The Recipe for Powerful Stories: Writing What Scares You

Feb 28, 2012

I have a large and rather irrational fear of something a bit laughable-- ants. It's a psychological thing, stemming from a vivid and horrifying experience of falling into an ant pile when I was about five. If I see a pile of ants, I have a knee-jerk reaction and instant panic/anxiety.

This proved to be a problem when hiking the rainforest in Ghana.

The hike was fun-- until the ants showed up at the end. They were migrating or something, and a massive, ten-foot-wide trail of ants covered our path. There was no way to go around. If we wanted to get back home, we had to run across them. And these were BIG ants.

It was the most terrifying thing I've ever done in my life. I ran as fast as possible, praying the ants wouldn't surge up my legs and eat me alive. (Why, yes, I DO get melodramatic in tense situations, why do you ask?) This didn't cure me of my fear of ants, but I do admit I have a certain amount of pride knowing I conquered my fear enough to take on those ants.

There really is a point to this, I promise.

Is there something that you're afraid to write? An "ant" in your brain that scares the crap out of you? Face that fear-- write it. Sometimes we're afraid to write something because it unsettles us. Maybe we feel it's too controversial, or that we personally are ashamed of it in our own lives. Whatever the reason, writing the things we're afraid of usually ends up being a powerful experience not just for us, but for readers.

I faced that fear in writing TUGL. I was terrified of forgetting certain things-- afraid of what it meant that my memories of certain things had faded. I was ashamed that things I'd vowed always to remember had become less of a focus for me. How did that change me? Who did that make me? So I wrote a story about who we become when memories are literally taken from us-- or at least, who one girl became. It was incredibly cathartic, and even helped me learn things about myself. With any luck, because of the strong emotions I had for this story, it will inspire similar emotions and experiences in readers.

So, my friends, what are you afraid of? Have you written a story that ended up being very powerful because of your fears? 

29 comments:

Melanie Fowler said...

Honestly, I'm afraid of the dark. Or being alone. And at the moment I can't think of any 'ant' I'm afraid to write, but if I think of one, I'll tell you :)

PS there was an ant infestation at my house last year, they were climbing through the walls and onto my counters...so gross, I don't like ants either!

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am afraid of snakes. I get nightmares about them.

For my writing I do have a few fears, like handling a death scene.

Adrienne said...

When I was writing my first draft, I realized some issues I'd dealt with and was afraid of repeating-betrayal and forgiveness-were working their way into my story. Once I was aware of this, I was able to explore those themes more deeply, and come to terms with my oen fears, at least a little bit.
I can't believe you walked across those ants! *shivers* Great post!

Kittie Howard said...

Great analogy, Shallee! From the critter world, it's snakes -- and a similar story. When I was a kid, I was running in a pasture on the farm (where I knew I shouldn't be) and jumped over a black snake that slithered through the grass. Yipes!

David P. King said...

I don't mind ants so much. Except for the biting ones. Little pinchers. I do, however, and an irrational fear for bees, things that suck blood, and clowns (don't ask). :)

J. A. Bennett said...

That is an awesome story, I'll have to try that sometime!

Angela Cothran said...

I'm not really afraid to write anything, but there are things I won't write (sex). I do like to make my characters face their fears. I'm sadistic like that :)

Shallee said...

Good point on the difference between writing your fears, and choosing not to write certain things. There are some things I choose not to write, as well.

Leigh Covington said...

I agree! This is what makes for amazing stories.

I am afraid of spiders. (Probably not going to make the coolest story). But ... I am also afraid of anything ever happening to my kids. (That is a subject I haven't dared approach yet.)

MKHutchins said...

This post made me think of Tolkien -- he had a horrifying experience with a spider as a small child (he was born in South Africa; the spider was rather large). He said that Shelob, by and large, came from that.

shelly said...

I'm truly afraid of...ummmm...getting fat....getting a horrible incurable disease....and writing a sex scene.

Angie said...

Good for you for conquering the ants. I have many irrational fears. I think I faced my fear of losing a child when I wrote "Consecrated." (It's the story of Hannah's mother. A prequel to the novel. I hope it sees the light of day sometime!)

Meredith said...

