Fear Eats the Soul by Jessica Bonder

May 13, 2024 | Bubbler, Features, Spotlight

In art, sometimes what’s problematic about a composition isn’t readily apparent. Something is wrong—but what? Why isn’t this drawing working? As much as the artist stares at their work, and perhaps because they stare too much, the identification of the problem grows more and more elusive. Tape it to a wall. Lay it on the floor. Stand back, or no, stand closer. Still, the problem persists as long as they rely on their eyes—eyes which, for all the staring they’ve been doing, are terribly fatigued. That or they’ve grown comfy with the work. They like things as they are.

Ideally a teacher or mentor would provide constructive feedback, but most of us as artists, as writers, are working completely alone. Alone, we rely on our judgment about that which is most precious to us— namely, our manuscripts on which we’ve spent months or years. And yet, if we’re being honest with the work, we know it stands to improve. A good place to start is acknowledging that nothing is set in stone. Not even stones are set in stones. Schisms are encouraged.

Imagine you’re standing on a bank and you’ve got to forge the waters. Can you trust the bank before you is as solid as the one you started? As an editor, I see writers who creep right up to the edge, toeing the waters about choices that could really send the work. Specifically with novels, they resist wildly exciting choices out of fear of seeming unrealistic. But aren’t we writing fiction? Aren’t people unpredictable? Don’t human beings do things just because they do things? Granted, it’s scary to think of your characters acting out of turn. That is, until you make the leap and see it’s not that scary. Whole vistas open up before your draft-worn eyes.

Recently I attended Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning, the MoMA exhibition of the New York City based artist. Among many roles, including videographer, photographer and performance artist, Jonas was (and is) an avid collector of interesting objects. One such object is a platter that reads: “Fear Eats the Soul.” All the time I come across early stage drafts where the limiting component is fear. Fear the work will not be any good if a character makes a bold choice. Fear the author will lack the skills needed to move the work in a different direction. Preconceived notions about a writer’s own abilities often limit their work; I say this as an editor who has challenged her clients to push past inner bulwarks. We get afraid, we’re human. It’s understandable. Yet our job as writers is to face down fear like a dog in the middle of the road.

For if fear thwarts the work, I can tell you this: the book will go unread. The reader will pack up and leave. They want a room with a view.

Double Lunar Dogs, 1984
Joan Jonas

Jessica Bonder is the author of the novella BROKE WITCH (Thirty West Publishing House, 2022) and the chapbook BELL AND LIGHT (Galileo Press, 2020). Her stories have appeared in The Stockholm Review, Maudlin House, The Lonely Crowd, and Occulum, among others. Please visit her at www.jessicabonder.com.