Living Your Book: No Fear? Know Fear.

Maybe I’m presuming far too much, but in my experience, most writers tend not to be very physical people.  It seems like the doers of society are often too busy doing to take the time to write and the authors are often too busy authorizing to do!  🙂

This month we’ll be taking a look at something that it is difficult to get on without:  real life experience.  Want to find a way to really spice up your prose?  Here is a key question: Are you just satisfied with living inside your comfortable shell, only venturing out by proxy through your characters?  If so, I doubt your writing is as vivid and powerful as it otherwise could be.  You can unlock your potential, but it will be harder than you ever imagined…but also perhaps more rewarding!


Mt. Rainier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, by Mike Ballew

It was a warm sunny day in the middle of July when I stepped up onto a set of steel stairs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.  I was taking part in the annual ROTC educator visit to their Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC), and they were letting us try some of the training exercises.  A soldier standing to my left very patiently waited for me to take hold of a handle attached to a slide on a heavy steel cable.

I took a deep breath and looked out ahead and down.  I was standing at the top of a 57 foot tower.  Immediately in front of me there was…nothing.  Just the cable stretching out over a lake down to a dock.  I was supposed to step forward into that nothing with no harness or other safety equipment and ride the cable down to the dock.  There were no brakes, just another soldier standing on the dock who would signal me with a white flag when I should let go.  If I didn’t they would sound an air horn.  If I still didn’t, I would probably do some serious injury to myself.

“Whenever you’re ready, sir,” the soldier to my left said.

In that moment, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a very long time.  A cold ball formed in my stomach and my muscles started to lock up.  My heart rate jumped, my breathing became a little irregular, and my thoughts focused on the emptiness between me and the water below.  Next, I remembered the long line of people behind me waiting their turn.  I wanted to turn around and quit.  I wanted to climb back down and find terra firma on which to stand.  I thought of how people would understand why I had done it, and that would somehow lessen the sting of not following through.

No, I thought, I am no coward.  I took a deep breath, I opened my eyes, and I stepped out into the nothing (which looked something like this:  The Slide for Life at LDAC).

And with that, I had conquered my first real encounter with physical fear in a very long time.  Not just nerves, mind you, but a real, honest-to-God fear for my life that had done more than make me a little jittery.* For me, it was a good reminder of what my characters face in my stories, and it made me think twice about the times I’ve had them charging into dangerous situations.

Many Americans thankfully forget about real, bodily fear, and I would say that 90% of the fiction authors I’ve met fit this bill.  We knew what it was when we were children, of course, but over time that fades.  The sheer terror of the monster that lived in the dark corner of the bedroom is slowly beaten out of us by a maturing mind and experience, both of which convince us that such things don’t exist (at least that is what we tell ourselves).  We are terrified of bullies, but then we outgrow them (or get big enough to hit back harder).  We do find other things to fear, but by and large those fears aren’t physical–losing loved ones, losing a job, becoming a failure.

That is useful to our craft, of course, but, as I discovered standing up on the top of that tower, fear of physical threats is a very different animal.  My body seemed to react more tangibly to what I was doing, and I had to make a more concerted effort to overcome it.  I did not fully anticipate what would flash through my mind or how I would answer it.  I did not understand how tempting it would be to give in and step down.  If you had asked me beforehand I would have said that I thought I did, but now I see more clearly.

I think it would be worth our time as authors to seek out the kind of experience I faced on the top of that tower.  We write boldly of our characters facing their worst nightmares and we want our readers to thrill as characters grow enough to overcome them.  That very motif, in fact, is one of the strongest and most inspirational.  But how long has it been since we actually tried anything of the sort?  What do we really know, and if we don’t know it, how can we communicate it?

Consider, then, making an effort (with all appropriate safety precautions, working with professionals) to step out of whatever your preferred shell is.  Do heights bother you?  Try bungee jumping.  Are you afraid of water?  Take swimming lessons.  Are you afraid of the unknown or the dark?  Perhaps it’s time for tent camping in the mountains.  Even a trip to an amusement park for the roller coasters is a start.  Maybe you’ll want to even take notes on how you feel.

Know real, physical fear, defeat it, and then you can be certain you’ll have a story worth its telling!

Next Week:  Foot Travel and Hiking


*Note I am speaking of a specific kind of fear here–an anticipation of the possibility of physical injury.  Sadly, many both in America and in the rest of the world know this all too well.  To them I can only apologize, hope for their best, and say that this post will be of no real use.  I am speaking to those of us privileged enough to live with some sense of physical security.


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on October 5, 2012, in Brian Melton, Characters, Speculative Fiction, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Good way to do this: go on a real mission trip–one where you get to sleep in a mud hut in an African village and eat village food, not just a glorified vacation with a little ministry as a side dish. One where you have to undergo physical hardship, like riding in a mutatu (minivan taxi) for five hours in a seat designed for a midget with your luggage in your lap and so crowded that you cannot move until you arrive, and then when you get out your legs are so cramped you can’t walk right for a couple of days. (Oh, by the way, the mutatu has no shock absorbers, and the road has potholes that are more like tank traps.) I guarantee that you will get a new and very useful perspective on life, whether you actually use it in a story or not!

  2. Well, I would say that I know real, physical fear every time I drive up the perilous road to your house, but I suspect you wouldn’t count that…

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