How being less afraid has made me a better writer

I want to write about my year of being less afraid and how it has helped me become a better writer, but it is hard to write about fear. It is hard because fear is so close to the bone. When you start writing about fear you also run the risk of sounding like a self-help book. But I suppose that is a line all writers have to tread. The best writing is not just written, but felt, and that brings with it the possibility of clichés.

As I wrote on here recently, I think one of the reasons I feel such a strong attachment to Nottingham is that I have spent so much time exploring it. A lot of that exploring has been done with my boyfriend, but I have also ventured out on my own.

Over the summer I was working on a piece about butterflies and as part of the research for it I wanted to visit King’s Meadow, a local site I had heard was good for butterfly spotting. So one evening after work I cycle over there.

Despite the fact that it is bordered on one side by a train line and on the other by an industrial estate, and you can hear the busy A52 from it, King’s Meadow feels secluded. Along one side there is a high bank of wild flowers, which completely conceals the meadow from the path that runs along side it. You also have to enter the meadow over a stile, so it really feels like you’re venturing out into the countryside, despite the fact that it is just one small hectare of meadow.

King's Meadow

King’s Meadow

As I was wandering through the tall grass and wild flowers, taking pictures of butterflies and flicking through my butterfly guide, I enjoyed the feeling of seclusion and the peace of the cooing wood pigeons and low-glancing sunlight. But as I ventured deeper into the meadow it occurred to me: isn’t this exactly the sort of place a young woman, alone is supposed to avoid?

There might have been a time when I would have avoided places like that. But I didn’t feel afraid. I was enjoying the beautiful summer evening and I was having too much fun tramping through the long grass looking for butterflies. A similar thought occurred to me just this weekend when I made the trip to Bournville to spend the day at Cadbury World with some friends. I arrived at the station in Bournville half an hour before my friends and decided to pass the time by going for a walk along the nearby canal. I realised as I was walking along, enjoying the lovely day, that even a year ago I wouldn’t have been doing this. I would have just stayed at the station, probably feeling a little uneasy at being alone on a quiet platform.

Bournville canal

Bournville canal

The question of whether particular spaces are safe or not came up a lot during discussions on my MA course. As part of the course we read The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, and some of the women in the class were put off by the fact that Macfarlane spends a lot of time alone, in wild places – exactly the sort of places that they felt they, as women, would be unsafe in. Back when I first started this blog, I wrote a post about this very same thing, about how urban nature spots make me feel unsafe and how I avoid them:

 The places where nature abounds in the city are the sort of places I tend not to go. The very thing I seek when I’m out in the countryside – to be alone – is the very same thing I avoid when I’m in the city.

Reading that now I realise how far I’ve come. I don’t know why I felt so afraid before or why I feel less afraid now. But I have to imagine leaving behind the safety net of home and the city I grew up in to start anew in Nottingham helped. I know Manchester to Nottingham isn’t exactly that far, but it was scary not knowing whether I would like it here and whether I would find a job. In the end it more than worked out. I found work I love and I learned to love the city too.

We seem to live in a society where we’re constantly fed two contradictory messages – ‘follow your heart’ and ‘play it safe’. If you’d told me a year ago that I should ‘follow my heart’ I would have said ‘Yeah, but…’ Yeah, but somehow I did it anyway. I’m not the only one who has been making scary decisions either. This past year I’ve watched a friend make the agonising decision to leave a steady and secure job in order to pursue her writing and I’ve watched as she’s become a happier person for it. I’ve also watched my brother leave his steady and secure job and work incredibly hard in order to start a new career, and I’ve seen how much he’s grown as a person. All around me I’m seeing people making difficult decisions and being happier, more productive people for it. Of course pursuing your passion brings with it the possibility of endless searching and passion isn’t enough, hard work and dedication are important too. But maybe you never reach that point if you take the ‘play it safe’ option. Maybe staying put would have been okay, but maybe okay isn’t good enough.

All this fearlessness has, I think, made me a better writer. It’s not just that I’ve had more material to draw on or that I write better when I’m alone (though both are true), but that somehow all this fearlessness has rubbed off on my writing. I’ve written so much more this past year and I’ve felt less and less worried about putting my thoughts out there. I’ve been pursuing ideas I might have simply dismissed before and I feel as though I’ve had more conviction. In a way I think I have started to grow into my skin as a writer.

As I said, I don’t really know how I stopped feeling afraid, but maybe it’s worth getting the hell out of your comfort zone. It might even make you a better writer.

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