I thought I knew about fear.
Fear was what you experienced before doing a parachute jump (the reason why I have never done one). Fear was for daredevil activities or life-threatening events like earthquakes or war or being stalked by a stranger on a lonely road at night.
Never, not once, did I think that fear could grab you when you were sitting in front of a computer screen, tapping out words to string into sentences, paragraphs, chapters – a whole book.
I almost feel too embarrassed to admit this, except that the more I read about writing the more I discover that fear is actually quite a common feature of the writing life.
Some people talk of the fear of the empty page or, perhaps a bit more understandably, the fear of not earning enough to pay the bills.
For me though I think a lot of the fear in writing for publication is rooted in the fear of exposure. Of being laid bare and found wanting. Of not being good enough.
Such fears can lead to paralysis. I have had mornings when my fingers have felt frozen over the keyboard. When reading the entire Internet seemed preferable to carving out more words.
I have been rescued by a poem.
More times than I can count now, Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘The Singing Bowl’ has opened up a space where the words can flow.
I share it here with his permission and in the hope that it might turn out to be a key for others to break through whatever is holding them back. I don’t think it needs to apply just to writing: I think you could use it for any task that seems daunting.
Malcolm wrote about the poem on his blog:
This poem was inspired by the beautiful Tibetan singing bowl … which trembles into sound, lovely sustained and resonant, as you run a ‘beater’ or even a finger, round its rim. The poem came to me as a word from the muse which was both about how to pray and how to fulfil my vocation as a poet. I hope you find it helpful and resonant too.
When I feel panicky at the start of a writing day, I use this poem as a meditation, starting by just trying to slow my breathing as I read. Then I read it again, maybe up to three more times and let the words sink in. Each time it reminds me that the place where we are is the right place to start, that there is no such thing as ordinary, that all life is holy because created and affirmed by God.
Then I can start to write. Partly because, as the poem says, my heart is ‘full of quietness’ but also because the profound effect of Malcolm’s words are the reassurance I need that in a world of pain, writing is valid, that words can change things and that people who feel called to keep stringing them into poems and books and essays and stories have important, life-giving work to do.
The Singing Bowl
Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air.
Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood
And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.
Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.
And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.
This poem is the title piece of Malcolm’s new book, which is out now and published by Canterbury Press. I also recommend highly his first collection, Sounding the Seasons.
Picture by KayVee.INC. Used under Creative Commons Licence.