Now that I am a famous chef with an original recipe that has been studied by thousands (or at least glanced at by dozens), I feel obliged to occasionally use cooking analogies in my blog.
Fear, in all its myriad forms, is to writing in the way spices are to cooking – a basic and necessary ingredient.
Whatever genre you read, or write, fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter; I propose fear as an elemental force that is common to them all. Racing to the most extreme example, even those syrupy-sweet, unrelentingly-positive, “life is beautiful if you’ll just think like me”, self-help books have overcoming the fear of ultimate failure at their core.
As with the potency of spices, fear runs the gamut from very mild to “sweat-pouring down your face and your body roasting in the fires of hell.”
Why the sudden interest in fear? Apart from the fact that the genre of my first book is heavily-seasoned with fear, an incident on the Friday after Thanksgiving brought a new fear into my life. The temporal distance of two days has allowed me to look at what happened with a small degree of detachment, and I hope to use what I went through to better understand the nature of fear.
My daughter gave birth to my fifth grandchild three weeks ago. The joy in our household had been continuous and unbounded for twenty-one wonderful days. The deep contentment that I feel holding my infant grandson is one I’ve felt before; holding my other grandchildren and my own children before that. It is an assurance that life will go on… my life, through them, will go on.
On Friday afternoon my son-in-law, Sid, came up to me moments after I had returned from a run and, with the words “Carrie’s in trouble”, triggered a nightmare. Carrie delivered her baby naturally, with no medication of any kind. She is as tough as they come. To find her crumpled in pain, barely coherent as a result of the agony she was suffering, was terrifying. The range of symptoms she exhibited were even more frightening; severe back and abdominal pain, very low temperature, pale and clammy extremities. A frantic google search turned up dire possibilities.
When she began to have trouble breathing, only a father’s protective instinct kept me functioning. I made the necessary calls, answered questions, passed along instructions… and kept things as calm as possible. Once the ambulance arrived and rushed her away with Sid at her side, the prop of fatherly instinct was kicked from under me. From the edge of the abyss, I viewed the blackness that awaits a parent whose child is taken from them.
Empathy is part of my nature. I believe it is what allows me to write realistically from a variety of viewpoints. It gets me “inside the head” of my characters. This wasn’t empathy, this was fear, the real thing. Trembling that clenched fists could not stop, breath that hitched, caught… and stopped, leaving me gasping for air; tears that welled and spilled down my cheeks. Fear of this flavor had never touched me before and it was powerful.
In the end, my daughter was fine. The attack, or whatever it was, passed as quickly as it came. She came home from the hospital smiling and embarrassed. The cause of her ordeal wasn’t discovered and that doesn’t bring much comfort. Her cheery resilience leaves us with little choice but to forget the incident and move on.
My fear has been stored away. But now, when one of my characters is faced with, or endures, a heart-shattering loss, I will not only empathize… I will remember. The spice I add will be all-natural, home-grown… and potent.