Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What are you afraid to write about? (05/15/12)

Featured writer: Arlene L. Mandell

Contributors this month:
Barbara Simmons
Catherine Crawford
Cathy Bell
Claire Holcomb-Drapkin
Crystal Tecca Mangahas
Don Edgers
Heather L. Seggel
Marilyn Petty
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders


by Arlene L. Mandell

I hope no one else is afraid to write about these things.

Top Twenty Things That Scare Me

Dark alleys
Great Aunts who pinch my cheeks
Horror movies
The IRS - maybe that sweater I donated was only worth $5, not $7
Millie from Brooklyn who threatened to beat me up
Mountain Lions and MRI machines
Oatmeal - even the remote possibility of being forced to eat it in the afterlife
Roller Coasters
Poison oak,
also poison ivy and sumac
Scorpions and Snakes, except corn snakes
Tarantulas and Tsunamis

*When I was three my parents lost me in a giant wave in Coney Island. I sat on the sand underwater, watching arms and legs swirling in the green ocean and hoping the undertoad wouldn't swallow me.

Arlene Mandell once petted a corn snake.

What am I afraid to write about?

  by Barbara Simmons

Being a bit of an advocate for the opposite of a question's probe-I'll tell you what I'm not afraid to write about, and circle back to what I AM afraid to write about.

I'm not afraid to write about the slow unraveling of my marriage. And, I'm not afraid to write about the celebration of new love at 60! About friendships that fit those of situation, but not of depth. About books that tease me for a few pages, and then tend to lope off into the distance. I'm not afraid that first instincts can, sometimes, be wrong ones - and that the initial luster of anything can lose its sheen to the point of my forgetting that I'd ever been enchanted.

I'm not afraid to write about my age or my sons or my many missteps as a parent. I'm not afraid to write about the humbling art of speaking to a piece of paper that I began to learn as a young girl, when I kept a very green Girl Scout diary with a very pickable lock that kept my daily mumblings private most of the time, mainly from my brother.

I AM afraid to write about solutions when I sense that solving is really an act of placating, and not a gift of growth. But I do.

I AM afraid to write about those problems between people that float out of car windows or out of the screened porches when the words of missed understanding escape. But I do.

I AM afraid to write about how lonely I had been when my father left my mother, when my mother died in HER 68th year (how much closer that seems!), when I lost touch with my only sibling. But I do.

I AM afraid to write about not knowing that the simple gifts of a touch, a sunflower, a chocolate-dipped strawberry, a hug, a small note of thanks are enough, sufficient, symptoms that we walk together, not alone. But I do, and I know, and I learn.

Barbara Simmons lives in San Jose, CA, and when she finds time away from her job as a College Counselor, reaches for books near her bed, and poetry in her soul, and, always, a pen to jot life down.

Zero at the Bone

  by Catherine Crawford

The country road leading to our camp billows with dust from a line of buses. I step out of one of them with my Girl Scout troop and imagine the fun we'll have in the days ahead. A suburban kid, I hold Romanticized notions about the wildlife I'll meet on this sojourn in Nature. Danger isn't something I think about at twelve. As our leader collects us, I glance at my feet and cannot move. A rattlesnake lies there flat as a ribbon, its skull crushed by the tires of a departing bus.

I've thought of that episode many times, especially when writing nonfiction about my family. Most of my people are loving and gracious. I've been blessed by that. But a few—-misfitted enough to make great story material—-aren't so kind. Getting them riled, even accidentally, might involve libel. The tell-all memoir's a bad choice for me when serpents in my family lie waiting.

So what can I do when a story idea winks at me like a gem in the family forehead? I don't really know. Fiction's one choice, but it's not risk-free, either. Stating my views without implying their truth has always felt more genuine to me.

But what scares me even more than a sue-happy family is the moment before I start writing ANYTHING. As I pause on the edge of whatever's to be, I feel the vacuum of Blank Page Doubt. A black hole in space. A silent chasm. I'm afraid before writing does break me open that I won't have anything to say.

Catherine milks the viper of self-doubt every day by writing in beautiful Washington State. Email:

Releasing the Bees

  by Cathy Bell

I'm afraid to write about my father. To be more precise, I'm afraid to paint the violent, irrational, and damaging side of him. He's two people. One I can write about; one I cannot.
I easily write stories describing how he's loved me the best he could, like the time when I was 28 years old and went jogging into the rainy night against his advice. Running up the last hill, on my way back to the house, I found him under a tree with a flashlight making sure no one would grab me in the dark. Once I wrote about calling him crying at 2 a.m. the moment the police left my apartment. A man had been watching me from outside my window late one night and I wanted my dad to protect me, but he couldn't since I lived in another state. Still, I felt the protective powers he wielded even 700 miles away.

Dad is the one who comforts and protects me when the dark, scary world seeps into mine. But, sometimes he is the dark, scary world seeping into mine.

