Healthy Habits: Reckoning with Fear

By Valerie Peralta

My troubles melt away in water. Whether swimming laps in a pool, floating on my back in the Gulf of Mexico, or jumping waves in the Atlantic, I am mentally transported, simultaneously at peace and filled with joy. In fact, my love for the water is what drew me to triathlon. Little did I know swimming in open water as a sport would take my favorite pastime to a whole ‘nother level.

The first time I swam in the ocean for a mock race I panicked. The murky water was difficult to see through, and the bitter salt stung my lips, tongue, and nose as I sputtered and gasped for breath.

With a few weeks left before the actual race, I resolved to overcome this fear that I had never before experienced in any body of water. I headed to the beach whenever I could, provoking lectures about safety from my wise, well-intentioned training partners the times I swam alone.

The day of the race I set an intention to have fun, and though the lake water tasted like motor oil, I achieved my goal of finishing.

Writing doesn’t harbor jellyfish or other sea creatures that could sting or bite. And there’s little risk of being pulled away by a rip current while sitting at a desk in front of a laptop. Yet, writers experience fear. Maybe it’s the blank page that causes this feeling, or not knowing how to write what we want to, or thinking our writing isn’t as good as it should be. Or, maybe the story we have to tell might cause the ire of others who are more powerful, and our work truly will put us in danger.

Like a poem, I don’t have the answer to cure writer’s anxiety. I can only relate the experience.

In the past, whenever I was afraid to express the thoughts, ideas and stories that bubbled inside me, I would raid my kitchen pantry, scarfing down brownies, chocolate chips, dried fruit—whatever I had—as if these treats could safely lodge the words inside me. Now that my blood sugar can’t handle such binges, I scatter papers. I read something and then leave it on my desk, the dining room table, the floor beside my bed. Articles, magazines, and books pile up. I’m too darned scared to share my own words, so I scatter other people’s words throughout my house.

I’ve never liked the notion “a cluttered space equals a cluttered mind.” It feels like an indictment. My mind is cluttered. It’s cluttered with the words I need to write. Holding them inside inevitably introduces negative effects just like a dam that restricts a river’s natural ebb and flow. Is it any wonder then that even now, as I write this, releasing my words feels like the cool water in a brook flowing across rocks?

Since this is an essay, not a poem, offering some sort of solution is in order. As trite as it may sound, write anyway.

But if that doesn’t help, maybe—hopefully—knowing that other writers experience fear when they write and what they do to combat it will alleviate your fear.

During a reading in July 2021, award-winning author Marlon James told the MFA candidates at Fairfield University, “I can’t write if courage is a factor. I’m totally afraid.” He reminded the group of writers that “difficulty and fun are not mutually exclusive.” He advised, “(when you) hit on a truth that in real life you don’t want to face…bottle the voice that says, ‘don’t write that.’”

If that’s not enough encouragement to write scared, maybe this thought from a recently seen meme is: “The weird thing about bravery is that if you’re doing it right it feels like fear.”

And once you do write—scared or not—celebrate!

Valerie Peralta

Valerie Peralta is an intermittent practitioner of just about everything she does striving to be more tortoise and less hare. After copy editing for two decades, she’s finally trusting her own words on the page. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University; her work has been published by The Blended Future Project and is forthcoming in Heart Balm. She lives in South Florida within running distance of the Everglades.