Fear, Creativity, and Courage…in Front of People

The first time I remember feeling a paralyzing, shameful kind of fear, was when I was twelve.  I had dreams and even bigger plans (as most twelve-year-olds do) to become famous. Well, if not famous, at least I wanted to be seen. I had my eye on an acting class at what I considered to be a prestigious community theater, but instruction was expensive. Really, really expensive. I begged, pleaded, and somehow managed to convince my parents to sign me up. I waited for the first day of class with bated breath. I imagined all of the wonderful things that would follow once I stepped foot on stage.  As I sat in cushy theater seats and waited for class to begin, I practically closed my eyes and wished for my fairy godmother to make me special.theater-seats

But what unfolded was not at all what I had imagined. An hour later I huddled in the back of our family car in tears, begging my dad to never make me return. I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened. It was too awful. Too embarrassing. Too…revealing. In one hour I had learned this: I had nothing important to say. How could this happen in a short sixty minutes? I’ll give you a hint: improv. The class was working on improvisation, which essentially means, “winging it.” We were supposed to get on stage (in front of people!) and act out whatever the instructor desired, with other students I had never laid eyes on, or let alone had spoken to (in front of people!). In my whole “become famous” plan I had forgotten one small fact. If I wanted to act, I must get up and act (in front of people!). Almost famous

I wouldn’t call myself a shy kid. But at age twelve, I had already cultivated a healthy fear of looking stupid. I watched the other students get up on stage and easily make the audience laugh. They were clever. They were funny. And they were smart. In my twelve-year-old eyes, I was absolutely none of these things. When my turn came, I blurted out some sort of incoherent sentence and then bolted behind the piano and waited for the torture to stop. Afterwards, I slunk to the darkest section of the cushy theater seats and cried. It turned out, I wasn’t special at all. I had nothing to contribute. Fear had got a hold of who I thought I was. My dad, bless his fatherly heart, didn’t make me go back.

FearNow, thinking about it, I wonder what could have happened if I had faced my fear and tried again? As I got older I pushed back at fear in other ways….learning new skills, public speaking, writing, but I never ventured out onto the acting stage again. Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” It is in our human nature to face our fears. He goes on to say, “Mental toughness is a skill and like any skill it can be developed. Learning how to overcome fear is just like building a new habit.” Humans want control. Humans want to conquer and that includes taming ourselves. Some of us have had more practice at facing our fears than others. But I love what Pressfield says. Overcoming fear is creating a new habit; a habit of courage.

A few months ago I had the chance to rewrite my only “acting class” story. My eight-year-old daughters’ theater school sent out an email inviting parents to attend an open acting class reserved for adults. Even as I read the email my heart rate increased. For a moment I thought, just delete it. No one will ever know that you saw it. But, I couldn’t. The twelve-year-old in me whispered, “Come on. You can do it.”courage

Seth Godin says we need to practice overcoming our fears, even in inconsequential ways. He says, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people…?” This acting prospect seemed to fulfill the above requirements. I was determined to put my dramatic and traumatic childhood improv story to rest. I emailed a small group of friends and said, “Look at this opportunity! Doesn’t it sound fun?” I hoped they couldn’t sense my fear in the email. Luckily, I have very courageous friends. We went to acting class. And lo and behold, it was an improv class. We had to act stupid, and silly, and make people laugh…and we did it all (in front of people!). Let me add, it helped enormously to have friends who were by my side.

I'm clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’m clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’ve learned that fear and creativity are forever linked. What makes you afraid in your creative life is something that you must face and conquer in your real life. Years ago, the thought of writing a novel made me want to vomit. I hardly whispered it aloud. But that fear underscored what I had to accomplish. The more we practice facing our fears the braver we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and demand that you face your creative goals with zeal. And when you can’t muster zeal, surround yourself with people who have compassion but also tenacity. It is brave to live our creative life out loud. There is courage in choosing creativity, but we must surround ourselves with only the most honest, and bravest of innovative allies who help us, succeed or fail, in front of people.

(Additional sources: http://jamesclear.com/overcome-fear)


Jen White has a degree in English teaching and also earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE is her debut novel and was born from the real experience of Jen being accidentally forgotten at a gas station with her younger sister and cousin.  Jen currently tries not to boss around her five children and husband in San Clemente, California.



Conveying Emotion Through a Powerful Object

 Today the Tollbooth welcomes writer Mary Cronin who posts about the emotional significance that two objects possess for the main character of her work-in-progress. 

“What if there’s no novel yet?” That was my main question when I won November’s “Fantastic Tollbooth  Contest” hosted by VCFA faculty member Garret Freymann-Wehr. Garret had asked for entries about an object of emotional significance to a character. My entry, about a boy named Tom and some of his beautiful treasures, was chosen as the winner.

But there’s no novel. Yet. A title, yes. Tomfoolery. And a notebook.

I’m a huge fan of pre-writing. So I have a notebook filled with character sketches and maps and anecdotes and family trees. About Tom, his best friends, his feisty grandmother, his itinerant musician mother, his job in a vintage clothing store. Most importantly, I know what Tom lacks.

Some of the college courses I teach in Early Childhood Education feed directly into my writing.


So I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to figure out what assets my character has in his life, and what he lacks. Maslow’s Hierarchy serves as an inventory of sorts, about areas of strength in a character’s life, but especially about areas of need—what I think of as the “pot holes” in a character’s life. Using this tool, I can pinpoint those pot holes (basic needs like shelter?  A sense of belonging?), and how my protagonist has attempted to fill those pot holes. Have the “patches” been successful, or not?

Once I truly understand these things about my character,  I have compassion for him. And when I write from a place of compassion, the words flow.


I picked up a swizzle stick a few years ago when I had the best gin and tonic ever at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. Some time last year, I stuck that swizzle stick in my pencil case. I knew it was important to Tom, just like the tea tin with the picture of Princess Kate on it that sits in my kitchen cabinet.

tea tin

I knew this because Tom lacks his mother, and Tom longs for beauty in the way a young artistic soul thirsts for it when he is deprived of loveliness. The beauty, the glamour, the royalty: these are the patches he has used to try and fill the empty place his mother left behind, the “pot hole” in his sense of security. Once I know what my character longs for, I begin to understand what objects might have almost magical meaning for him. And there was that lovely swizzle stick.

I encourage all the writers I work with to use Maslow’s Hierarchy to understand their characters, just as I advise my teachers-in-training to use it as a tool to understand the needs and motivations of their young students.

Thanks to Through the Tollbooth, and Garrett, a little bit of fairy dust was sprinkled on my Tomfoolery notebook, which will indeed grow into a novel.

I think Tom would approve.

Mary E. Cronin


Mary E. Cronin graduated from VCFA in January 2011. A resident of Cape Cod, she teaches Early Childhood Ed. and English at two Massachusetts colleges. Mary is currently revising her middle-grade time travel novel and polishing a few picture book manuscripts; Tomfoolery is waiting in the wings.