Leaning in to the Lion: How a Writer’s Fear can be a Wonderful Thing

c71b125317b4fc6f3b2e01eeb667a305Over a decade ago, I lived near a zoo that had a unique lion enclosure. As I recall, it was one of the good and responsible zoos that gave the lions a great deal of roaming space.  It also had a small section where the only thing separating the lions from its human viewers was a thick fence that stood about 15 feet high. The mere possibility of being that close to a lion (sans danger) made it my favorite exhibit.  Sadly, out of the numerous times I visited, I had never seen a lion get anywhere close to that area of the fence.

But that changed during one visit. On one summer day, I went to that zoo with a small group of friends.  When we made it to the lion exhibit, we all stood in front of the fence and were fortunate to see a male lion walking by.  He was still roughly 30 feet away from the fence, but it was as close as I had ever gotten to one of the big cats before.

Next to me stood a boy who looked to be about ten years old. This kid possessed a face full of mischief and a handful of the small food pellets that were used at the petting zoo. Now, before I say what happened next, I want to stress that I do not condone this kind of behavior.  With that being said, I couldn’t help being impressed at this kid’s odds-defying aim.  The boy took just one of the tic-tac sized food pellets and launched it over the fence.  It hit the lion – I kid you not – square in-between the eyes.

I might be guilty of anthropomorphizing the great panthera leo, but I could have sworn that the lion gave him a face of shock and annoyance as if to say, “Hey, what gives, little man?” I don’t know what kind of look the kid gave in return, but all of a sudden, the lion’s look of moderate irritation turned into one of pure anger.  The lion ran at the fence, stopped just inches away from it, and let out the loudest, earth-shattering roar I had ever heard.

Everyone around the fence instinctively jumped back in fear, that is, everyone except me.  When the lion was charging, I actually leaned in and got closer.  His roar was directly in front of my face; it was exhilarating and oddly beautiful in a way.  One of the adults in my group noticed my reaction and commented on how I was the only oddball whose defense mechanisms didn’t kick in.  I pointed at the fence and said, “It’s not like he can get to us.”

The fundamental nature of a lion’s roar is one of terror. It can be heard up to five miles away and is often used to warn and scare away would be intruders.  In other words, when a lion roars, it is often saying, “Yo, I’m terrifying.  You should be scared.  Don’t mess with me.”  And almost every creature on God’s green earth has a built in mechanism that hears scary stuff and warns, “Hey that thing over there sounds terrifying.  We should be scared.  Let’s not mess with it.”  It’s a simple, yet genius method of communication that’s been around since time immemorial.  We’re all designed at some level to avoid the scary stuff in life.

But when you take the actual danger out of dangerous situations, the things that cause fear can suddenly become the things the evoke joy and exhilaration.  I don’t know anyone who wants to jump off a building and fall to his or her death.  However, I know several people who love roller coasters and skydiving.  Take away the death aspect and suddenly the act of falling becomes wonderful.  It’s the same way with the lion’s roar – it’s terrifying when it can eat you, but it’s majestic when it can’t.

It’s also same with the art of writing. As any writer knows, our craft can cause an abundancy of fear.  The roar of taking the gray matter of our souls and shaping it into words can be louder and more ferocious than the roar of any lion that’s ever existed.  And when we decide to travel that arduous path whereby we try to find agents and publishers who will make our words accessible to the world – well, that’s when the real terror begins.

But here’s the one the I want to stress to you, fellow writer: YOU ARE SAFE.  Your worth is in so much more than whether or not you’ve been published.  You are more than the sum of your blog readers, your Twitter followers, the word count of your struggling manuscript.  You are not defined by the rejections of any agent or publisher on the planet.  And if anyone shames or discourages you on your journey, there is no law in the known universe that requires you to pick up the negativity that others are throwing down.  You are worthy and beautiful –  if for no other reason than because you exist.

The fear that comes with writing is nothing more than a lion behind an impenetrable fence. Sure, its roars may be terrible, but it can’t get you.  Once you’ve truly realized that, the terror becomes something else entirely.  Once you’ve realized that there’s no bone-crushing conclusion to this fall, you’ll suddenly realize that you haven’t been falling, but that you’ve been flying this whole time.

Have you been terrified about any part of the writing/editing/querying/publishing process?  Good!  Use it.  Lean in and let the lion roar directly into your face.  He can’t hurt you; he can only inspire you.

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