A Novel Phobia: Diagnosis

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Most of my phobias have rational explanations and are probably quite common. My ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) can be attributed to a West Texas upbringing punctuated with rattlesnake avoidance education. The blame for my coulrophobia, fear of clowns, rests on the shoulders of Stephen King, Tim Curry, and John Wayne Gacy. (I suspect those guys seriously messed up the circus for an entire generation.)

But another of my more recently uncovered phobias is so uncommon, it doesn’t have an official name that I’m aware of. Thus, using the rules of phobia naming (keep it Greek), I am inventing one: Grapho (to write) biblio (book) phobia (fear). The fear of writing a book.

Over the past few months, I have been asked repeatedly: “When will you write a book?” Not if. When. As though it is an inevitability. It’s not a crazy question—I write for blogs, I publish essays, poetry, and short stories. A book would be the next logical step. It’s the equivalent to being newly married and asked when you will start having kids—people assume it is a matter timing or money.

So I answer the book question as I did the baby question: someday. Sometimes I pair it with a joke: “When my writing time isn’t interrupted by the search for Ivan the Stuffed Shark.” After an interviewer for my local newspaper tried to pin down a more substantial answer, I realized why I don’t have a better response—writing a book scares the hell out of me.

The issue is nothing so simple as writer’s block or lack of inspiration—I have three decent ideas that have moved to the outlining stage. When the time arrives for actual writing though, I have a crippling fear of writing a novel or book. I’m probably not alone in this fear. Things like the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where participants are challenged to buckle down and write an entire novel during the month of November, indicate that others share this same struggle with making a novel a reality. I wonder how many of them are in my boat, too paralyzed by fear to dive in?

The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says a fear must present for more than six months to be a phobia. My first novel-related panic attack struck last November as I tried to undertake (and subsequently quit) the NaNoWriMo, so it qualifies on that count. Other noteworthy diagnostic criteria for identifying a Specific Phobia include the following:

Marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation. 

When that interviewer pressed about writing a book, he told me, “I can tell you have a book in you.” It was such a sci-fi concept: somewhere in my stomach was a book that would burst out, or worse, have to be extracted by some giant metal claw. At this point that’s what writing a novel feels like—an extraction rather than a process. When I try to rationalize, to think about the process, it only exacerbates the situation. The mere question about when this book will take form causes anxiety.

Exposure to the phobic stimulus almost invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed Panic Attack.

Reading, as it should be for a writer, is an integral part of my life. When I read novels, however, I cannot connect the act with writing one myself. Imagining a full-length work with all the trimmings coming from my little brain seems impossible. Trying to visualize it triggers a melt-down like young Superman in Man of Steel. The world is too much. There are so many brilliant novels, and likewise so many bad, that I can’t fathom any contribution I would make that is worthwhile.

The phobic situation(s) is avoided or else is endured with intense anxiety or distress. 

Those outlined books aren’t just outlines—I have tried to build on them. Yet, somehow when I reach about 15,000 words, panic creeps in. The higher the word count goes, the more unwieldy it feels. What once was the beginning of the book is now a potentially sprawling behemoth which demands editing and revision. Subplots should be incorporated and developed. The Freytag’s triangle begs for multiple climactic moments. Inside my head, a little voice begins yowling “DOOM!” like a lovesick cat. By 20,000 words, everything freezes. I’m done.

So the criteria and symptoms are there. What then is the cause?

Perhaps the anxiety is fueled by other people’s assumption that a novel is inevitable. The supposition indicates, at least to my phobic brain, a level of expectation, and then we’re back to good, old-fashioned fear of failure. I’d like to think all writers grapple with this at some point. It’s why some people only write one book. It’s why some people with talent never write at all. We spend hours chewing through articles, blogs, and books on writing and publishing. Each piece of advice, of new-found knowledge can have almost a reverse effect—instead of inspiring, it makes us more gun shy.

Medical experts say that most phobias develop before the age of 30 and are caused by traumatic or stressful situations related to the object of the phobia. I can trace mine to the two times I have ever attempted long works: a novel I wrote in my late teens/early twenties and my MA creative thesis. The former is an abysmal mishmash of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerny, in the guise of a feminist commentary. It’s cringeworthy, folks. Worse, I actually had the hubris to send it out to people. To read. It was rightly rejected over and over until I finally gained the insight that it sucked beyond salvage. Then it was like it never existed.

The thesis was essentially the first 200 pages of a novel, a twist on the Arthurian character Mordred. Researching, writing, and revising took up the better part of two years, after which my committee sent pages of notes, many which left me furious and frustrated. When I made their revisions, of course, grumbling to myself the entire time, I actually found my writing was elevated, and I pushed myself into new and wonderful places. That, however, only made my phobia worse, because I began to wonder: Can I do it without them? Can I trust my skill set? Or will I once again return to the land of terrible novels?

These fears—revision, rejection, failure—are certainly present in short form too. The difference, at least to me, is that ten or twenty pages can be revised in a few short days. It doesn’t matter if you fail when you submit it, because there’s always another story, another magazine. Novels seem to put so much more at stake. They represent years of work, and emotional and time investment. Short stories feel like getting a plant while novels feel like raising a kid.

The most common and effective treatment for phobias is behavior therapy. So in my next post, I’ll share a treatment plan, with some suggestions for all writers trying to overcome similar fears. If you have triumphed over comparable fears and have some suggestions, please post them below. If you haven’t, but have your own writing phobias, share those as well.