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Fear is, I’ve come to realize, one of my great personal enemies as a creative writer (along with laziness). Part of this is probably just because of the kind of person I am. I suspect, though, that part of it may be endemic to the writing process.
Possibly the hardest time for me personally during the writing of my novel (and since) was the time after the manuscript was finished, while I was sending it out and getting feedback from as many people I could entice into looking at it. I remember several days sitting at my computer, incapable of putting in time on my paid work, almost mindless with fear about the kinds of responses I would get. Fortunately, I was able to get past it with several long walks — and prayers, most of which ended with me putting my work, and my pride in it, on the Lord’s altar: accepting that if it turned out that what I had written wasn’t any good, that was still okay because I had tried my best to do something I felt was worthwhile. Ultimately, the only way I was able to achieve peace was through a sense that my effort in writing No Going Back might be an acceptable offering, even if the work itself lacked value or worth.
The whole experience was something of a surprise. I had no idea that I cared so much what my would-be peers in the community of Mormon letters thought about my work. I had no understanding of just how debilitating that fear might be — that I could be tempted to pull my work from consideration by a publisher and readers, even after I had finished it, just to avoid finding out that they might not like it. I didn’t do that, of course — but I can’t help but wonder how much of that was because of how public I had been about my writing of the book, and how embarrassing and essentially impossible it would have been to suddenly pretend it didn’t exist. At one point, I consoled myself with the thought that if everyone hated the book, I could just drop out of the community of Mormon letters and find something else to do with my time: curl up in a ball and hide, essentially. It was good, I thought, that I lived in Wisconsin, not somewhere like Utah where my social life might involve regular in-person interaction with a lot of other Mormon writers and readers — perhaps the first time I’d been glad of that particular fact. Usually, my lack of ability to spent time at Mormon literary events is one of the few things I regret about not living in Utah.
Back in my graduate school days, I came to a realization that unless you’re in one of the “sexy” fields like queer theory, in order to succeed as a literary scholar, you have to be willing to care more about your own research and writing than anyone else ever will. This presented a substantial challenge to me, since as an externally motivated person, I tend to judge the value of what I do on its value and interest to others and the “ego strokes” I can get from their praise.
Typical advice given to people like me often suggests that we should just somehow choose not to care about what other people think — an act as impossible in my case as flapping my arms and flying to the moon. I’m simply not built that way, and the evidence I see from other people like me is that this is not an area where people typically are capable of change. Yes, it may be somehow better or loftier or more godlike to do what one is doing purely based on internal motivation, but I’m convinced that’s just not an option for some of us.
Including, interestingly, Joseph Smith, based on some of the evidence from his life. Can you imagine Brigham Young ever saying, “If my life has no value to my friends, it has no value to me”? Brigham’s version would have read more like, “If my life has no value to my friends, I need a new set of friends.” But I digress . . .
Fear, it’s sometimes said, is a useful emotion, focusing our attention on potential dangers and ways to prevent them. I’m here to tell you, though, that fear — or the desire for praise — serves little or no useful purpose in writing, unless its value is to point us to some other kind of less risky and more rewarding activity. Which, despite those risks, is not always a good thing, since I daresay there are some things that can only be accomplished by writing books.
I waited the better part of 10 years for someone else to write the first Mormon novel about a gay teenager trying to stay in the Church. No one else volunteered (something I understand a little better now that it’s been published . . . ). Regardless of whether the novel I wrote was worthwhile or not, the idea that someone needed to write a novel of this kind (and many more, hopefully, still to come on this topic) was something I still believe. Now it’s been done. The next one (by someone else) may be — hopefully will be — better. But it won’t be the first, and the reason it won’t be is because I did manage to get past those fears and put something out there.