This is what fear looks like

I confessed it to myself. Faced it. Finishing this book scares me. I’m terrified. I can feel my heart throbbing in my wrists as I type this.

My blog “What I know about rape, incest and sexual abuse” went viral. I had 400+ hits in just a few hours. Hundreds more over several days. Friends and strangers sent me messages. I got text messages and emails and calls. People commended me for being “so brave.” Some didn’t know what to say besides, “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t feel brave. I still don’t. I feel raw and vulnerable and exposed. I wasn’t ready for the aftermath. For the “vulnerability hangover” that shook me. Pummeled me. I know what Evander Hoyfield must have felt like after Tyson knocked him out. I’m still picking myself up. Today I’m scared that I won’t be able to. Rational? No. Do I really feel this? On some level no, but on some scaring the shit out of me place deep in my belly, yes, I feel it. It’s as real as this Bluetooth keyboard I’m typing on. As this table. As the music playing in the background in this café.

Things have changed since writing the first draft of my memoir. Mom’s talking to me again. I’m around more, more present, for her and my brother, who’s been in the hospital for a few weeks and needs to stay there for a while. I haven’t really been able to put into words how this has shaken me, fucked me up is the right phrase, actually…so much so that I can barely write. Some nights I can barely sleep. I started this blog on April 15th and here I am eight days later still writing it.

I know process is wiser than me. I tell my students all the time to trust the process. I say it just as much to remind myself, especially now.

So how does all this affect my memoir? I’m still gauging that, but this much I know…I’m fucking scared. The reaction to that blog made me think about something I haven’t put much thought into thusfar: what will happen when the book is out in the world; how it will be received; how it will affect my family.

The other day I went to meet up with a childhood friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. Four of her friends grabbed me when I walked in and hugged me tight; said they’re huge fans of my work, bought me glasses of wine. One even asked if he could make out with me, “because I want to be like you,” he said. (No, I did not take him up on the offer.)

A friend of a friend friended me on facebook (say that five times) and confessed to stalking me, saying she loved my work, couldn’t wait until my book was out and was going to travel to New York from Florida just to make it to my book release party.

I got a random FB inbox from someone who told me that she read my blog after a mutual friend linked to it on her page. She says she’s a fan, that I’ve inspired her to write her story and that she hopes to one day have the courage to do the type of digging I’m doing.

And just days after I posted the blog, while in the throes of vulnerability hangover, in the midst of getting these messages, I receive word that I won a grant that will help fund the completion of the memoir and research I have to do. Fear is the choking realization that my entire writing sample for the grant was memoir.

A few days after hearing of the award, I got a message from a member of the deciding committee who asked for my contact information to tell me that she loved my work, that what I’m writing is important, that she’s rooting for me and will be following my progress.

Fear is waking up in the middle of the night in a sweat, knowing that the universe is giving me all the signs for “Go. Keep at it. We got you. We support you. Finish.” Fear is days like today when I feel too spent to take on the challenge.

Fear is thinking, What if no one reads it? Why should anyone care? And then staring at all the evidence to the contrary and crying, crying hard because of the pressure, the worry, the responsibility.

I wonder if people know how hard this is. That most of the time I don’t feel brave or courageous. Most of the time I’m insecure and terrified.

While at AWP, during my breakfast with Chris Abani, he told me that I’m the type of person who when confronted by a wall, does what she has to do to get passed that wall. I laughed and said, “I don’t know any other way.” He chuckled, “Of course you don’t.” Today that wall feels like it’s as high and as long as the Great Wall of China.

The thing about this wall is that it has a whole different feel to it. I’ve never seen these bricks or this mortar. I’ve never seen the bricks stacked like this. It’s like they push back to my touch. They bite me when I try to blast through. They’re not going to give easy. Not at all. This wall, this is what fear looks like.

I understand now on a whole different level why boxing has been used as a metaphor for writing. When people watch a match, they don’t think about all the training and preparation and discipline and sacrifice and blood and sweat that brought the fighter to that ring. That made him worthy of stepping into it. All the months and years of getting ready for that moment. Those few rounds. They only think about that fight.

“It makes sense you’re boxing, Vanessa.” Chris Abani said and took a bite of his breakfast. “You’re sparring with yourself now. You’re the only one in your way.” I wanted to run out of the Sheraton and sprint the hundreds of miles from Boston to New York. If fear was fuel, I could have done it easily. Of course Chris was right. He still is.

I’ve never written stuff that hits so close to home and not labeled it fiction. Yes, my books, both novels, were inspired by real life events and people. Of course I amplified and exaggerated and combined people’s traits to make characters. It’s what fiction writers do. But this is memoir. This is different. This is real. There is no detachment. There is no telling myself, “This is fiction, V, you can do that.” No, this shit really happened. It happened to me. It happened to the people I love the most. And I’m putting it all out there.

