the day. Afraid of the stuff I can’t see, just outside of my peripheral vision. Afraid I missed out on life by being such a careful teenager, so easily swayed by other people’s worry. Afraid I’m wasting my life. Afraid of pain. Not, oddly, afraid of death. Afraid enough not to poke my fingers in a light socket, I guess, but the impending eventuality of my own death at some unknown hour doesn’t bug me. (Edit: Actually, it does. Just… it’s complicated.)
For the first time, though, when asked a question that required me to quantify something so unformed, an answer appeared. It’s not new. Remember what I said earlier, about me and remembering personal revelations. I’ve had the same thought a few times, floated in and then out again, trailing nebulous terror.
I’m afraid of disappearing. Of leaving nothing behind. Of dying without professionally publishing a word.
It’s a pretty human thing to be afraid of. We elevate and cherish the legacies of other people. We tape quotes to our cabinet doors; make purses out of our favorite book covers; read biographies of actors and politicians and writers dead before we were born.
I have no children, and I plan to have no children. I’ll be a broken line in the family tree – an offshoot line; a period instead of a comma. My progeny will have to be something else.
For a long time, I’ve been a background coach for other writers, while I struggle with my own novels. I write, but nothing fruitful. Nothing finished. I’m a writer, not the author of.
In high school, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged me to write fiction. Every year I took her class, I participated in a regional short fiction contest. We sweated at it time and again, editing, proofing and polishing a submission. And every year? Second place. Second place. Second place.
That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s my biggest fear. Living and dying with nothing but a veritable dump heap of out-of-date posters, several terrabytes of PSD files on someone else’s server, a handful of second place high school fiction, and an empty space where a book should have been.
So having recognized that, I’m going to fill the void. Put a book on the shelf. It feels like I spent the last few years fighting. The internal critic, the internal editor, the internal coward, the eternal procrastinator. I’m exhausted and I’m out of patience with it all, but it feels like maybe the writer’s stepped up. The writer in me is tired of wrestling with them, ready instead to flip them the bird and move on.
Whatever it takes this year, I’m finishing a book.