Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What scares you the most about writing? (04/15/06)

Featured writer: Daniel Coshnear

Contributors this month:
Anne Silber
Betty Winslow
Charlene Bunas
Christine Falcone
Claudia Larson
Gianna De Persiis Vona
Jo Lauer
Ken Rodgers
Leslie McLean
Marilyn Petty
Marlene Cullen
Mary Porter-Chase
Randal Matheny
Robert Kostuck
Susan Bono

Daniel Coshnear

People often say, Dan, what scares you, like the most? To which I often say, are you talking about writing or, in general, because if you mean in general, lately it's been power lines. It goes like this: I hear a loud pop; then see sparks shooting somewhere above my head. Then, I look down at my feet, lately, always in a puddle. I'm also scared of growling, hair-raising, teeth-baring dogs behind poorly kept fences. That's an old fear and I think it started for me when I wrote a story about a man who was afraid of dogs. I'm afraid of lighting the pilot on the hot water heater. I even get a little frightened when filling my tires with the pressure hose at the gas station. Do they ever just blow up in your face?

I guess there's a pattern to these terrors. Each, in a way involves some kind of explosion and all lead to pain, probable disfigurement and possible death; but what do they have to do with my writing, my writing fears? I bet I could wrap this up with some nifty metaphor, some clever equivocation on the concept of exploding. Subconsciously, for example, let's say I fear my writing will bring about my dis-integration. Yeah, let's say that I see myself as integrated to begin with, that I am a collection of parts fitting together, more or less, and traveling purposefully from one moment into the next, and let's say that writing, writing honestly, entails disassembling the parts for more careful examination. I fear I can't put myself back together? Some kind of Humpty Dumpty fear? Nah. I'm not so attached to being how I am. That's not what scares me.

My writing fear, I suspect, is very common. Let's say, boring. Over and over, I'm afraid I'll have nothing new to say, or no new way of saying it. I'm afraid of that blinking cursor, cursed blinker, and all the empty space east and south thereof. When it comes to writing, it's not explosions that scare me, but perhaps the opposite. I think they're called anti-explosions. Try to imagine a universe without the Big Bang. I think they call it the Big Non-bang. I can't even imagine it, and that scares the wits out of me.

Daniel Coshnear lives in Guerneville on the perimeter of a puddle. He teaches creative writing classes at SFSU, UC Berkeley Extension and at The Sitting Room in Cotati. He is author of a collection of short stories, Jobs & Other Preoccupations (Helicon Nine 2000). He can be reached at

Anne Silber

I'm scared now. I'm scared writing this. I'm scared writing anything except my signature on a check for deposit.

I am hard-put to identify what scares me most. I guess it's that much of my writing winds up in the wastebasket, and as I look at the wadded sheets of paper overflowing the rim, I wonder if I will have the time on earth that I need to produce even one gold nugget worthy of my inner aspirations.

I suffer from writer's block for months at a time. I cannot think of a single thing to write. While this is going on, the rest of my life seems dull and unproductive, and I miss writing as a lover misses the beloved.

Yet I know I can write! In my mind I am a writer, and a few others have been kind enough to tell me that I am. It isn't enough.

My own inner critic gnaws at me to stop whining and do something! And I will. I always do. But it scares me, oh yeah, it scares me.

Anne Silber has self-published a Young Adult novella, plus several magazine and newspaper articles. Learn more about her at her website:

Betty Winslow

I think the thing that scares me the most is that I could fritter away
my time on this earth without leaving behind me a body of work that will
represent me to future generations. Writing itself doesn't scare me.
Only not writing what I was born, was meant, to write. It is so easy to
choose the easy path, the fun path, the one that has the fewest
obstacles on it. However, I have a gut feeling that it's the winding
road, the high, high hills, the path that peters out and has to be cut
from the undergrowth that means the most in the long run. That's what
I'm looking for, at least—not the comfortable path, but the scary one
that leads to what God has in store for me. I can hardly wait!

