When scientists offer the flatworm Planaria a choice of going left or right, shock it on one side and give it whatever a Planarian desires on the other (this is an example of why scientists should never be put in charge of social programs), the flatworm learns to avoid the shock.
One can almost see it cringing and oozing off fast in the other direction. It fears. We humans may pride ourselves on the complex, Latin-named fears we collect, but basic oh-my-god-run-for-it terror far predates the ability to dance the tango or part our hair behind and eat peaches.
Fear comes standard with the model, built into the nerves and glands. It’s not a Freudian add-on reserved for humans. It’s basic as breathing, older than joy, envy, compassion, hate, or love. The flatworm is our brother under the skin.
This relates to writing — I’m getting to this — because writing is about the whole human. Story happens in the gut, heart, and groin as much as in the head. Our characters don’t just analyze and pontificate. Primal emotions suck their feet into the quagmire, batter and tumble them like an avalanche, smash a fist to the face, sting like tarantulas.
Talking off my philosopher hat and putting on my practical writer bonnet, I like to sort fear into three useful types.
First off, there’s fear that reaches from out of the character’s past, being poisonous and subtle about it. This is fear not happening in the story now. It enters the narrative as backstory or as an old trauma that shapes our character. This is indirect, fear-at-one-remove, but it makes up for that distance in story muscle. When genre Romance is about healing wounds of the spirit, about overcoming old angers and doubts, it’s often fear that’s done the damage. Conflict can boil down to a face-off between the power of love and the power of fear. Long-ago fear can be the mainspring of the plot.
Heady stuff, that.
My two other sorts of fear enter the narrative directly. They happen up close and personal. They’re in the reader’s face.
On the one hand, there’s the sudden stab of terror, maybe accompanied by a gurgling shriek. This is our old friend, icy shock. Very Hitchcockian.
Step down in the dark and find nothing underfoot. The airplane drops six feet, thumps, shudders, and tilts. You jam on the brake and skid toward the cliff. Turn in the shopping mall and the five-year-old isn’t there.
Or there’s the long, slow kind of fear if you prefer that. The hour before battle. Being wheeled down the long corridor into the operating room. Going downstairs to investigate the footsteps that shouldn’t be in an empty house. Or when the spider . . . actually the spider doesn’t have to do anything. The spider can just sit there.
This is the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night” fear.
That line above, generally called an ‘an old Scottish prayer’, is almost certainly a Victorian invention. I was disappointed about that, till I realized this shows the universality of human terror. Lying in bed, listening to the wind, I fear things that go bump in the night with the clammy and chill sincerity of my cavewoman ancestors. Whatever it is out in the dark, it’s still waiting for us after all these centuries.
Writers have uses for all three kinds of fear: trauma from the past; sudden, acute shock; and slow, creeping, inescapable dread.
When past fear shapes the characters, we see echoes of old fear in their actions. The romance plot bends to heal and reconcile.
Fear as the sudden bolt of terror makes the characters explode into immediate action or freezes them in place. It punctuates, and then the story continues in the aftermath in what may be a wholly different mood. In fact, the change of mood from terror to some resolution may be the most important emotional step of the scene.
When fear is an extended space of trapped terror, the story goes on inside it. Action, reaction, dialog, complex thought, a hundred indecisions and decisions and revisions take place against a background of fear. This is not a transformative moment or a spur to action. It’s terrain the character must navigate.
Taking an example of this …
In one of my books a man stands with his back to the wall of a Revolutionary prison in France. It’s 1792. The Terror. The guillotine. He sinks to the ground and sits there, facing the certainty of his own death. No knives slash. No one flees across the heath one snap ahead of the slavering hounds. There’s no outward action at all. The enemy my William Doyle faces is his own fear.
This defines him.
So where do the words come from?
When writers put fear on the page, it’s their own fear. We spin words out of ourselves. It’s as if we had a loom and alpaca in the back yard, except that it’s from us.
So let’s say I’ve swerved to miss some dolt of a pedestrian dressed in ninja black. I didn’t kill him. I didn’t kill him. I keep saying that.
I pull over to the side of the road and whimper mindlessly for a minute because that’s a very fine and useful reaction, of course. But sitting there with my forehead against the steering wheel, I think, “This is what terror feels like. Nice little nervous tic in my eye — check. Muscles turned to water — check. Dry mouth? — Maybe not so much dry. It’s like cotton. I’m a cottonmouth. That’s funny. What would I call this thing my heart’s doing? Not just thumping. It’s squirming around in there.”
Touching matters of particular interest to the writer of genre Romance, I ask myself if I feel the least desire to grab a handsome hero, tear his clothes off, and pull him down to the floor so we can couple like rabid mink.
Not so much. I think that’s a literary invention, mostly.
This is all very writerly. In moments of stark terror writers are all sitting there taking mental notes while we’re shaking because we are going to use this little incident in our work.
Some people find writers a little odd.
Let me end with some lines from Alexi Panshin’s Star Well that sum up adventure stories and Romance genre pretty much.
If the truth be known, Alice’s life thus far had left her unprepared for the realities of romance. There is a sine qua non of romance that she did not know: no weeping over corpses without true pain felt; no embrace by a lover without trials endured; no final rainbow without rain.
On January 1, 2016, I started writing again.
Between October 2010 and February 2014, when I finished revisions on a novel called Harder, I had written more than a dozen works of fiction. Then, in late February 2014, I told my husband I wanted a divorce.
After that, I wrote almost nothing for two years.
It’s something writers hear a lot. The romance writers’ organization I belong to publishes articles on how to keep churning out love stories in the midst of your divorce. A writer friend welcomes pregnancy and keeps meeting her word-count goals day after day–even after the baby comes. Even as her life changes. Writers write.
