A few days before I returned to Canada after a 9-month trip through Albania, Greece, Nepal, India, Georgia, and England, I had a panic attack.
What if I’d never make a living as a writer? I’d have to go back to waitressing, and I’d probably end up serving all the people who hated me in high school. They’d snicker and complain about the food.
Or I’d have to get another job consulting for advertising agencies, and my clients would suck the marrow from my bones.
Or I’d fail to get any work at all and end up starving and homeless.
As Elizabeth Gilbert reminds us, we have to accept Fear’s presence if we’re going to do creative work.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t tuck it into our life’s backseat with a bag of candies and a comic so it’ll stop wrenching the steering wheel from us.
My favourite way to do that is to play a little game called, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” It’s my simplified version of Tim Ferriss’s “Fear-Setting” exercise. Here’s how to play:
- Write down your absolute worst-case scenarios. What are you most afraid of? If you did what you dream of doing, what are the most horrible things that could happen as a result?
- Write down what you could do to recover if those things actually happened.
- For each scenario, write a more likely outcome.
Here’s what I wrote about my financial fears:
- Worst-case scenario: I’ll end up waitressing for the people who hated me in high school.
- How I could recover: I could tell them I’d gotten the job to support my creative writing, which is a perfectly legitimate life choice (as is waitressing for any other reason). I could also remind myself that, in the end, few things matter less than what those people think.
- A more likely scenario: I could get a serving job in a city where I didn’t go to high school.
- Worst-case scenario: I’ll get a corporate job that’ll crush my soul.
- How I could recover: Quit.
- A more likely scenario: I could pick up some part-time contracts while I work to monetise my writing.
- Worst-case scenario: I’ll end up starving and homeless.
- How I could recover: I could go to soup kitchens and collect welfare. It might not be pleasant, but it’d be great writing material.
- A more likely scenario: I could use my education and skills to cobble together a living while building the career I want.
All of which is to say that, even if my worst fears were to come true, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
I suspect it would be the same for you.
Earlier this year, I wrote a little story about fear. It’s inspired by a metaphor from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic:
The Gleaming Trail
I squinted at the map.
“Outline,” it said across the top in cheerful block letters, but the roads and place names were smeared and hard to read. I shrugged. Surely there’d be signs, and I’d been given clear directions: write a beginning, middle and end; have lots of conflict; make my character suffer and leave her happy in the end.
The road beckoned, long and straight, not a pothole in sight. In the distance, mountains rose behind a shimmer of heat. High clouds drifted innocently. I opened the car door and the smell of rotting fish smacked me in the face.
A grizzled old lady sat in the driver’s seat, picking her nose and eating its contents.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but I think there’s been some kind of mistake. I rented this vehicle to drive to the end of my novel. It’s on the other side of those.”
I pointed at the mountains. From this far, they looked small enough for a day hike.
She sneered. “I know you did, you hideous idiot. What on earth possessed you to do that?”
“Well…” I stammered, “I thought it might be fun, I guess.”
“Ha!” She barked. “Fun! Do you even know what’s out there? Critics with rusty machetes. They’ve mined the roads, and if you survive the explosions, they’ll take turns violating you and then chop you up for soup.”
“Oh.” I clenched my fists. “You’re bluffing. You just want me to go home so you can have this sweet automobile.”
“Hardly. I just want you to go home, period. I’m not interested in becoming someone’s gamey lunch. I’m just looking out for you. Do you know who I am?”
“You got me.”
“Your fairy godmother. Now give me the keys, and I’ll take you back where it’s nice and safe.”
My stomach sank. I’d spent a long time preparing for this trip. I’d gone stir crazy in that dusty, cramped house. When I thought of the road, my throat went
dry with longing.
And I had a gun.
I pulled it out and pointed it at her. “Listen, Grandma. I don’t know who you are, but I’ve met my fairy godmother, and she smells a lot better than you, so don’t
give me that bullshit.”
Her face stiffened, then crumpled.”It’s the prunes!” she sobbed. “I can’t help it! I’m just trying to take care of you! I’m the only reason you’re still alive. Remember that
dark alley you didn’t walk down last September? You’re welcome. So shoot me if you must, but I don’t recommend it.” She dragged a sleeve across her face, leaving a gleaming trail of snot.
“Fear,” I said, recognising her. I did remember that alley, and the man who’d left it, his hooded eyes full of rage. “Thanks for that.”
I sighed, reached into my backpack, pulled out a bag of gummy bears, and tossed it at her. “Tell you what. Munch on these, and you can come for the ride. But you have to sit in the back.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Can I hold the gun?”
“Fine,” she huffed, and hoisted herself over the seat.
I took her spot, turned the key in the ignition, and put the
car in drive.
Featured image: photo by Ryan McGuire
What about you? What’s one of your worst-case scenarios, how could you deal with it, and what’s a more likely scenario? Let us know in the comments.
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