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, Ohio

Charlene Bunas

What scares me about writing? Just about everything. Fear of not having anything worthwhile to say and even if I did, not having the skill to express it. Fear of exposing those I love or those who love to sue. Fear of exposing my own vulnerabilities (such as I'm doing by writing this). Fear of offending anyone in my op-ed opinion pieces. Fear of wasting my time, and my readers' time. Fear of appearing shallow, dull, naive, pampered, or privileged. Fear of being accepted; rewrites and deadlines fuel that emotion.

Plus, I fear getting fat. Writing can be fattening. For some reason I seem to think having a few handfuls of mixed nuts or a dark chocolate or five will help the words flow from brain to fingers to page. And while I munch away I sit and crunch plots, themes and character points of view. Yes, I do know that excess calories are not burned on my black fake leather swivel office chair, the one that promises to massage the stiffness right out of my aching back.

Yet here I sit, two hands on the keyboard, a dish of nuts on the desk, a cup of tea asking to be brewed. There's so much going on my desk and in my brain that hinder my task of writing. It's a wonder I write at all. It's a fearsome world, this universe of writing.

Writer Charlene Bunas composes at her computer while cowering in the back corner of her house, protected only by Pippin the Parakeet.

Christine Falcone

What scares me the most about writing is getting too close to the edge, revealing too much about myself, allowing the world to see who I really am. It's the same feeling I get around heavy machinery or power tools. Just standing next to a skill saw, or a running lawnmower with its whirling blades is enough to make me pale. When I'm really writing the truth, writing what's real, I have the sensation that I'm walking on the edge of a razorblade. It's dangerous. It's exhilarating. And there's usually a little bit of blood involved. It's the way the words flow out of me before I can stop them, seize them and take them back. It's a reckless sort of abandon that leaves me chasing after myself, after my characters sometimes, wondering: what was I thinking revealing THAT!?

But isn't that part of being a writer? Revealing everything, tunneling into every dark crevice, every hidden cavity looking for gold? Throwing the doors to our heart open like the shutters of some provincial inn and asking the world, no, daring the world to look inside, to come on in? Writing is a kind of invitation to readers to stop, look and listen to me. And having that kind of attention, that measure of an audience who might judge, misunderstand, ridicule or even contradict what I have to say scares the hell out of me. Somehow the idea of writing isn't as scary if I think it's just for myself. But then where's the risk? It's a bit like walking a tightrope two inches off the ground. No, the real danger in being a writer is letting go of your writing, giving it over to the world to do with it, make with it what it will. And that letting go is quite possibly the thing that scares me more than anything else.

Searchlights columnist Christine Falcone's fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in various print and online publications. Her work has also aired locally on public radio and nationally on public television. She is currently working on her first novel entitled, This Is What I Know.

Claudia Larson

Here's what scares me the most: getting honest by hacking my way through a self-constructed web of obfuscation and pretend-stupidity. I'm a very busy fluffer of pillowy illusions. They may not be comfy, but they sure are darn familiar.

I desire satisfaction, a belly recognition of my very own aesthetics. My belly is my guide. When picking out paint colors for my home I paid attention to the tightenings and softenings of my mid-region. Ignoring those sensations, I end up buying shoes that languish in the give-away bag. While writing, those belly sensations can easily be ignored as long as writing stops before the hose clamp on my duodenum becomes obvious, eventually intercepting the flow of thoughts and ideas to my fingertips.

Satisfaction arrives only when persistence and patience and sheer stubbornness burn a hole in the mist surrounding my head, providing at least 6 inches of space to see the next word, the next sentence, if I'm lucky. That clarity in the mist absolves me of any imagined sin committed by admitting the truth. And the truth may be as innocuous as realizing that I like peppermint tea and detest that oh-so-good-for-you chamomile tea. Or the truth may be as breath-stopping as realizing it's time to stop teaching singing and to start writing. In either case, that honesty drops my shoulders, fattens my tongue and gives rise to a flow of satisfied saliva in my mouth. I've forgotten fear.

