One week out from a big trip, I usually start feeling what I can only call an irrational, nagging dread. I can feel it right now: pulsing away, right alongside its sprightly, opposite twin: happy anticipation.
Why does the anticipation never quite drown out the dread?
Next week, I am going to Vietnam with two friends. I’ve never been there. But I have a long history of loving the experience of being somewhere I have never been. I like to think of myself as someone who does not fear the unknown.
And yet of course I do. Hence the dread.
It’s not the unknown of Vietnam, or of any other place that is new to me, which I fear. And it is not a textbook fear of flying. It’s more like a fear of not flying: a fear that one day, I will become that person who can’t or won’t, because I’ve just gotten too damn good at imagining every single worst-case scenario. Is that it?
Not quite. No, that more accurately describes another fear I’m currently trying to throttle, which is the fear of sending my almost-ready second memoir, The Observant Doubter, off to agents and editors, with the full knowledge that there will likely be many, many rejections to weather before my manuscript lands in its publishing home. There will be turbulence. I may be deploying that little white paper bag.
I picture my manuscript as a tiny prop plane, no bigger than an old-school cropduster, buffeted by currents and squalls far beyond my control: We published something similar last year; Your subject makes me uncomfortable; You are not young/hip/the next big thing. I know, from past experience, that this will be a painful process, and I dread that pain. But I also know that my fear of not sending my manuscript out—of saying I can’t, I won’t, I’m grounding this plane—is far greater than my fear of sending it.
And so, thank God for the Vietnam trip: I can put the whole manuscript-sending process off for at least another month!
The question is whether, come summer, I can get myself to think about sending those query letters with the same happy anticipation I know I’ll feel once I finally get on that flight to Vietnam: that this will be an adventure. That there will be hard parts, but the solution is never to stay home. That what I fear most is not flying.
In this Sunday’s New York Times story about writer Anne Lamott’s joyful wedding—her first wedding, at age 65—this line surprised me: “She is afraid of almost everything, whereas he’s afraid of almost nothing.”
But she’s written eighteen books, I thought. Books full of personal details and agony and reflection. Surely there is nothing scarier than sending her work out into the universe. And yet we, her loyal readers, know from reading her books that indeed, she is a chronic worrier. And that is part of her appeal: she is not a superhero, she’s as human and afraid as we are.
“You can’t fall out of love with something,” wrote Francis Sanzaro, the editor of Rock and Ice and Ascent magazines, in a recent essay in which he reflects on why mountain climbers keep climbing, despite the high risk of death and the sorrow that climbers’ deaths bring to all who love them. I squirmed as I read this: self-righteously, on behalf of the bereaved. But we all set our own fear versus joy bars. It’s such a personal equation. Anne Lamott has the courage to write and publish on subjects that terrify most of us—sickness, death, God, love, the small and large indignities of life—and yet she describes herself as a shy and introverted person who hates leaving the house. I love to travel, and yet I cannot swat away the pre-trip, irrational dread. I love to write, and I want to publish what I write, and yet I mewl and cower at the thought of rejection.
But this I know: a week from today, I am going to Vietnam. And I’m grateful to a number of writers who have had the courage to seek and find publication, including Viet Thanh Nguyen and Le Ly Hayslip, whose books have made me even more convinced that this will be a meaningful and unforgettable trip.
And some time after I return, I will send my manuscript out into the world. I will.