A Fear Of Visibility

In every writing project intended for the public eye (at least, all the ones that I’ve worked on), there comes a moment when the author has a moment of reckoning.

It’s the moment when they come face to face with the fact that when this thing goes out in the world, they will become forevermore a public figure.

Whether they loom large in the canon of their chosen genre, or they find themselves more a footnote, they have to accept that one way or another their work will make them visible to a whole mass of people who had heretofore never heard of them.

Publishing anything turns the public gaze your way, turns you into public property, makes you part of a public conversation over which you do not have complete control.

You may or may not experience an explosion of…

  • Private messages of varying degrees of propriety
  • People suddenly deferring to you on every conceivable topic
  • People suddenly picking fights with you on every conceivable topic
  • People thinking you’re available to solve all their problems for them
  • Interview requests, unexpected accolades, invites to contribute to this journal or that blog.

Becoming visible is a totally mixed bag. There’s some good, some bad and a not-insignificant amount of crazy.

If you’re a narcissist, you’ll take as much of any bag as you can get and all of this is fabulous news that must be exclaimed to anyone you can get to listen.

If you’re not — and most of us are not — it can be exhilarating, but it can also be truly, deeply terrifying.

There’s an abiding Protestant hangover in Western culture that implies that being visible is a bad thing. And quasi-religious fears like this tend to get braided up very tight with our fear of being cast out of our communities.

So many would-be writers unconsciously internalise this fear: that it’s glory-seeking, self-aggrandising arrogance to do something that highlights your gifts, and that instead you should toil in anonymous martyrdom, whipping yourself as penance for the raging resentment that grows out of your stifled voice box.

You might sense I have some rage about this.

But I can’t deny that visibility provokes this deep fear of exile for many people, and that occasionally it does in fact lead to that exile.

And so it’s a risk to write. It’s a risk to develop an opinion, and to value your own opinion highly enough to put it down in print. It’s a huge risk to wade into public discourse, especially as cancel culture runs rampant where once there was rigour.

As a child I always thought that writers were special.

How fabulous, I thought, to get to live in your imagination, to go on adventures and to see where your curiosity takes you.

But even then I knew the risks of such radical living: being special means standing out, and often standing out means standing alone.

What I didn’t know then was that being special, being willing to stand under the spotlight, sometimes alone, is an irrevocable gift, an incredible, world-changing demonstration of individual power.

And now I know, too, that the reward you get for taking such a risk is the self-determination and intellectual freedom I dreamed of so vividly much as a child.

So if you’re wrestling with this fear of visibility, a fear of your gifts, I promise that you’ll find no fluffy platitudes here. But what you will find is a staunch believer in your voice, in its power, and in the world’s desperate need to hear from you.