How do I describe the way I scrubbed the blood off the walls of his bedroom after he beat his girlfriend and broke her nose? How do I put into words that one act of violence from him now, even in my forties, even in his more healed and mellowed state, can send me reeling back through every violent act he's committed as if I were three, ten, twelve, fourteen, and twenty-three all over again?

He is the only parent who has ever loved me and to write about his demons would betray him. Possibly I'm too petrified to go back to those horrific times in my mind—-to feel the fear again. Or maybe I'll remember the part of me that hates that part of him. I think I'll feel guilty describing his worst deeds when he is mostly better now. Most of all, I think I'm afraid to write these stories because I don't like victim stories where there's no redemption or lesson learned.

Releasing those bees from their hive, when they've been drugged in the smoke for so long is a scary thing, but I've just written my first sentences ever about the "other" dad and I survived without a quickened heartbeat or a tear in my eye, so maybe I can write about my father after all. Perhaps in the writing itself is where I'll discover the redemption for both of us.

Cathy Bell lives in Denver, Colorado. She is a lover of memoir and personal essay—and enjoys writing hers as well. Writing is way to heal she’s discovered, or it’s a compulsion. Either way, she likes it.

Of What I Am Afraid to Write

  by Claire Holcomb-Drapkin


You ask me of what I am afraid to write. I roll my eyes. As though I would share that memory with you? Even for a writing credit, NOPE.

If I am shaken with fear about a topic, would I so casually jot it down for a faceless audience?

Back when I was in therapy, Ben, my analyst, tried to get me to talk about it. "No, I don't want to," I said again and again. No matter how much I wished to please him, I would not go there. He persisted. But I never stopped saying, "Not yet, maybe later." I'd light a cigarette and stare out his office window.

So did I ever open up and let myself remember it? Not really.

There was only that one time in Cambridge. I was sitting at my Royal typewriter, and with trepidation letting some sentences run off onto the page. I sat stiff and straight. Amazed I was doing this. I could smell my queasiness. But I wrote some more, even went to page two. Lit another cigarette and remembered that day…

And then the fear exploded. The room was shifting. I could not be sure the floor was steady. The wails receded. Everything was oddness and danger. There was the open third-floor window. If the house did tilt within my mind, I would fall through with no saving grip to hold me. Or perhaps I would just give up and jump.

That day I left the workroom, found my bottle of valium and took one pill and then another. One usually was enough , but then I shook out a third and swallowed it -bitter taste in a dry mouth. I still was shaking.

"Ah, "Tiny Lights," don't you understand the undertow of fear? It is the place where hapless ones stumble, are caught, and do not escape.

That Cambridge day was years ago, but I remember it enough to make me reach out—today—to grab the edge of my kitchen door. Why am I even considering this?

I walk into our dining room and smile at the gleaming table set for supper, our colorful dishes, the candles ready to be lit, a good wine to drink, and the yellow perfuming roses.

But even with all that, with the delight of this house I love, even knowing my husband will soon walk in the door; still, the fear is only temporarily contained. One wrong move and the sparks could ignite and once again there would be flames turning into inferno.

Fears can be banked but not extinguished.

No, I will not tell you what I fear to write.

Claire is a psychotherapist familiar with her own and other’s fears. She hopes to write a gritty memoir one day, but it will respect the roar of old fears. And today she works on safer ground.

Trying to Bloom

  by Crystal Tecca Mangahas

In alphabetical order, I'm afraid to write about anger, lies, money, my child, my friends, my husband, my parents, money, religion (or lack thereof), sex, the time I bought half of a pig's head with a high school friend to perform a Halloween prank, and world peace. That doesn't leave much else. Safe topics are my hair color and what we ate for dinner last night.

I'm paralyzed. I'm a spring bud closed so tight that nary a raindrop nor a ray of sunshine can penetrate my outer cover.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not here to celebrate the gritty, the titillating or the tawdry.

I would like to get to my truth.

And today, I'm afraid that my truth will be censored, mocked, hurtful and dismissed. I'm afraid of what my family and friends will think of me, let alone some stranger. That my prose will be called trite, unoriginal and Victorian.

Therefore I write bright fiction, staying in the white light, explaining that surely the world needs more, not less, happy endings. After all, who wants to read about the smelly homeless man leering at my child, the porno on the executive's laptop, the people forced off their land to make room for another clothing factory?

Or is this all just a cop out?

Because on the blank page on my screen, with the memory of the man's swirling irises and the unfortunate recollection of his odor, I can pull together some sympathy for his condition. I can find the courage to hint at the allegations of incest against one of my relatives and, under the guise of fiction, ponder the implications of a friend's decaying marriage.

With every keystroke, with every word committed however temporarily to the screen, there is a surge of undeniable boldness. It's an acknowledgement that I must press forward, I must seek to bloom if not actually achieve such graciousness.

