At Fall Philly, I had a funny conversation with a writer friend about the neurotic tendencies of creative people. We are scared. Often. Sometimes the fear motivates us, and sometimes it seriously holds us back. As I think about my own neurotic tendencies, my mind wanders back to high school. Yes. High school.
Remember running laps in gym class? Remember that kid who always finished last, wheezing and clutching her stomach, who got “hustle” shouted in her face daily? Yep, that was me. Hello, nice to meet you under different circumstances.
Here’s the funny thing. Last year, I took up running. Go ahead. Wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes. Go change your underpants. I’ll wait.
Maybe I just had something to prove to myself—you know, that I could actually run and breathe at the same time. But mostly, I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be strong.
I told my husband not to watch. (He was one of the finish-first-while-hardly-breaking-a-sweat guys.) I put my sneakers on at dusk, so the neighbors wouldn’t see, either. And I took off. Running.
The first night was rough. The next night was rougher. But the third night, something happened. I ran. And I breathed. At the same time.
In high school, I was diagnosed with asthma, but it turned out I didn’t actually have asthma. I had anxiety-induced esophageal spasms. They stuck a tube down my throat to figure that one out. Not surprisingly, they saw firsthand evidence. Basically, when I would run, I sounded like an old man snoring. Pretty attractive, huh?
But then, alone in my own neighborhood, without a portly, middle-aged man in a windbreaker blowing his whistle at me, I could breathe. It wasn’t a race. I didn’t have thirty adolescents watching me finish last. Once the fear was gone, I couldn’t lose anything but weight, couldn’t gain anything but muscle.
Ah, yet another opportunity for an analogy-loving writer. Stephen King says, “I am convinced that fear is at the heart of all bad writing.” But what are we afraid of as writers? Rejection is the easy answer. NOT being seen is the easy answer. That fear can actually motivate. But I think that the fear that really holds us back is the fear of truly BEING SEEN. “Writing naked,” if you will. An empty page and our own secrets, our own unanswered questions, our own faults and hurts and problems. It’s the conundrum of the artist—wanting to be seen and afraid of it at the same time. But when you go there, then what you write resonates.
Most of the books that I’ve read recently that have really left a mark on me and kept me up half the night are books that go there. Books that take on the tough questions of life—not just offering easy, pat answers. Sometimes, there are no answers, but just a recognition of the question or the struggle. That may sound like an easy way out, but it’s really actually quite difficult!
Maybe we get scared of dealing with a subject too big for us, a hurt too deep, an experience too painful, or a person too easily recognized. I know I do. But I realize that if what I write is going to matter to other real people, I have to go there. And it can be pretty darn scary.
When I began my first novel, all I could think about was whether or not I would be able to do it. I was scared. What if I couldn’t? What if I was wasting my time? What if I couldn’t find the solutions, and the whole thing fell apart? Sometimes, my throat snored again. Should I even tell anyone I’m doing this? Well, I suppose my novel still might fail. I don’t know yet…it’s just getting ready to go out for submission. No one can see the future. But while my flat feet were pounding the pavement of my neighborhood, I decided that it was a chance I had to take. And, that if the first one fails, the second one will be better. Stronger.
In the end, you have to let go. Have to allow yourself to be a little sloppy or embarrassing—the sloppy and embarrassing moments are what make your work vulnerable and relatable and real. No one has to read your first draft if it’s a mess, either – just get it out on paper, get real with yourself, and then worry about editing and refining later. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to get stronger. You’re going to finish, even if it takes you three times as long as the football team.
So, be brave. Be bold. Breathe. Decide not to care if one of the neighbors takes a peek out their window and sees you in a less-than-graceful moment. You might even inspire them.