But I didn’t.
Divorce is exhausting — divorce with children still more so. When you’ve fallen in love with a new partner and are trying to nurture that relationship and solve intractable logistical problems of dissolving two marriages across a distance so you can come together in a new household — when you move twice inside of a year — when you’re learning to cohabit with a new love and coparent with a new partner — when you’re nurturing your kids — well. It’s a lot.
I had a lot on my mind. That’s what I told my agent, my editor. And it was true, but it felt more like I had too much grief and change seated in my body to make my mind available for writing fiction. I spent my days having novel experiences, crying until my stomach hurt, ranting through three-hour drives, talking and laughing on the phone until late, trying scary new things, risking myself, dreaming up a new business, falling asleep exhausted every night. I was changing, and experiencing the full charge of terror that accompanies change.
I could do that, or I could write books.
We spin words out of ourselves — but we have to be careful, every day, not to use ourselves up.
I got divorced because I fell in love, but I fell in love because I needed to get divorced.
Which is flippant, and women aren’t supposed to be flippant about divorce. Not when they initiate it, anyway. It makes people terribly uncomfortable.
I’ve learned a lot in two years about making people terribly uncomfortable.
We don’t fall in love unless there’s room — room in our hearts, our heads, our bodies, for someone else. The room I found for love was room my marriage no longer occupied, if it ever had.
I didn’t take that room from my husband to give to my new partner. The space for love was already there.
But where does that space come from?
I have two brothers, one four years older, one fifteen months. I watched ET with my partner last year, and she pointed out how much I must have been like the kid sister, played by Drew Barrymore, who wants nothing more than to know what her brothers are doing now? And what are they doing now? And now would they like to see what she can do? And how about now? Are they interested in hearing about her thing she did?
The love of a younger sister for her older brothers is intense as a crush, directed with the focus and intensity of a laser beam, and just as one-directional. My brothers loved me, too, of course, but they loved as big brothers do: distractedly, randomly, and with prejudice.
I watched them. I watched their friends. I wanted their attention. I wanted the attention of their friends. I wanted approval. I wanted boys to look at me. I wanted to be cool like them. I wanted them to look at me and see what I was doing and approve. I wanted them to be as interested in me as they were in each other. They never were.
In college and grad school, I dated a string of men who didn’t like me very much.
At twenty-five, I got married.
If our romantic ideal is love that heals wounds of the spirit, how do we understand love and marriage borne of unmet needs, insecurity, and loneliness? I went to college at sixteen, started grad school at twenty. I think about the ten years between leaving my parents and becoming a wife, and mostly I remember an overwhelming feeling of not-knowing.
Not knowing how I felt, or how to feel, or what I wanted, or how to get my needs met, or if I was okay.
Against this backdrop, I followed rules, made friends, held down jobs, earned good grades, researched and wrote a dissertation, pleased everyone I knew, and joined my life to another person’s. At the time, it looked and felt enough like love. But if I were writing my story now, fear would be the mainspring of the plot.
Until two years ago, when love moved into room I’d made ready for it and handed me a weapon against fear.
I’ve lived a life of extraordinary privilege, and for most of it I avoided both confrontation and fear. Like the planera, I turned away. When we can’t turn away, however–or when a prize so big and important comes along that we decide not to–then we begin to live inside a space of fear.
Living in fear means living in the body, with the body. Crying suddenly and often. Crying daily. It means stomachaches, headaches, cancer scares. Living in fear requires getting comfortable with the idea of death, or at least trying to. Also, your poverty. The heavy love of motherhood.
Sexism. Racism. The impossibility of communication.
Our myriad imperfections. Our frailty. Our failures.
When we live inside the extended space of trapped terror, we face things every day that we would have looked away from before. We have no choice. We’re trapped with our terror, stuck in the same locked room with it, and it isn’t any help. It just flails and faffs, hides and cries, and we understand that if we continue listening to fear, we’re sunk. So we learn that though we’re afraid, we aren’t dead. Death is right there. We can see it.
We go ahead and squish the spider with the bare pad of our finger.
When we live with fear, our stories go on. It is our selves that are remade.
I returned to writing two weeks ago, two years after I stopped, not because I feel ready but because my partner tells me it’s time, and I find that I can.
I can, even though I don’t want to.
Writing is the same. I like all the things I liked about it before. I hate all the things I hated about it. It’s just as frustrating, just as annoying, just as impossible, just as exhilarating. I become the tiny god of my book, and I enjoy that, because I have control issues and an ego. I make tiny god decisions and brandish my tiny god fists, and my partner laughs at me, makes me lunch, tells me to sit down and do more writing.
Writers write. I don’t know if I write now because I’m a writer, or if I’m a writer because I’m writing again. If there was some period of time when I wasn’t a writer — if we phase in and out of being writers, as we phase in and out of being truly awake, truly human, truly here.
I don’t know if I’m doing it because I was always meant to, or if I’m only doing it because she said to.
Writing is the same. But I see more clearly now than I did before how much of myself I draw on to write. My wounds, my memories, my guts, my groin, my flaws, my fear.
My love. My heart.
New York Times bestselling author Ruthie Knox has published over a dozen titles in adult contemporary romance and New Adult romance (writing as Robin York). Nominated for four RITA awards in her first two years as a published author, Ruthie has been translated into German, French, Italian, and Portuguese. Her New Adult novels Deeper and Harder made Library Journal’s best-of list for 2014, and Deeper was recognized by RT Book Reviews as the best New Adult title of last year.