Crystal Tecca Mangahas is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, CA.

Safe Subjects

  by Don Edgers

As a septuagenarian, I have managed to pick up handy writing caveats from those who've wandered onto subjects they ought not to have wandered into like:

Death threats made by radical Islamists to authors Rushdie (Satanic Verses) and Thor (>i>The Last Patriot) for daring to write about Islam or anything Muslim.

Author C. S. Lewis tells of the intense struggle to shake the devil after writing from Satan's point of view in his book The Screwtape Letters.

I fear writing about incomprehensible (to me) topics like: information technology, logarithms, auto mechanics, geniuses, atheism, anarchism, perversion, the opposite sex.

Don practices safe writing in Port Orchard, WA.

What's Yours Is Mine?

  by Heather L. Seggel

I should be more afraid of paper than I am; it gives terrible cuts and holds onto evidence of failure for posterity, while victories alkalize and fade. But it's actually the safest place I know, and for that reason there's very little I'm afraid to write about. I'll steer into what scares me and see how far I'm blown.

What concerns me is the thought that I might misremember reality and end up repeating a falsehood so thoroughly buffed and burnished that it has become part of my personal gospel. It wouldn't be anything earth-shattering or worth suing over, either, but the fear of getting it wrong does sometimes dry the tap on pieces that started out with potential. They're the ones that end up sitting in a drawer, too awkward to revisit after a certain point, and my interest eventually shifts away.

What do you do with that concern? Fix reality in place with gauze and plaster? Doesn't that create a mask? I will fetch the key that unlocks my ribcage and bring my heart forth in writing for no other reason than boredom. But my hand is stayed at the thought that the blood there might not be mine, revealing an organ thief or worse, a mosquito posing as author. That high whine of wings working off another stolen meal. Do you hear it too?

Heather Seggel continues to pass herself off as a writer, then wonder why she bothered. She does this from a trailer in Ukiah, CA, while dreaming of where and what her true home might consist of.

Just Between Us

  by Marilyn Petty

I had a best friend when I was very young. His name was Billy and he was invisible. Billy and I were inseparable. Even when we didn't want to be together we were. No one knew my best friend was Billy. We only talked to one another in our heads. Granted, Billy's and my head were one and the same, but we were very different.

You see, Billy never did anything right. I was the instructor, the tutor, the explainer and definer. I nagged and scolded. I didn't mince words, I didn't hide my impatience in my constant crusade to reveal to Billy the real world. Billy was so beset with fears he never disputed my righteous condemnations for what I perceived as his unacceptable habits and feelings.

Eventually, Billy gently faded away. I did my best to become a responsible, mature adult who no longer needed invisible anybodies. Yet, since attaining elder age, I realize that Billy never left. In fact, I have become Billy and Billy has become a mentor, an advisor, a big brother, kinder and more patient than I was as a child. We have both agreed that to write what either one of is afraid to write about does not fit our agenda. We will tell only one another and no one else. Such foolishnesses should always remain private.

Marilyn Petty enjoys consulting with Billy in Santa Rosa, CA.

The Puppeteer and His Marionettes

  by Sara Baker

When I was a child my grandmother took my brother and me to watch local children's puppet shows. Although my brother loved these productions, I absolutely dreaded them.

For some reason, the stuffy, small theater filled with squirming kids did not appeal to me. I also found the marionettes disturbing, for their faces were distorted like caricatures; their body movements seemed contrived; and their souls were spiritless—trapped in a thin and meaningless storyline. Early on I realized,oddly enough, all the characters' voices sounded the same. I sat amongst the other children wondering to myself: Am I the only kid here who knows the puppeteer is the voice for all the characters?

Then after each production the puppeteer dramatically unveiled himself to us children and rather ceremoniously demonstrated how he manipulated each character with strings and wires. I always left disappointed, for I felt as if the entire presentation was more about the puppeteer and less about the characters and their stories. I wanted more stories!

For some reason when I began writing two years ago, I remembered that puppeteer and his marionettes subconsciously becoming afraid of infusing too much of myself into my stories. So, I guarded my writing, fearing my ego would manipulate my characters to the point that both they and the storyline were rendered meaningless.

Ironically, guarding myself against my ego jeopardized my creativity; I soon felt just like the puppeteer, controlling my characters through simple dialogue, weak scenes, and less than compelling storylines. More often than not my characters—like the marionettes—were rigid and distorted, lacking souls and motivation, hopelessly trapped on a small stage, static and weakened by their creator and manipulator.

Over time I realized that I actually needed to put more of myself into my writing. Of course, my work didn't need to be a literal version of my life. I soon found ways to metaphorically transform my life into another time, another place, and into an array of characters. Subtly infusing my personality and life's experiences into my characters gave each of them a soul and unique voice. Meaningful storylines soon followed.