And so this wall, this wall sometimes looks like them. It looks like mom, her face when she’s pissed that I did something she never imagined I would or could. It’s her “you betrayed me” look. Shit!

When I first posted the blog, my sis Philly told me to brace myself for the reactions. She said that would require energy, lots of it. I wasn’t ready. I’m still not. I’m too busy holding myself through the digging, but this is surely a sign, my friend Rhonda insists. “Maybe it’s time you start thinking about your audience, V.”

I haven’t thought much about post-publication. I’ve only thought about my stories. The one about how I didn’t find out how mom met dad until I was 35. The one about how I only have three memories of papi, one of them from when I was seven and my sister and I danced to Menudo songs for him. The next time we saw him, just months later, he was un esqueleto, his skin yellow and eyes so sunken into his face, he looked like Skeletor from the Saturday morning cartoon He-Man that I watched every weekend as a kid. The story about when Millie took me out into the yard and taught me how to throw a jab con estas “manos de madera.” And the story about mom’s garden and how I’d watch her longingly hoping she’s ask me to help, and when she did, I didn’t move fast enough, or didn’t space the seeds far enough apart or didn’t dig the holes deep enough or dug them too deep. “Ay, tu no sirves pa na.’” And she’d send me inside. That’s when I learned that I just wasn’t good at anything. Not at helping cook or garden or clean or anything. But I haven’t thought about how these stories will affect other people. I’ve been living in my own murk. I’ve worried about over-sentimentalizing and under-sentimentalizing. I’ve worried about being honest and revealing my truth. I’ve worried about hurting people and how I will cope if and when they flip out. What if mom stops speaking to me again? Or worst, what if this fucks her up bad? What if it reopens the wound? Fuck V, let’s be real, that shit never closed.

There’s so much I’ve worried about, but I haven’t worried about how it will be received. Shit. Another thing to fear. Another worry to have. Another wall to blow through. Because, yes, no matter what, I will blow through the wall. It’s just each requires its own special type of TNT. Its unique recipe. I’m a chemist in a lab right now, but today this woman feels spent and worried and a little sad.

“The heart, the guardian of intuition with its secret, often fearful intentions, is the boss. Its commands are what a writer obeys–often without knowing it. This is the beauty of the first draft. And why it’s worth pausing a moment to consider what a first draft really is…For me, a first draft is a little like meeting someone for the first time. I come away with a wary acquaintanceship, but the real friendship (if any) is down the road. Intimacy with a piece of writing, as with a person, comes from paying attention to the revelations it is capable of giving, not by imposing my own notions & agenda, no matter how well intentioned they might be.” Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories

I started reading my first draft and everything I’ve written since. Just reading. I’m allowed to write a few notes and highlight but that’s it. What have I found? The resentment towards my mother is palpable. I have to do something about that. I’m not trying to vilify her. This memoir has helped me see her humanity, how much pain she’s been in for so very long and how that’s shaped her as a mother. I’ve found that I have a lot more than I let myself believe.

Self-doubt is an evil mothafucka. He won’t let you see how much you grind, how much heart and effort you put into your work. Reading has helped me see beyond that heinous face.
I have work to do and some days, like today, it feels like a Herculean undertaking. Today I fear I will never finish. Today I worry that I’m not strong enough or talented enough or brave enough. But I will keep reading and keep writing, because it’s what I do. Because it’s the only way I know. Because I have to. Because I know no other way.


  1. Vanessa,

    I shared your previous post with a young woman that I’m working with in therapy. She is a rape/incest survivor and unfortunately comes from a generations-deep line of rape/incest survivors. Your words expressed clearer than I could have of her need to break free of the cycle of abuse. She may not be able to depend on her family in order to keep her safe but she had a well of strength inside that she could draw on to pull her through. Your words brought tears to her eyes and a renewed determination to keep fighting.

    Fear is nothing more than a distraction, something to divert you from the true blessings to come. Keep your head up. Your work is valued and affirming.


  2. This fear is exactly what I keep texting you about. But damn V, forgive me if I thought you were Superwoman & weren’t experiencing these fears yourself!

    LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH YOUR STORY MATTERS.. Actually, your blog followers are already telling you! And I, for one, have told you numerous amount of times that YOUR COURAGE FEEDS ME. IT GIVES ME THE STRENGTH to pick myself up from the floor, wipe the tears & snot that continuously stream down my face during this confrontation. It gives me the strength to pick up that pen again, even when I feel too weak to fight this battle…

    Thank you. Xoxo

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