I have a great fear of failure. A debilitating, nail-biting, stomach-dropping fear that sometimes comes marching in preposterously early, ruining everything.
I began writing my first book when I was 8 or 9 - an illustrated story about a bear. The illustrations were what gave me the most trouble, as I could never draw as well as my younger brother. I was, even then, too self-critical. Of course, I didn't know then that Tim would grow up to be a professional artist. At the time I just wasn't used to him trouncing me so easily at anything.
At 19, I attempted my first novel-length production. Three pages in, I figured out that the project would require extensive research. I worked at a university, so I went to the library during my lunch hour to check out stacks of books about Vikings, Celts and monasteries. (I'll let you figure out what I was writing, because lord knows I'm not going to say.) I photocopied and made lists of notes about everything from cooking utensils to religious beliefs to weather patterns.
I got to around 150 pages and then, for reasons I don't clearly remember, felt the attempt was a total failure. Knowing what I know now about the writing process, I'd guess I had a bit of writer's block, which degenerated into "this is utter crap" (most writers do this) and I should have just pushed through it. Instead, I abandoned the manuscript, shredded the evidence of its existence, and decided I wasn't bright enough to write a novel.
All that remains is a greater knowledge of Norway and Sweden circa 800 AD than the average North American citizen can boast.
I didn't attempt more than poems, essays, and a few short stories until my early thirties, at which point I sat down and wrote a 430 page story in about 3 years time, while raising children and returning to college to complete my degree in English. When I finished the manuscript, I read it, saw how much I grew as a writer between the first half and the second, told myself that I'd accomplished quite a feat just writing a whole freaking novel. Then I shelved it, thinking: That's the worst I'll ever do.
After graduation, I wrote my first Young Adult manuscript, certain I was starting something I wouldn't stop doing. That I'd no longer relegate myself to the back burner. That I would do whatever it took to give myself the chance to be the only thing I'd ever really wanted to be: a published novelist. Surprisingly, I did stop. I sent queries to literary agents, got no bites, and became discouraged. I still did some writing, but nothing disciplined, completed, and submitted. I shrunk back to reality a little worse for wear.
I don't know why that was my reaction, but I know it had to do with fear. I know this because I'm struggling with that same fear now. I just recognize it this time. I'm finding conferences and writing workshops to attend, and then coming up with tons of excuses not to go. I'm not ready. I'm not at an advanced enough stage in the writing process. I'm not good enough. I'm too old.
Someone once said if you really want something, you'll find a way; if you don't, you'll find an excuse. That's not necessarily true, once fear of failure elbows into the equation. Fear of failure is a big life-sucking, dream-smashing monster that replaces what you want with what you're afraid of, and whispers that all the work and sweat and believing in the world won't amount to anything.
Fear loves to masquerade as reality, but failure only happens when you stop trying. Failure, then, is hearing what fear has to say and believing it. I suppose it's time I stop listening, eh?