Fear is something that binds and confines. Imagination sets you free.
Stories have always provided metaphors for life-and-death situations and stress, from the earliest folk stories told around the fire. It was natural to us as children, to grapple with our terrors through fantasy, so why not carry on as adults? Most of us do from time to time, even if it’s just to snuggle up in front of a screen and comfort ourselves with the fact that we will, at least, never be eaten by a thirty-foot dinosaur.
But can you actually face down your fears through the act of writing, or creating a piece of art? Is it a good idea to even try?
When we build castles in the sky, it usually lifts our attention away from the pain, stress or drudgery here on the ground. But sometimes, those castles spike cruel shapes against the wind, revealing our greatest terrors in strange new forms. Art can help us carve out the meaning and sense of order we crave when we face real life stresses that otherwise might seem pointless, relentless; chaotic. It can also open us up to other people who might be feeling the same. Suddenly our shout across the darkness is no longer a lonely echo, bouncing into nothingness. A bridge of kindness forms itself; there are others who hear and understand.
But what about the process of writing something that makes your gut twist? Is it a healthy thing to do?
I wrote The Empty Danger (vol 1 in The Book of Exquisite Corpse) during early lockdown in 2020, about early lockdown in 2020. It was a time when the virus was brand new and unknown. I had very few facts or experiences to go on: I had no idea what it was like to be diagnosed with COVID-19, especially in those early days when so little was understood about it. All I had were the news reports, the climbing numbers, and my own, private fear which I knew must be shared by millions of others all over the world. Fear itself seemed to gain a new power, swelling as big as the sky itself – and so it was this idea, that our minds are connected, which became the central theme of my story.
Sometimes the irony got to me as I staggered to my desk in the morning, ragged, preparing to face once more the anxieties that had fluttered through me like moths throughout the night. But this time, I told myself, I would shape my thoughts the way I wanted to see them, and it would help me. And, if it was good enough, it might help other people, too. The image of the sky played on my mind, and from it emerged an idea of fear, not just as a force, but as a gathering in the clouds:
“Poking elbows, sneering faces. Slithery leaden skin. Eyes like little beads of greed. Their hunger tugged at me, as if they’d latched on to flailing ribbon of weakness inside me and were pulling, pulling me towards their open mouths. Gas reeked, uncurling out from their pointed tongues. It was the smoke of a hundred snuffed candles, a hundred lives lost, souls plunged into nothingness.”
While it was harrowing to write at times, in some ways, The Empty Danger became a sort of mental haven for me. The idea that our minds are connected is not a new – the psychologist, Carl Jung (one of my biggest influences) having conceptualised the collective unconscious, for one – and the positive flip-side to the looming fear we share is that we can also share hope, and the will to fight.
And so, through my imagination, I found a way through some of my darkest imaginings. Did it matter, if none of it was real? It mattered to me. And perhaps it would matter to others who read it, who might feel that same bracing hope.
Art can lend you a little make-believe when you need it most. The very worst stresses in life are the ones that would seem to render us powerless. But by pretending we can overcome them, that they are monsters to be slayed, we find that chink of light inside us, that grit and resolve that we can use to make whatever changes we can to improve our situations, whatever they might be.
If you do use art or writing to face your fears, be wary of your emotions, and don’t let the process overcome you or drag you down. Writing can be a lonely business. Going it alone might be too much if you don’t have a strong support network, or if your ideas become too insular. Try exploring a story that opens up one person’s private battle into a bigger picture that affects others, and shared experiences rather than the ones that focus on aloneness. If it gets too much, stop. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
But there’s a reason we like to be silly at Halloween. Humour is as much a part of life as the serious stuff – I definitely think it should be more so. Help create a bit of balance in the universe: find likeminded people and have fun!
And if nothing else, be comforted by the fact that you will never be eaten by a dinosaur. I promise.
Remember: Fear is something that binds and confines. Imagination sets you free.
The Empty Danger is available to buy in all good book stores, including Amazon.
Review of The Empty Danger: 5.0 out of 5 stars "I've never been one really to read novellas taking place during the current climate, but the way Anna Tizard composed The Empty Danger was inspiring. I appreciated her unique take on the pandemic and how to keep hopes alive in troubled times." - Scottish Hunni "One of those writers whose work makes me itch to write as well... effortlessly profound, yet with a tongue in cheek kind of edge." - Tonya Moore, author
"The form for the Exquisite Corpse seems pretty clear... I like your style of writing- it is easy and draws you in. I really wanted to carry on reading as it was quite magical." - Gill