The house I grew up in had a pool, and under the diving board there was a small light. It was round and blue, and I used to peer through it, imagining the ocean was on the other side. Of course, I knew the ocean wasn’t on the other side. Dallas, TX was a long way from the Gulf of Mexico. I knew that, and yet I also sort of believed that at night, sharks entered through that very small hole and swam around in my pool. It didn’t matter how many times I told myself that this was ridiculous and that a shark would not be able to survive in chlorinated water and that no one had ever been attacked by a shark in their swimming pool and that we lived several hundred miles from the ocean. I knew these things, and yet I was terrified to swim alone or at night, and it was the kind of terrified that defies logic and rationale. Even now as an adult I can still remember the breathless terror that would propel me from the deep end to the shallow end if I ever swam alone.
Which leads me to a summary of the first story I remember writing: a young girl is attacked by a shark in her own swimming pool. The shark attacks her, she hits it over the head and scolds it, this stuns the shark and he stops gnawing on her leg and hightails it out of her pool. Then the girl’s parents come outside to see what all the yelling is about, she tells them a shark attacked her, they think she’s telling crazy stories—until she shows them her bloody, shark-bitten leg. Her parents are shamed, and the shark leaves, presumably to go terrorize other suburban north Dallas pools.
To state the obvious, fear can be a powerful motivator in your writing. I don’t consciously sit down and write about those things that scare me. It turns out it’s just what I like to write about. (Spoiler alert: Sharks do not terrify me anymore. Although when I went water-skiing on our honeymoon, I did ask the boat driver if there were sharks by the resort, and he told me I was more likely to be attacked by a mermaid.)
The very first novel I ever wrote—which hopefully no one will ever read except for those poor friends and family members I made read it years ago, back when I thought it was brilliant—was about a woman who became a widow at 23. I thought of the idea on the aforementioned honeymoon when I was very happy and found myself worrying that all of this happiness could be suddenly and randomly taken away from me. The novel I’m working on right now is about a young couple who loses a child. So clearly this pattern of writing about the things I fear the most, those things that have the potential to keep me awake at night if I allow them, has carried over to my adult writing.
I wish I could say that once I write about something, I don’t worry about it anymore. Wouldn’t it be nice if the simple act of getting a fear on paper took away its power? But unfortunately that’s not how my mind works. Sometimes I can convince myself that by writing about the things I fear the most, I’m keeping them at bay in real life. Though, I can’t convince myself of this for long, because how do you not worry about the safety of your kids? You just do; it’s what being a parent is about. In other words, it’s an inescapable fear.
One nice thing about fictionalizing your fears is that you get to control the outcome. So my characters can mess up and fall and fail miserably, or they can be brave and wise. They can hit rock bottom and scrabble their way back to the living. They can experience the highs and lows of life. They can even smack a shark over the head and stop a shark attack. (I’d say don’t try this at home, but should you find a shark in your swimming pool, go on and give it a try.)
In other words, my characters have to react to the uncontrollable circumstances of life. And I get to experience it with them, albeit from the driver’s seat.
Fear is good for your writing because it provides obvious tension, and a story without tension is not a very good story. If you haven’t already, channel those things that scare you witless, and see where the story (or shark) leads you.