Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Your Worst Fear?

by Nancy Martin

My worst fear (okay, maybe not my worst, worst, but next-to-worst) is driving off a bridge into a river. Naturally, I was riveted and horrified by last week's bridge collapse in Minnesota. And because I live in a city of three major rivers, not to mention countless tributaries, it's kinda hard for me to drive anywhere without my imagination taking an occasional plunge into nightmare country.

I was growing up in a rural part of the state when President Eisenhower decided we all needed an interstate highway to move bombs and troops that would keep us safe from the Cubans. I was a little girl when the bulldozers came to my town to start work on the very first section of a gigantic project that would eventually become Interstate 80. The initial plans, in fact, included bulldozing through our home--my parents' hilltop dream house. Only a huge lawsuit prevented its destruction, but I spent several of my formative years watching road construction just a couple of hundred yards from our front lawn.

The work included construction of twin bridges (two, because Fidel might be able to destroy one, but surely not both) that spanned the small creek (and the large valley it created) in our community. When the weather turned bitter cold, however, those bridges stood unfinished for a long winter. As a family, we took walks out to the end of the bridges and looked down at the water far, far below.

In my imagination, of course, I went tumbling off the end of the bridge. I dreamed about it endlessly. How many different ways might I slip off the edge? On a bike? A skateboard? A runaway pony? In my mother's station wagon? I'm sure my childish mind combined the fear of losing our house with the natural terror of falling from a great height. Almost nightly, I had the recurring nightmare of being driven (I was totally helpless from the get-go, see?) off the bridge, falling through space, crashing through the ice where the car would immediately sink, trapping me as the icy water gushed in. Even if I managed to escape the car, I'd be stuck under the ice.

Even as recently as two months ago, I have had that dream. Sometimes it comes with permutations that reflect whatever conflict going on in my life at the time. (When my children were babies, I was compelled to sacrifice myself, of course, to save them.)

I am drawn to all the news articles written about last week's disaster. It seems most people were saved because they were stuck in traffic. (If they'd been traveling fast, they might have been propelled into the river.) Or by shock absorbers and air bags. (I think various new car design technologies helped, but these two are mentioned first.) And, of course, the quick actions of good Samaritans at the scene.

Am I going to buy one of those gadgets that can break a car window from inside? You bet.

Naturally, the persistence of my dream meant I eventually had to write about such a catastrophe.

I put it off for a long time, but finally I wrote the scene. It's in the book that will be published next spring. My protagonist, Nora Blackbird, is trapped in a car as it plunges into a river, and she must fight her way out of certain death. I found myself shaking as I drafted those pages the first time. My heart pounded. I had to get up from my chair to walk around my office to calm down.

Funny thing. Since finishing the book, I've been considerably calmer about the bridge-car-drowning scenario. In fact, I really expected the dream to recur after the Minnesota disaster, but it hasn't come back. Yet. I wonder if writing about it has helped me tamp down my fears? Or put them to rest, perhaps? Or am I just taking a subconscious break for a bit? Time will tell.

My worst, worst, very worst fear, however, is something I dare not even speak. Or type. Because it's too horrible for me to get my brain around. I will only say it involves reptiles. I don't think I can inflict it upon Nora Blackbird. It's too awful.

My daughter is afraid of bears and spiders. She says she can trace her terror of spiders to the time she was brushing her teeth at our summer cottage, and a centipede crawled out of the drain. (The bear thing started--I think--when we took her to a zoo, and the Kodiak bears had a fight. At least, we told her that's what they were doing. If we'd told the truth, her fears would--well, let's not go there.) My sister is terrified of mice. I mean bizarrely terrified. Pigeons, too.

What's your worst fear? And have you written about it yet?


Annette said...