So, I learned a truly valuable writing lesson: The very thing I am afraid to write about (whatever it is) oftentimes is exactly what I must write about—it's what makes my writing come alive.

Sara Baker’s writing career began with an unexpected whisper from a teacher who said, “You’ve got writing talent.” Although she ignored that whisper and chose a career in business and teaching, she eventually resurrected her inner writer once she retired from teaching. She’s now a contented retiree who writes memoirs, short stories, and personal narratives. Aside from writing, her favorite pasttime is spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she’s been married for 29 years.

The Subject is Fear

  by Susan Bono

We all have our secrets. We protect them with high walls and guarded gates. That's where our best material lives, whether it's allowed to roam idly in the confines of fragrant gardens or forced live in dungeons, given only crusts to eat. Some writers are brave or desperate enough to set these secrets free or let others in to see them. My advice: unless you are prepared for the consequences, let the skeletons hang unmolested in their closets. But as writers, no matter the destructive power of the material being held in check, the real fear comes not in the secrets themselves, but in our relationship to writing about them.

My list of fears about writing is neither long nor terribly original (I'm afraid). For what it's worth, here it is:

1. I can't do my material justice. The subject is worthy, but the writer is not. Sometimes I try to lay the blame elsewhere by saying, "I have nothing worth writing about," but I know that's an excuse of the lowest order. If Virginia Woolf can write about the death of a moth, what's stopping me from writing about the death of my mother?

2. I worry that my words will hurt others or become weapons by which others can judge, hurt or reject me. This has happened when I've written about subjects I didn't consider secret. Writing about the Big Stuff could destroy me, couldn't it?

3. No matter how hard I work or what I achieve, a big part of me suspects I'm just wasting my time. "Get a real job," the voice of some cosmic accountant snarls. "Is this all that fancy education is getting you?"

I think that about covers it, don't you? I suppose I could stick a few more pins in this voodoo doll I've fashioned to torture myself, but these three fears are enough to stop me in my tracks most days. But there's one secret I'll let you in on, one I'm not afraid to share. Making that list of fears took some of their sting away.

That's the power of writing—it allows me to see what's holding me back. Whenever I remember that gentle truth, I hear another voice whisper, "Maybe your biggest fear is fear itself."

Susan Bono considers her secrets in Petaluma, CA.

Monsters, Ahoy!

  by Theresa Sanders

I'll never forget when my daughter Holly saw her first roller coaster. She was all of five years old, and the monster terrified her. My husband had tried his best to persuade me or any of our four children to ride the coaster with him, but it was only Holly who stepped up and consented. Once the ride was over, she told us that it wasn't nearly as bad as she'd first feared. Years later, she convinced her twin sister to ride yet another scary monster with her. As I watched from the ground, it was my turn to be terrified. It was the biggest coaster we'd ever encountered, and as the girls' car cranked skyward and then plummeted, all I could see was their long dark hair, floating through the air behind them like an afterthought. I marveled at the abandon in that. My daughters had faced their fear, and in so doing, had set themselves free.

When considering what I'm afraid to write about, I think I am most afraid of words that cut too closely, of hurting someone's feelings with those words. Now I know this fear stems from my incessant need to please. Maybe it's the mother in me, the daughter in me, the sister in me, the friend in me who so desires everyone to come away clean and happy. Yet the writer in me says that "clean and happy" is not my responsibility. The very nature of writing explores all of life's emotional landscapes, the hardships and the pleasures, the rough edges behind smooth corners, the seaminess and seemliness that are both inspiration and double-edged sword.

Dag Hammarskjold wisely said that the longest journey is the journey inward, and I believe that, for writers, this observation is especially true. As writers, we are forced to face emotions and experiences that are often uncomfortable. We are encouraged to dig deeply, to scratch beneath the surface, to venture beyond mere fight-or-flight. This process of excavation is valuable and necessary, but it's difficult. There are days when I find that I just can't go subterranean, so I strive to do the best I can. Approaching my once-upon-a-times with honesty is my number one goal, so if I have to leave a piece and return to it when I'm feeling more adventurous, I will.

There are monsters that each of us must slay. We can choose to slay them—or not. We can write beneath the surface. Or not. That is the beauty of writing. But we can't write around the monsters forever. They will be there waiting for us. With courage, we can break out into the open, above ground, unpolished but excavated. Dig deeply enough, and the words that remain will sparkle. So when I come to a hard passage, both in writing and in life, I think of my girls, stepping up, stepping in, conquering that scariest of roller coasters, hair flying free behind them. Fingers poised on keyboard, I take a deep breath, look my once-upon-a-time square in the eye, and simply begin.

Theresa Sanders lives with her husband near St. Louis, Missouri, where she is learning to conquer her fears—honest! She welcomes email

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

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