Claudia Larson is forgetting fear in Rohnert Park, CA.

Ode To The Novel That Ate My Heart And Then Spit It Out Into A Can Like Copenhagen…

  by Gianna De Persiis Vona

The scariest thing about writing is—and I do not have to hesitate for even a moment to know this —the fear that I am no good, or, even worse, good, but not good enough. But this is such a discouraging and obvious answer, that I'm going to discard it, and I suggest you do as well. Thinking this way is suicide for your writing, it will kill it, snuff it out, or make you give up prematurely and take up chocolate making instead. So, rather then define writing with fear of being "bad," better to push this definition aside and come to realize that writing is scary because it's a continuous process of self-exposure. For instance, if what I write sucks, people may ridicule me, and if I write about something embarrassing or raw, people might think I'm a freak. Suddenly, writing becomes not just a passion and an art form, but a means for defining myself. If I am writing well, then I am clearly an intelligent, talented person. If I am writing poorly, however, or not writing at all, then it must be obvious to the entire universe that not only is my life fairly meaningless and pathetic, but I am, too. By refusing to be scared away from writing by my own incompetence, I am, in a way, doing something wonderfully brave. Writing is my way of telling the rest of the world that I may be a freak, but at least I know what it means to be defeated by something, and keep at it anyway.

Jo Lauer

I have this irrational fear that the flow will stop, like when I'm surfing away on the Internet and all of a sudden my computer freezes up. I don't write like "normal" writers who sit down and create a story line and characters. That SO impresses me. I "receive" my stories or novels from an unknown source like some Secret Santa from my childhood. Often they fall into my head in the shower or while driving home at night or while walking through the redwoods...times when there's no paper in sight. I've learned to accept these gifts and bring them into form (as soon as I locate paper). So, I think of myself more as a story-catcher. Problem is, I don't know who's pitching and I'm afraid some day they'll leave the game, and leave me story-less.

Jo Lauer of Santa Rosa, CA, is a psychotherapist in Sonoma County.

Ken Rodgers

God said to Moses—Get thee about thy writing chores.

Moses said—Aye-aye, Your Majesty

But Moses was filled with sloth and loathing for the hard work and furthermore he feared to face the wroth of his public if they should peer inside and view the covetous nature of his black, cold heart.

But God was hip and said to Moses—Moses, I told you to get thee about your writing. Most people don't give a shit what you think. You are presumptuous and maybe vain and you know how I feel about vanity.

Moses fell on his knees and said—Oh Lord, suffer me some slack. I fear my public more than I fear Thee. The public may think my name is failure.

But God got mad and said—Bring me thy oldest child. I will take him as sacrifice and we shall see whom you fear most.

And Moses saw that God was Good. But more importantly, he saw that God had Power which made Him Right. And Moses saw that he finally loved something more than he feared Failure. And Moses, he did Write.

Ken Rodgers, Boise, Idaho

Leslie McLean

I am schizophrenic when it comes to the thought of people reading my writing. My twin fears about writing are that a) no one will ever read my writing and b) that someday someone will read my writing. Which fear is stronger? Given my many writing fragments and few finished pieces, I would say they are evenly matched opponents, so even that they prevent much of anything happening.

The advantage of writing only shards is that they can receive only praise. After all, one doesn't dig in ancient soils only to criticize a bit of bone, to lambaste a piece of pottery. A few paragraphs here, a few pages there, lovely, lovely.

The disadvantage of writing only shards is that there's not much demand for them. Like my Italian friend Jan, they begin in mid-sentence and drift off before the end. My mother almost never finishes a sentence. Because this began to annoy me intensely, I have purposely finished all my sentences for years. Except those on paper.

Once, years ago, I wrote a poem, a small one. It exposed a similarity between the lover I was (seldom) seeing and my father, who seldom seemed to really see me. I called it Accident and left it on the pine island in my mother's huge Victorian kitchen. Later that afternoon my mother called, furious on both her and my father's behalf, claiming they thought from my note that I had been in an accident. When a poem is mistaken for an automotive collision, one learns to shelter one's words.

