The Praying Mantis that Looks Over My Shoulder

A few days ago, a friend and colleague of mine posted a Facebook photo of her absolutely adorable son posing with a large praying mantis on his face. Plenty of folks were leaving messages about how cute the photo was, but I–and this is not hyperbole–felt like I was going to faint. There are only a handful of things in the world that give me the howling fantods, but the mantis is one of them.

When I was about four years old, I was riding my tricycle up and down a paved incline in my neighborhood. As I rolled downhill, probably going all of three miles per hour, I lost control of the trike. The handlebars were waving back and forth as I bumped over loose rocks and pebbles, and the trike moved erratically as it followed the front wheel’s wobble. I thought about bailing, but I was pretty sure I’d skin an elbow or a knee if I dove. So I just opened my mouth and screamed (it seemed like legitimate tactic at the time). I saw it at the last possible moment: the enormous praying mantis in the path of my front wheel.

I don’t think I can describe the carnage here without getting a severe case of I-think-I’m-goint-to-faint,  but let’s just say that, as I continued to lumber down the hill, the flapping carcass of the mantis accompanied my wheel, the googley eyes staring up at me from the tread. And that, dear reader, was the beginning of the mantis terror. In the following weeks I not only had nightmares of a giant mantis eating me whole, but also trouble eating lima beans (which looked a lot like mantis squish), and homicidal rage at my sister, who thought it was pretty funny to do a mantis impression and watch me throw a fit. Later, I’d develop a relatively strong terror of whales (yes, being baleened to death seems like a real possibility to my subconscious mind) and a slightly more reasonable fear of air travel. But the mantis remains my most primal childhood horror.

When we get older, our fears turn inward. We’re not so worried about bugs and snakes, but about what’s inside ourselves. When I see the dreaded mantis today, I have a gross-out moment of revulsion, but the kinds of fears that will quite literally keep me up at night are of the type I wrote about in my last blog post: being talentless. Being incompetent. Sucking at life and at art. Being delusional about the possibility of having a literary life or career. Each of those fears has its own set of eyes that flap around on the tricycle wheel.

Fear, we are told, is a good thing: it keeps us from petting the salivating lion or sticking our arms in the fire. Fear is supposed to keep us safe. But safe, I think, is exactly the opposite of where the creative person wants to be. Safe is boring; it’s the lowest common denominator–a mere staying-alive. If I listened to my fear, I’d give up on writing entirely. I’d be safe from the rejection, frustration, and emotionally depleting intensity that book-writing brings about. But that emotional security is not a good trade-off if it means I don’t create a damned thing. I’ve decided that the fear of failure is like a the giant praying mantis of my childhood nightmares looking over my shoulder. It’ll keep me moving faster, working harder, and by all means, never letting it eat me alive.

4 Replies to “The Praying Mantis that Looks Over My Shoulder”

  1. Oh Dear.

    I can see the squished thing stuck to your little tricycle wheel. I get your point about fear. Adding to it a bit, the creative person lives on fear a good deal of the time. It is damn risky to keep going on the novel, book, poem or painting. Of course, it is a horrible fate to NOT keep going.


  2. Kelly,

    There are so many forces that conspire to keep us from literary success and satisfaction, sometimes it seems the only choice left is to quit and go back to the blissful inertia of non-writing. But that place is filled with as much doubt as the writing world. All we can do is continue to face down the demons, whether internal or external. Even if it’s only a couple hundred words in a day, they’ll get the message that we aren’t quitting, aren’t going away.

  3. Joe, you’re right. There’s really no way around self-doubt, is there? Realizing that is in some ways disheartening, and, in others, quite heartening indeed…

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