Wow, that had to have taken so much courage! I'm not all that scared of ants, but that experience would have terrified me, too. I love the idea of writing what you fear. I'll have to try that.

Monica B.W. said...

Wow, I'd love to hike there! Sounds so fun!
And my fear is pretty cliched, lol! SPIDERS!
And nope...I've never written about spiders...just ack!

i'm erin. said...

Hmmm, I am kind of like Melanie, I'm afraid of the dark. I've seen too many creepy shows. And I'm afraid of getting lost. I got lost once in a mall and it was traumatic.

I think a story about a girl that loses all her memories would be fascinating.

Jolene Perry said...

That's an AMAZING story. SO cool!!

I think I tap into a fear every time I read - even if it's not a HUGE one, the hope is that it still shows . . .

lifewithhiccups said...

I'm afraid of not being as good as I wanna be at just about everything. In other words...perfectionism is my demon. I would love to bring this out in a character one day. But that would mean I would have to blast through the procrastination that comes from the perfectionism to create this character.
Great post. Great advice.

Lynda R Young said...

roaches...ewwwwwwwwwwww!!!
And yes, we draw from all of our experiences--the heightened ones the most.

nutschell said...

Red fire ants are nothing to sniff at for sure. Summers in the (rural province of the) Philippines taught me that. :)

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Crossing a river of ants ... I think that would make anyone a little scared! My girls discovered ants in their room last night so it meant my husband had to change all their sheets at 9p.m. He found all sorts of food in their beds, so we've reinstated the strict rule NO FOOD IN BED! :) They were freaking out about a few ants, though, it was pretty funny.

I think my current WiP is one that brought up a lot of strong and difficult emotions. I'm still seeing how it's going to play out, though. It's especially tough to deal with rejection when a book has burrowed into your heart like that.

Peaches Ledwidge said...

Shalee, sorry about your ant experience. I know those big ants because I saw them in Jamaica.

My fear is baseball flying in the air or coming toward me.

The Golden Eagle said...

Well, if you based what I was afraid of from my dreams, then I'm terrified of malls. :P

I haven't written a story that focused on something I was afraid of yet. It sounds like a great way to learn something about yourself, though; and touch readers as well.

Tanya Reimer said...

My daughter fears ladybugs, makes everyone laugh, but fears are very real, aren't they? I know why she's afraid of ladybugs and it makes for a great paranormal story. Even gives me the shivers.

AS for me, yes in writing I do find myself thinking- "oh my what will the lady beside me at church think of this?" It used to restrict me. OR make me leave my MSs on the shelf. I'm learning to push through this. I am a writer after all, I have to write what comes to me. It's their problem, not mine.

Naina Gupta said...

Hi Shallee,

Nice to meet you, I am following you after you followed me earlier last month.

I understand what you are going through with the weird fears, I have an issue with stairs with the gaps in between because I nearly fell through them once.

Joseph Ramirez said...

I'm scared of loss - it's a theme that continually comes up in my fiction, and even though confronting it makes my writing good, it's still painful.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've seen specials on those large ants that migrate - I would've run fast as well!
I was afraid to kill off a character and write a female character - I managed to do both.

Tara Tyler said...

ok you said that and i thot of indiana jones's last movie, ewwwwwwaaaaahhhhh!
and being from florida as a kid, i know red ants, ouch! and one inch carpenter ants who like laundry baskets, yuck!
ants are GROSS!

but my fear was bees. never got stung until i was 30 something and at disney world of all places. not so bad and it cured me. huh! (sorry for the long comment, you got me thinking!)

Scarlett said...

Shallee,

*That* took real courage to cross a river of your worst fears! Seriously. I'm picturing the scene with Sigourney Weaver in 'Galaxy Quest' when she realizes the next big hurdle they have to cross to get to safety. If ever there were an appropriate use of foul language, that was it! *G* Funny!

What I CAN'T see is, by far, my worst nightmare. I tend to write and think a lot about possession, of sorts (demonic or otherwise). To be completely out of control over my own mind and body. Yep! That would suck.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

Good points! I've definitely noticed recently that I tend to skim over things in my books that make me uncomfortable, but when I make a conscious effort, the writing is powerful.

 
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