Fall is here in northern Michigan which means it's time to winterize. Time to put away the window air conditioners, time to cut back all the perrennials, time to add Stabil to the lawn mowers and the tillers, time to store the fishing boat.
Winter can be scary here along the 45th parallel if you're not prepared. Being prepared is a good way to fight that fear.
Watching my husband hitch up the boat trailer and move Moby Dick into the barn, it reminded me of what happened when he brought it out last spring. It was early May when he pulled off the tarp, swept off the cobwebs and dust, and rolled Moby -- an 18' Starcraft decked out with downriggers in the stern, fish finder, drink holder, and ship-to-shore raidio next to the steering wheel, and a big cooler bungie-corded at the bow -- into the sun.
I stood nearby and watched his grin spread. The man loves to fish. Then, something odd. Interrupting this annual ritual was an unexpected sound. Mewing. Mewing and hissing.
A barn cat had kittens over the winter and one of them was hiding deep in the boat's motor compartment. My husband spent more than an hour taking the whole back of his boat apart, but the kitten just kept squirming deeper and deeper. Eventually, the black bag of fuzz lodged itself into a recess too small for my husband's hands to fit into, and too far back for my arms to reach. We couldn't just leave it there but we couldn't get it out, either.
Enter my middle son, Luke.
His arms are long and thin, his hands dexterous, and his heart brave and kind. Which was all good, considering that this kitten was wild, afraid, and fully aware of the power of its teeth and its claws.
(It might be tempting here to remind me of the importance of spaying and neutering. It would be in vain. My pets have always been spayed and neutered but accomplishing this on a barn cat is tantamount to capturing a small panther.)
Gloved and resolved, Luke pried the kitten loose. Just after this photograph was taken, it spit in his face and shredded his gloves in appreciation of his heroism. She didn't trust him; she had no idea he was just trying to do the right thing. These days, trust seems just as rare in the human world.
I was reminded of that this past weekend at the Grand Rapids Public Library's Book Fair. After giving a talk on "Funding the Writer's Life," a small line of people gathered to chat. I've found myself in such a line when I've gone to hear a writer speak, so now that I'm sometimes the one at the podium, it's interesting to experience it from the other perspective.
The first three people in line asked me versions of the exact same thing: "I'm worried about editors stealing my idea. Do you copyright your work before you submit it?"
And it occurred to me that while trust is unthinkable for a kitten stuck inside Moby Dick, it can be just as difficult to master for a new writer trying to get published.
My answer to these three writers was probably not all that helpful. I told them that I'm a trusting person by nature, and so I send my work out, cross my fingers, then start a new project. I've published two books, I told them, plus hundreds of articles, essays, and opinion pieces, and I've never had anything stolen.
"Not that you know of," one writer said, walking away scowling.
I've spent some time thinking about this issue since then and here's how I wished I would have answered the question.
Which brings me, the long way round, to my Five Reasons to Fight the Fear:
1. Being afraid is no way to go through life. Think of the joy you're missing out on if you're constantly afraid, constantly thinking the worst of people, constantly expecting the scary to come true. Expectations are reality. If you expect the publishing industry to be a scary place where everyone is out to cheat you and no one values your work, you'll act accordingly and surely find the one bad seed in the sunflower. Try focusing on how happy the whole flower is instead. Try a positive attitude. That might sound hokey, but try it anyway.
2. Being afraid is no way to gain readers. Think about the books, essays, magazines you like to read. Is it all paranoia all the time? Of course not. Even peoople who like to read horror or thrillers enjoy them because of the contrast between safety and danger. If all they had was fear, they'd be boring. Your attitude permeates your work. And if you come to your work from a place of fear, your work will be one dimensional and boring. Fear comes from a sense of scarcity. Ask yourself, is what you're really afraid of that you don't have any more ideas?
3. Your writing is already copyrighted. According to copyright law, your original work is copyrighted the second you put it into print. Note I said "print," not "publish." You own the rights to your work until you give them away or sell them.
4. Editors are your friends. Chances are, the editor you're sending your work to has spent years honing his or her craft. They live for the day they find something fresh, something helpful, something entertaining to publish. Finding good work is a reflection on them, on their taste, their eye, their connections. Editors see hundreds, sometimes thousands of ideas a week. Theft is a product of scarcity and scarcity is not an issue for editors. They'd like nothing better than to open your submission and find something publishable.
5. Fear is an excuse not to write. It's easy to say that you haven't sent your work out because you're afraid it will be stolen. It's much more difficult to spend the time crafting something of value, revising it, researching markets, following submission guidelines and sending out work you care about and worked hard on. Fight the fear with preparedness and hard work.
So then, about that kitten.
After Luke freed it from the boat, he put it into a plastic bucket, I covered the bucket with a towel, and carried it, scratching and hissing, back to the barn. Once inside, I took off the towel and gently tipped the bucket on its side. The kitten fled into the dark. A few weeks later, a sighting. It was running behind it's mother in the field, hunting mice.