Don’t Just ‘Face’ Fear: Attack the Ambush

Writer describes principles of battle for effective writing practices.

Posted Sep 21, 2016

Author Bob Mayer is my guest blogger today. His advice to writers is direct, unique, and inspiring:

Bob Mayer
Source: Bob Mayer

Stephen King is convinced “that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

Unfortunately, fear isn’t on the curriculum in most writing programs, nor is it a popular workshop at writing conferences.

Transitioning from a career in Special Operations to becoming a full-time writer might seem a rather abrupt switch. However, I’ve discovered that using the training and experiences from my time as a Green Beret allows me to achieve success in a field in which I had no formal training.

Particularly in the area of fear, because I’d had a lot of training and experience in it.

Nike’s mantra for years was ‘No Fear’, which is a nice catch-phrase but completely oblivious to reality. There are humans who experience ‘no fear,’ they aren’t in the bell curve, and usually we don’t want to meet that tiny percentage.

For the rest of us, fear is an occasional, sometimes constant, companion.

The next step up is the saying, ‘face your fear.’ That, at least, acknowledges it exists. But doesn’t deal with it. In fact, facing it, can quickly lead to being overwhelmed by its reality.

The military is known for training people to do unnatural things. Repetitive, aggressive training, especially in Special Operations, is designed to not just teach us how to do difficult things, it teaches us to instinctively do unnatural things.

In order to stay alive.

Bob Mayer
Source: Bob Mayer

How to face fear the way Ranger School, the Special Forces Qualification Course, SEAL training, etc. imprint it?

Let’s take the way we are trained to face the worst possible situation: walking into an enemy’s well-prepared ambush. While we’re trained not to ever get in that situation, just as in day-to-day living, we sometimes find ourselves in a very bad place.

What to do?

My patrol is walking along a trail in a forest and suddenly we are fired upon from the right by numerous automatic weapons. My instinct wants me to jump in the convenient ditch to the left – to avoid my fear.

Since the ambush is set up properly, it is designed to anticipate my instinctual reactions. Thus the ditch is mined and when I jump in, the mines go off and––

I’ll die if I do that.

My next fear-driven instinct is to simply hit the ground and do nothing. Make myself as small as possible. My first platoon sergeant in the Infantry, a Vietnam Veteran, told me to forget what they take in Infantry Basic about firing positions. He said there are only two: the prone and the flying prone, where you’re diving for the ground if you’re shot at. He also mentioned that the buttons on your shirt (pre-velcro), suddenly become massive when you’re lying on your belly and bullets are cracking by overhead.

However, this instinct, in a well-designed ambush, means you’re lying in what is called the Kill Zone. It’s where the majority of weaponry have been zeroed in to fire at. That’s the reason it’s called a Kill Zone. Stay where I’m at and—

I’ll die if I do that.

If I conquer those first two instincts, my third is to run forward or back on the trail to get out of the Kill Zone. Run from my fear and escape.

Unfortunately, that’s also next on the priority of planning to design an effective ambush. We place our heaviest machine guns at either end of the Kill Zone, with the greatest rate of fire. So if I run forward or back, trying to avoid my fear, in a way going into the past or trying to ignore the present by running to a future that doesn’t exist yet, I’ll cross the greatest volume of fire and—

I’ll die if I do that.

Every person is different, but fear will naturally cause us to do one of those three things. Jump directly away, freeze, or run away.

So what are we taught?

The only way to break a well-prepared, close ambush, is to do the last thing we want to. To make the hardest choice.

I must conquer my fear, turn right and assault directly into the ambushing force. It is the best way to not only survive but win. The correct solution is the hardest choice because it requires courage.

I must not only face my fear, I must charge right into it.

There’s the old saying for writers to ‘write what they know.’ However, maybe some of us need to write what we are afraid to know or face. I see many writers who avoid writing what they should be writing because it would mean confronting their fears. Be curious about your fear – it’s a cave, but instead of a monster lurking inside, there's treasure instead.

Remember fear is an emotion. Action can occur even when your emotions are fighting it. Taking action is the key to conquering fear; that the definition of courage.

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