Some years back, I had a brush with being read. My writing teacher, accomplished and well published, helped my one finished essay to get read by two excellent magazines. Though much of me ached to be "published", most of me recoiled at the thought of being "read." The piece was, naturally, about my family, unprocessed material that they are. I remembered how Edna O'Brien's mother had disinherited her for writing of her family. I worried that my brother would commit suicide if he read my piece, both because I mention genetic addictions and because it would be my words, not his photographs, being published in a Famous Magazine. Fortunately, and unfortunately, the essay was not published.

Today, I find my lack of finished pieces, my lack of readers, beginning to annoy me intensely. I've given up on my family reading me, but that doesn't mean it's not time for a car crash with the world.

Leslie McLean of Sonoma, California, feels a bit nauseated as she submits this piece electronically. She can be reached at

Marilyn Petty

he numbers of scarys about writing are, for me, legion. They are unremitting and omnipresent and none of them—or all of them— qualify as "the most."

For example, one scary: I have nothing to say. Another scary: if I have something to say is it any good? And a really awful scary is exposing my writing to others, those perceptive authors and readers who quickly discern how vacuous or boring or shabby my writing is — its rhetoric or syntax, its lack of story or plot, its, for goodness sake, this has been done before by Real Writers more talented, more skillful, more enlightening, more amusing, thought-provoking, perspicacious, and so forth than any of my feeble efforts.

So you might ask, quite legitimately, why do I write? Because the scariest thing about writing is believing my own hysterical diatribes and giving up. I don't know why I write. The whole concept of creatively putting words to paper is the worst scary, and, I guess would qualify as, the Most. But, this I know — as scary as it is, I'm not quitting. I shall keep on writing despite nearly insurmountable odds. So there.

Marilyn Petty daily battles real and mostly imaginary demons in Santa Rosa. Old and battle scarred she is, nevertheless, undefeated.

Marlene Cullen

What scares me about the writing is waking up.

My real and most honest answer is that I don't know. My logic brain tells me nothing should scare me about writing and yet I don't sit down and write as often as I would like. I do wonder about this.

I guess nothing scares me about writing. I am scared of the submission process. But I wonder if scared is the right word? The right emotion?

The submission process seems so tedious. And the results are so far away. I can tackle a sink full of dirty dishes knowing that I will see gleaming results within ten minutes. But with the submission process, I might have to wait ten months and I'm a patient person so this shouldn't bother me.

Brain freeze. What really goes on? Fear of rejection? Perhaps, but that won't really hurt me. I think it's the tediousness of knowing my piece would be rejected — and please notice that I say "my piece" rather than "I" would be rejected — and after my piece would be rejected I would have to resubmit which means the tediousness of researching markets.

Maybe it's more about the sense of right and wrong. Maybe it's something about being judged. For example, James Frey wrote and published a memoir. He probably convinced himself, with the help of his publisher, that it's a truthful memoir and then the truth comes out and he's lambasted and has to go on Oprah where he's skewered.

That's what's scary about writing.

Other than that, there shouldn't be anything scary about writing. Nothing at all. Not a thing.

The end. Or is it?

Except for someone reading what I have written. That can be pretty scary.

And then being judged about what I've written.

Other than that, nothing. Nothing at all.

Marlene Cullen writes fearlessly in Petaluma, CA

Mary Porter-Chase

I am "outed" as an introvert, putting my thoughts on the surface of my world.

What could be scarier than that?

Mary Porter-Chase of Windsor, CA, characterizes her life as a series of transformations in search of "her voice." Or perhaps it is more accurate to say she has been collecting her voices over many decades, not really leaving any behind. At present, having spent the last six years concentrating on poetry, she is planning to wholeheartedly focus on personal essay--and finds the notion horrifying and invigorating.

