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Writing Tip from Peter Murphy

What are you afraid of?

  From the July 2009 Murphy Writing Newsletter

Everyone is afraid of at least one thing. I am lucky because I am afraid of a lot of things: dogs, numbers, deer ticks, crowds, dying, clowns, loud people, trees, The Wizard of Oz (Those damn monkeys...), certain family members, peaches (Fuzz in my mouth? No way!), open mics, fairy tales (Ok, I still read them, but I shudder), priests, grass, high windows, germs, paper...let me catch my breath...waiters (waitresses are usually ok), politicians, cancer (I know, I know, these should be near the top), arguing....And that's the short list. Sometimes I watch Monk to compare notes.

How does this make me lucky? Look at all the wonderful things I have to write about. My litany of terror keeps me from being a listless graphophobe.

When your story or novel needs a boost, ask your protagonist what she is afraid of. It's a great way to deepen character. Is your bad guy radiant with angst? No? Then turn up the pressure and give him something to fret about. Or introduce minor characters with fists full of worries and let them lead you to a new place in your narrative.

Working on a travel piece, biography or memoir? There's plenty to be afraid of there. Just tell the truth! And if you're writing a poem, exaggerate your own fears. What a great way to surprise yourself and your readers. Unless you are afraid of having readers.

Teacher that I am, I give myself an assignment from time to time - to write about what I'm afraid of. Dogs are at the top of my list as I've been bitten six times. Poet Renée Ashley pointed out to me that every dog I write about is dead. I had no idea.

To challenge myself, I decided to create a "beast" I could like which resulted in "Llywelyn's Dog," based on a Welsh legend. Okay, the poor thing may be dead, but at least he has an afterlife, and besides, he didn't bite me.

When I feel I am repeating myself and want to really shake things up, I ask what am I most afraid to write about—Cringe—which is a far scarier assignment. This is the stuff of shame. This is what I don't want anyone to know. And then I start to write, knowing that as soon as I am finished, I will shred it without showing it to anyone. Ever.

This exercise pushes me way past my comfort zone, but when I return to my laptop for my regularly scheduled writing, the world is not as frightening. I go back to work unafraid to keep writing. And usually I have made a breakthrough. Nothing scary about that.

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