Thursday, June 7, 2012

Kicking Fear In The Teeth

Note - Yes I know it's Thursday, but I'm in Washington DC until early Monday, so I'm putting this up for the weekend. 

Before we start today's post, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to right now, wherever you are, to do something that puts a smile on your face. Look out the window, think about smacking your officemate with a stapler, have a glass of water....just do something to make yourself smile. Then come back.

Ready? I asked you to do that because I wanted to start this message on an "up" note - since today we're going to wade into the morass of our work and talk about what scares us. Then I'm going to show you how you can beat back that fear in three steps. I can't promise fear's permanent defeat, since that's on you and your vigilance, but I can promise to arm you better against it.

I know my fears. I talk about them. I have spotted them coming at me in the distance and have let them run me down as I stay paralyzed by them. I have also fought back against them, and at times make great strides forward and other times fall back....and I can't always tell the difference.

But I'm getting better.

I used to think that the whole "trick" to this was just in spotting the fear and calling it out - saying that "hey there's a bear coming to eat my innards" would somehow dissuade the bear from snacking on my inside parts. It didn't, but I took false confidence from my ability to tell you that I was afraid. I wasn't really making a lot of headway against the fear, I just sort of put my fear on display and let it keep me from the success that everyone thought I should have had.

Nope. That's not the point. You don't "win" just by pointing out the fear, you still have to do the things that scare you, still have to make it through those moments where fear puts cold sweat on you and your stomach somersaults. And you don't get to hide from it. I mean, you can hide from it, but you then get the additional pang of guilt or shame or frustration that you chickened out and didn't do what you set out to do.

My fears are all about completing things. I draw such a rush from new things, from that excitement and adrenalin of new tasks that I burn myself out on projects when we reach the middle stages. Forget end stages, you sometimes have to drag me kicking and screaming to the finish line. It got so bad for me that at one point I organized my life so that I would be forced, often catastrophically to finish things. Totally stupid. Totally my own doing. All because I was afraid.

What does that translate into for writing? Well, it turns into not-writing. It generates a lot of thinking, but not a lot of fingers-tapping-keys. Thinking, you say? Yes, thinking about writing, which turns into analyzing the pros-and-cons of that writing, which turns into choosing not to write because the ideas were more con than pro. So....to sum up, I talked myself out of writing because I was afraid of finishing and/or that what I was writing wasn't going to be "good" (that is, enjoyed by others)

Does that happen every day? Thankfully no. Has it happened lately? No, not really. I've hit a good stride (it comes from doing things I love and pacing myself) and am made happy every day by having good people around me and by looking forward to good things ahead (like my summer workshops and my fall classes).

So what tools can I offer you to kick your own fear and stop the scary bear from eating your guts? Here are three, although admittedly, I stole the first one.

i. "Say to yourself: These are just thoughts, they aren't truth." (credit to Brian Engard, a writer who really should be writing more things). This recently came up in his Jennisodes interview, and he's said it me at least four dozen times since I've known him. It's good advice. Just because you think it doesn't make it so. You can prove this by thinking yourself the owner of the world's largest chocolate bar or the person who in about to walk out of their room and onto the surface of Jupiter....thoughts aren't truth, they're just ideas that some part of us wants/hopes/dreads/desires/fears turning into truth. They're not the boss of you.

ii. The task itself is probably not that difficult. Let's look at what writing is. You sit in a chair, you press your fingertips against a keyboard in specific repeated patterns as to convey a story. There's no mention of marketing or queries or agents or returns on investments because that's not what writing is...that's what writing has included with it when you zoom out to the larger picture. But writing is just the act of story expression. And that's not difficult, because you sit and do that often. When you strip away the layers and look at just the barest essentials of the activity, you're also stripping away the fear-empowering expectations and the stress. (It gets very Zen, but don't be a dick about that, just know that you can focus on the act and enjoy it.)

iii. Do it for one minute. Then another. Then two minutes. Then for two more. As I've talked about before, the people who trained me to write and edit were old perverts. They were brilliant, but they were well aware that lifetimes of smoking and drinking were catching up to them and the fastest way to reach a young man's mind is through sexual metaphor. So when I was feeling disputatious and angsty one day, I got told "Just do it for a minute" and those sixty seconds flew by. In very small increments, you can accomplish a lot. Forget about, just dismiss the idea that "if you go at this pace you'll be doing it forever" because nobody's asking you to go at this speed forever, just for right now. Do you have sixty seconds to spare?

Practice these. Familiarize yourself with their wonderment.

Now go kick more ass.

Happy writing.