Of Cats, Bathrooms and Fears

I am afraid of a lot of things. I’m scared of most animals, especially puppies. For some reason, baby animals seem to scare me more than their full-grown selves. I have several stories about the silly things I did as a child to avoid dogs. I stopped visiting one of my favorite aunts because I was terrified of her huge brown dog. He was just so big and he loved jumping up on people. I always felt like he would jump up at me, knock me down and maul me. Then there were my grandmother’s cats. It felt like she had a million. I was very young at the time, so my memories of these cats are slightly sketchy, and I probably exaggerate, but there must have been at least 20 of them, all different renderings of black and white, from the one with a black body, but a white stomach, and white feet, to the completely black one.

I remember walking into the bathroom once and finding one of the cats sitting on the edge of the bath. I froze in the doorway, unsure what to do. I couldn’t turn back. Mother had told me to go bath! But I couldn’t move any closer to the creature. It looked up at me, down at the tub and then back at me, and I knew it was thinking, “This silly child wants to take a bath, but I don’t want to move.” So it continued eyeing me as if to say, “I dare you to try and move me. Ndiedze!”

I could have spent an eternity standing in that doorway, paralyzed between two fears: fear of what my mother might do to me if I returned without taking a bath, and fear of this cat that I was sure would scratch my eyes out if I got any closer. But then my mother came up to me and told me to stop blocking the door. I got out of her way, and she walked up to the tub with the bucket of hot water. She hardly gave the cat a second look as she nudged it away. I quickly got as far away from the door as I could as the cat slunk out of the bathroom.

I spent most of my first semester of grad school feeling like that six year old girl, terrified by what was in front of me but knowing I couldn’t turn back because I have to make this MFA thing work. And I spent my time hanging back on the edges waiting for someone to tell me I was in the right place. I can’t tell you how many times I said to myself “What am I doing here?” What is this crazy, awkward, weird girl from Harare who can’t write about anything except Zimbabwe doing in freaking Wyoming? The answer is I’m trying to become a better writer and waiting for someone to tell me I’m worthy isn’t going to make that happen.

So much of grad school is standing up and saying I want it. I want that research grant. I want that award. I want to present at that conference. I want to do that major research project that terrifies me. None of these things are going to fall in my lap. No one will seek me out for these things. I have to pursue them despite worrying that I’m not qualified for such things.

I’ve been staring warily at all these opportunities, eyeing them like they are that black cat waiting to scratch my eyes out because I’m not good enough. But who am I to decide that I’m not good enough? Who am I to decide that someone else is more deserving? Who am I to count myself out?

So my motto this year is “It’s not my job to count myself out” or as Mindy Kaling puts it, “Why the fuck not me?”

Life is too short to spend any moment of it being held hostage by fears, especially by the fear that you might fail. Life is hard enough without having to cotend with you being the roadblock in your own way. Leave the job of deciding you’re not good enough to someone else. Your job is to try.


500 Words a Day: Overcoming Writing Anxiety

About a month ago, I set myself a writing challenge: 500 words of non-academic writing a day, every day. It didn’t matter what the 500 words were about. They could be a blog post, journal entry, blog comments or even a Facebook rant. They just had to be 500 words and they had to be written every day. In my head, I imagined that I would struggle the first couple of days, but then tap into rich vein of inspiration that would lead to my writing my first short story in almost a year. Yes you read right. I haven’t written a short story in a year.

I say I want to be a successful writer. I get very defiant when people tell me that it’s a silly, unattainable goal. Yet I haven’t written fiction in a year. It’s crazy! But there’s a very simple answer as to why I haven’t been writing. No, it’s not writer’s block. It’s not a lack of inspiration. It’s fear, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat. My dad says I’m scared of everything and I can’t even get offended because it’s kinda true. I’m scared of dogs. The smaller they are, the more afraid I am. Chickens terrify me, and cats have had starring parts in some of my scariest nightmares. I don’t have a drivers’ license because every time I’m in a car and it brakes, I have a tiny moment of blind terror when I’m convinced the car behind us it going to hit us. I get anxious about crossing the road.  I can’t decide what I’m going to do after I graduate because I’m scared I’m going to make a terrible decision which I will regret for the rest of my life. And I can’t write fiction because I’m scared that I’m going to pour myself into my work only to find out that I’m just not good enough.

I’m starting to see why quite a few writers go crazy. You torture yourself to produce a horrible first draft. Then you go about tearing it apart in the revision process, picking it apart and putting it back together until it resembles something that you can live with having your name on it. But you pour so much of yourself in your writing that the critiquing process sometimes feels like a self-critique. It’s as if when I write on my draft, “this doesn’t make sense,” or “this is silly”, I’m telling myself that I’m silly and I don’t make sense. It’s a crazy existence, this writing life. Entirely too much time is spent in the mind.

Anyway, do you ever have moments when you want something so bad, that you won’t even try and get it because you know that you might not be able to handle the pain of failure if it doesn’t work out? It’s a crazy situation. You hesitate because you’re scared of failing, but by not doing anything, you condemn yourself to failure. Only one choice here really: TRY. Back to writing it is 🙂