There is a bridge between Follansbee West Virginia and Steubenville Ohio called the Market Street Bridge that is well-traveled, very narrow, and the deck is made of that open-weave steel grid material that allows you to see through it to the Ohio River below. When I was a kid, we crossed it almost weekly and it made me sick to my stomach. I don't know if it was the open deck or the swaying movement as we sat on it in our car waiting for the light at the end to change back to green. I crossed it again recently for the first time in years and it still makes me sick.

As for writing about my fears, yes, I have. I almost drowned when I was a kid and I have my protagonist (who, like me, can't swim) fall into a deep pool and experience all the panic I recall.

My other fear involves being in a burning building, but I haven't written that into a story. YET.

Joyce Tremel said...

I'm with you on the bridges, ladies. I always hated the West End Bridge. When I was younger, I used to dream about driving off the "Bridge to Nowhere" and no, I did not start that urban legend. I don't like water over my head unless I can see the bottom, like in a swimming pool. (My phobia now is just being seen in public in a swimsuit.)

The only bridge that makes me nervous now is the Hulton Bridge (that nice lavender one that takes you into Oakmont).

Anonymous said...

The leader of the psychotherapy training program I was in said the fear of driving off a bridge was a spiritual desire for union with the divine. Maybe a lot of unconsciously spiritual people in our group? :-)

My biggest fear is being a quadriplegic. I've written a book about a girl who's paralyzed from the waist down, and she has a fantasy sequence about being a paraplegic (probably won't make it into the final draft if I ever finish the damn manuscript.) That's as close as I could come.

I do believe to unlock the fears one needs to get in touch with the internal conflict underlying them, which involves both a wish for and aversion to. For me, the quad. image is desire for dependency but fear of being helpless.

Ramona said...

Nancy, I think "What's your worst fear?" should be the question asked at beauty pageants. Imagine how funny it would be, because surely someone would give the stock answer of "World Peace."

However, don't you think it's a little risky asking this on the Internet? I mean, what if some wacko read it and made it happen to you? For instance, my worst fear is that a funny, handsome, wealthy, intelligent guy would whisk me away from my mundane summer and lock me in a beach-side compound with nothing to do but read, swim and drink Mimosas. But I'd be nuts to put that out on the public airwaves, because what if it came true? Horrors!

Anonymous said...

Nancy, I've never sat back and analyzed my fears :) I just had to write and tell you how interesting it was that your fears seemed diminished after putting your protagonist through that scene. Very interesting and I wonder if this wasn't your ultimate therapy. Great article.

Anonymous said...

I love the beauty pageant question! Yes, yes! What agreat blog topic!--I'm jotting it down for future reference. Meanwhile, let's not start listing the bridges we're afraid of. I don't want to be distracted by looking for the name of the bridge as I drive across it!

Anonymous said...

I fear just about everything, but falling from high places has a special place in my tingling spine. Once I was walking with my then-husband on a path along the side of a mountain in Switzerland. We were very high up - above the clouds -- and the path, although about a yard wide, sloped down slightly toward the outer edge. The inner edge was against the wall of an ascending cliff, with an old rusty metal cable strung along it. My foot slipped and, before I could even conceptualized what had happened, I was clinging to that old rusty cable with both hands and with my teeth(!). I crawled back to the beginning of the path and stayed there while my ex walked the full length of the path alone. I should have realized then how incompatible we were.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, bridges don't scare me. They tend to freak out my husband, though. For me, my fear is being trapped--in a car, under rubble, under water or somewhere I couldn't breathe or move.

Anonymous said...

With your TEETH, Gina?? Yes, I can actually imagine doing that in a dire situation!

Anonymous said...

While snorkeling, my face mask leaked, and I had this irrational fear of drowning. All I had to do was take it off and keep swimming, and I can swim, so I figure it's some past lifetime that ended in drowning that occasionally haunts me.

I really like the idea of having your protagonist face her fears. Thanks for another interesting, stimulating blog, Nancy.

Anonymous said...

Cathy, I'm a strong swimmer, too, and I love snorkeling, but I always have to fight the sensation that I'm somehow trapped behind that mask. I know how you feel!