Randal Matheny

What scares you the most about writing?

3. That someone will quote me later.

2. That no one will quote me later.

1. That I might get it wrong and mislead someone.

Randal Matheny, São José dos Campos, Brazil
Life is tight; this submission short.

Forgetting: A Cautionary Tale

  by Robert Kostuck

A few months ago while preparing dinner I had a stroke-of-genius idea for a story about onions, about the caves at Altamira and Lascaux, about the Rift Valley of Africa, about the intersection of Spanish and Incan cultures, about the Bibliotech Nationale in Paris, and about how love and marriage and commitment change everything. The next morning I only remembered that I had a great idea. I forgot what it was because I didn't write that down. But the next night, chopping onions, the ideas came again and I wrote those words down on paper. I remembered that.

Five years ago I hiked a forest trail with my hands in my armpits because the air was cold and still. The water trickled away from the muddy pool of the spring and froze into lumps of opaque white ice humped over the smooth rocks of the wash. Clumps of fluorescent-green grass grew there, too, in the low-angled sunlight of a January morning. Even in the heart of the desert winter, brilliant-winged houseflies buzzed above the moist earth. I wrote those words down on paper. I remembered that.

In 1982 I lived in Albuquerque New Mexico. Walking home from the print shop in the middle of the night I counted my footsteps, I counted my cigarettes, and I picked out constellations in the southern sky. In the morning I sat on a cement bench at the bus stop at Wyoming Boulevard and Central Avenue in front of Earl Schwab Auto Painting Any Car Or Truck Only $99.00 reading Neruda's Residence on Earth for the first time. Thousands of cars whooshed past. It was spring. I wrote those words down on paper. I remembered that.

My studio partner, talking to me and talking at me. Telling me his distorted world view of rock music and death and cars and Vietnam and helicopters and guns and girls and Art and the meaning of life. Later, three months prior to his death, the way he edged around the core of depression and drugs and the burn marks on his skin. The words between and beneath the words he spoke. What he meant to say, what he meant me to hear. I did not write those words down on paper.

The words exchanged during the endless weeks and months of a divorce. She said, he said. I said, you said. How we try to connect everything so that it makes sense and we can say: I was right you were wrong. Later, the words of spite and insult; and later still, the words of apology, absolution, and commiseration. The words of agreement and solidarity. The day that friendship returns and the words we use to acknowledge that return. I did not write those words down on paper.

The gist of what was said last week. Our conversation fifteen minutes ago as you left the room. What I'm thinking about right now. I did not write those words down on paper.

Robert Kostuck lives in Clearwater Florida. He may be contacted at:

Susan Bono

I hear lots of writers talk about their fears of being rejected by indifferent agents and editors. For others, the walls surrounding publishers are nothing compared to the scorn hostile audience might heap upon their painstaking efforts. My panic starts before any of that. Perhaps I'm just fooling myself, and it really is my fear of eventual rejection that constrains me, but what gets me more than anything is the fear I have absolutely nothing of value to say.

I mean, I know I have a certain facility with words. I can string attractive sentences together like beads on a string. But there's a difference between stringing beads and making jewelry. A mom can proudly wear her child's macaroni necklace, but really, that kid isn't going up for a design award any time soon. Praise me if you must, and I'll suspect you are treating me like a three-year-old showing you her first finger painting.

Whenever I say I don't have anything good to write about, I hear the skeletons jigging in my closet, their dusty bones clacking with glee. They know they're safe for the moment. I am in no rush to talk about THEM. "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," is our family's motto and, if my mother had her way, those words would be embroidered onto pillows for the parlor couch or stitched into samplers to hang on my study wall. People have suggested I write fiction, then, to purge my closets of those restless bones, but I was also taught it isn't nice to lie. My fears of not being nice keep me from telling the whole truth or fabricating those truly good fictions. Until I get past some of that old programming, it looks like I'm stuck with macaroni.

Susan Bono is stringing pasta in Petaluma, CA

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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