Your Frenemy, Fear

piano Piano lessons proceed apace. I like practice better than lessons, not because my teacher’s bad–quite the opposite, he’s very patient and gentle. No, I am terrified of lessons because they’re like performances, and each time I go in I hear various nasty things screamed at Childhood Lili:

* You’re not musical, you’re a joke!
* This is a waste of time, you can’t learn this!
* You’re wasting money on lessons for something artsy!
* Your teacher’s going to laugh at you!
* EVERYONE’S going to laugh at you!

The struggle for me is not the actual learning or the practicing. I enjoy both, I like practicing alone at home. I love doing scales after dinner with a glass of wine. Instead, the struggle is to go back, week after week, and deal with the terror of quasi-performing, and to fight the deep irrational suspicion that not only am I unteachable, but I’m also wasting someone’s time by not knowing what the hell I’m doing. I’m afraid of blanking out when I go in, even though I’ve practiced there’s this fear of not being able to play anything, of vaporlocking and having my brain turn to oatmeal.

My teacher has assured me that this is sort of normal, and that he can tell I’ve been practicing, and that I’m at least teachable. So that’s nice. I’m sure it’s an exotic experience to have me wide-eyed and set on stun every week.

The Little Prince and Princess both love their lessons. The Princess’s teacher told her it was a joy to have a student who actually practiced, and the Prince’s teacher makes funny faces with him all through the lesson. So they eagerly await their weekly half-hour, while I start to feel the mounting dread a couple days before.

Still, there’s a certain satisfaction in enduring this sort of thing, especially when you can begin to wear the terror down. I’m not going to stop the lessons, mostly because I want to learn but also because doing so will require paperwork and LO I LOATHE PAPERWORK OMG YOU JUST DON’T KNOW. The stubbornness I’ve built up over my entire life is proving useful once again. (Publishing is a great way to either go mad with despair or teach yourself absolute stubborn persistence. See also: deciding very young to survive in an inimical environment.)

So I do my practice and live with the dread. Sooner or later the fear will break, I’ll get used to going into lessons, and I’ll feel ridiculous for sweating and shaking and nervously making sure I have an escape route. Fear may be ungodly-huge and shapechanger-crafty, but I have an advantage: quitting isn’t an option.

Just like writing. (You knew I was going to make that comparison sooner or later, right?)

There are so many different times to be afraid during the process of writing a book/poem/short story. Start counting ’em and you’ll get tired of counting before you’ve even scratched the surface. There’s fear of finishing a crappy piece of work, fear of never finishing, fear of never getting published, fear of rejection, fear of your contract being dropped, fear of critics, fear that you won’t be able to write anything new, fear of this, fear of that. (See? Got tired before I even really got started.) It’s a rollercoaster of terror, different each time so you can never really brace yourself all the way.

My solution, other than just sheer idiot endurance, is to use the fear. To think of it as a spur, pushing me to do it anyway. A challenge, a dare. A way to get interesting scars I can build tattoos around, so to speak. A way to prove to myself that I’m not a coward–or at least, not as big a coward as I suspect I might be in my dark hours. It’s also a frenemy you can depend on. Fear is reliable. It keeps coming back, just like hope and disappointment. You can’t shake it. Feel it, get down inside it and look at its guts, pet it and stroke it and breathe in its rank breath. Scratch it behind its ears and croon who’s a good beast? Listen to it purr and slaver.

Running away will just tire you out. Better to turn around, so at least you’re facing it, and draw your line in the sand. There you are, and you can decide all the hosts of Heaven or Hell shall not move me.

First your fear will look more terrifying than ever. Then, as it draws closer, it shrinks. What is seen can be named, and if you can name it, you can work magic on it. Oh, this is my fear of rejection. Motherfucker’s just going to make me work better and submit more. This one’s my fear of critics laughing at me. Well, Amazon reviews haven’t killed me yet, so I might as well ignore them. Oh, this is my fear of failure. Shit, I’ve failed numerous times and am still kicking, failure isn’t that bad. Oh, there’s my fear of dying penniless in a garret, right next to my fear of the color yellow and the invisible dust-snakes under my bed. Fuck them, I’m going to do this anyway.

Of course, there are the perfectly reasonable fears that keep us from doing stupid shit. But it’s impossible to tell them apart from the silly or knee-jerk or frenemy fears if you’re not looking. Get to know your fear–and this also helps you write better, because knowing fear inside-out helps you make characters your readers can identify with. Everyone is afraid, on some level.

And with that, I’m going to go start dreading my next piano lesson. Right after I finish this scene…

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martianmooncrab
martianmooncrab

and what did those naysayers have to validate them? Nada… you were just better than them and they couldnt allow that.. nope..

Howard I.
Howard I.

Here’s the thing about piano lessons, or learning Italian—if you just keep slogging away, two things are very likely to happen. 1) You will make slow, additive, progress in nearly invisible increments, but which, at the end of [fill in some length of time] will become apparent. 2) Something will unexpectedly click one random afternoon for no very good reason, and mysteriously you find yourself playing noticeably better than you did yesterday. BTW, my own guide for the piano once upon a time was a wonderful book by Charles Cooke called, Playing the Piano for Pleasure. I see it’s still… Read more »