Making every experience count: writing fear

Limited life experience doesn’t mean lack of things to observe and learn from and write about. Whatever the circumstances, a writer looks for the core experience – and a way to use it.

I have CFS. I don’t get out much, and when I do, the energy runs out quickly. This doesn’t mean life passes me by, but it does mean that my personal experiences can sometimes be very tiny – and still overwhelming.

There’s no point, for me, to going through them if I don’t get something I can use in my writing.

Panic attacks

I have recently developed a new and alarming symptom, several attacks of heart-pounding, gut-grinding anxiety. Completely out of the blue. I remember way back in the past exactly two cases of ‘highway hypnosis’ and the feeling that you can’t possibly keep driving – but there is nothing you can do about it. In both cases I was driving too late, in the dark, on unfamiliar roads. The circumstances had me driving awake, but very tired, having to get somewhere in a limited timeframe.

It happened again on a trip I took recently, and it seems to be happening more. And yes, I’ll discuss it with the doctor in my life when I have time for it.

Information about panic – on the net

One of the recent times I headed for the internet, and came up with the comforting information that, if you’re sure it isn’t a stroke or a heart-attack, it is unlikely to kill you. And even if the fear is intense, you can try all the self-calming methods you already know – and they will help some – not to get rid of the attack, but to do something and not feel you have completely lost control of your body. And to get through the experience.

Writing fear – to evoke fear in the reader

What I find interesting is that, now that I write, even in the throes of some of the most extreme physical panic I’ve ever felt, I was still evaluating the feeling and asking myself where I might use it.

I kept telling myself that this intense emotion might be the exact thing I need for a tiny – but crucial – part of a scene I’m writing. And I made sure to catalogue the sensations, and try to remember as much as possible, because visceral fear, like pain, cannot be reproduced, only recalled. This is generally a good thing – we’d have no human race, for example, if mothers didn’t forget a lot of the actual pain of having children – one child replacement for every couple isn’t enough to ensure survival for a species (not all couples are fertile, not all individuals mate, not all children survive to child-bearing age, and mothers still die in childbirth or of complications afterward).

So even as I was going through horrible feelings, here I am now trying to record them – preferably in a unique way – so I can write later in such a way as to drag a reader through a gut-level EXPERIENCE of fear in some completely fictional scene. And reminding myself that if a character panics, the reader doesn’t have to – so I have to EVOKE panic in a reader, not tell about it in my characters.

I don’t know why – but that did help.


11 thoughts on “Making every experience count: writing fear

  1. WilderSoul

    Writing out the feelings definitely helps! I wrote through post-traumatic stress symptoms such as panic attacks, and shock, and called it my ‘blog therapy!’ If you’re interested, I also found colouring in very helpful, and since February have been creating colouring book pictures on my blog. You’re very welcome to drop in and print them to colour in any time. It can be a very interesting experience, to see what happens when faced with a blank page, and colours to choose from…
    Best wishes,


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I need to do the coloring again – I will take you up on it.

      I have a very colorful dragon on my board labeled ‘Wasting Time.’ I filled every space in with a different green – added some yellows, reds, and oranges. It has a lot of pins in it.

      My main problem is that, once I do something artistic (okay, even craftsy), I have a hard time letting go of it – so it adds to the disarray. But coloring IS a very soothing process: you focus on one thing at a time, and the physical part keeps you focused.

      Thanks so much for reminding me of something that does give me pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Megan S

    I stress out if I have to do late night driving, or travelling somewhere I don’t know without very clear directions. I don’t think I’ve experienced an anxiety attack as such but I do have times when my heart just starts racing for no real reason.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I hadn’t experienced the fear part as strongly – hope I learn to deal with it. I know people with CFS who are crippled by anxiety – and they don’t know where it comes from. I understand them a little bit better now.

      Meanwhile, I drive carefully – and stop and take naps every two hours or less – I don’t want to be the cause of an accident. It was my choice when to drive, so I may also think more successfully next time about what hours to drive.

      This was a special occasion – and I’m glad I went.


      1. Megan S

        I’m glad you made the choice to drive and you enjoyed the occasion. I’m at a stage at the moment that I’m just considering driving again. I haven’t driven in the last 6 months apart from 2 short test drives to see how I felt. My eyesight has been playing up and I just get exhausted and in pain too quickly to focus on driving safely (I think I can only drive about 5 minutes before I start loosing the ability to focus my eyes – I’ve got glasses now that should help with this – and the pain starts building).


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’m so sorry, Megan. It is huge for an adult to lose the ability to drive – and here I’m whining about it being hard and causing me anxiety – when you can’t even do it.

          Here’s hoping you get it back – and they solve our mystery disease. Soon would be nice.


  3. Circe

    Late night driving when lost invokes plenty of fear in me! The coup de grace on Monday night’s fairly aimless tour of the Garden State (Parkway) was merging from a highway I had never heard of before onto another unfamiliar highway. While merging, I wondered what that silly little car with all the flashing lights on it was. Annoyingly, it prevented me from being able to see much of anything. Then I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a convoy of *oversized* vehicles, also sporting flashing lights. Steering wheel gripping fear ensued, but I eventually passed the “lead” car.



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