Me: early this morning, working on my novel. Staring at the words on the screen, wondering if I should add a sentence about the hero’s past. Thinking it might be too much.
And then it hit me. I have a freaking delete button.
It is really freaking easy to write the sentence I’m not sure about and delete it if it doesn’t work.
Why is it so difficult to remember this?
I’ll tell you why: it’s that sneaky little thing called fear rearing its ugly head. Again. Fear disguising itself as perfectionism, as in, I’ve got to make sure the sentence is perfect before I write it.
I think about this when I do the crossword in the morning. (In pencil, thank you very much.) Sometimes I hesitate to fill in an answer I’m not sure of. And then I do it anyway, and the whole section of puzzle opens up. Why do I hesitate? Because I’m afraid I’m not right.
That’s about the stupidest thing ever.
Put it all on the page, people. (And when I say people, I include myself in that. I need to remember this as much as anyone.) Because it is easy to delete or edit something that’s there. But you can’t edit something that’s not there.
Feel the fear and do it anyway is one of the great all-time phrases ever. And I certainly can’t take credit for the words. It was the title of a book that came out years ago, by Susan Jeffers, and I clutched that book to me like a life raft at the time. I was reminded of the book again last weekend when the minister of my church referred to how she also found it life-saving back in the day. (Books really can change lives, never forget that as you write.)
I’m heading off to teach today, and I’ll be honest, I’m nervous. I’m not nervous about the material because I’ve taught it a million times (just not in this format). But I’m nervous about logistics, and getting there on time, and about how I’ve put everything together, and what to wear, and the biggie–what will people think of me? Will they like me? If you stop and think about that one for a minute, it is the most ridiculous fear on the planet. We can’t control what other people are going to think of us. We can be kind and open but if someone takes an instant dislike to us, there’s not much we can do about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken an instant dislike to someone–and later become close friends with them. Yet this is one of the most crippling fears people have. Oh, we humans are a funny lot.
And here’s another funny fear: that of putting words on the page. Or paint on the canvas. Or stitches on the fabric. We creatives face the blank page and panic. But why? Because all those thoughts about how people will react to the words on the page (which actually aren’t even there yet) crowd in and stop us. We tell ourselves we don’t know how to do it, as if everyone else has innate knowledge of it that we don’t share. That’s simply not true. They learned it by doing it, just like everyone else. The one exception is my four-year-old grandson. He comes up with the most amazing facts and when I ask him where he learned that he just shrugs and says “I just know it.” Which is, come to think of it, probably the best attitude any of us can take. Shrug and tell yourself “I just know how to write a novel.” “I just know how to put paint on the canvas.”
The thing is, if you’re afraid of something, it’s probably yours to do. That is one of the truest things I’ve learned through the years. And so here’s my best advice as to how to deal with fear:
That’s the best antidote to fear that I know. It doesn’t have to be big action, it can be something little. Tiny, even. Because teensy actions pile upon each other and cumulatively become big actions. I remember reading Susan Jeffers book back when it first came out and being so fearful that the thought of taking action was simply overwhelming. Back then, I could never have imagined publishing a book. Leading writing workshops in France. Or teaching others. But little actions built up. I went to a meeting of a writer’s group. Joined a critique group. Put words on the page regularly and started shaping them into something more than journal entries. Took the scary step of showing those words to others. And one day I found myself on the plane to Paris (alone–something else I couldn’t have imagined).
Before I started traveling regularly, I had a fear of flying. I’d grip the arm rests and hyperventilate during take-off and landing. But then I realized that if I ever wanted to go anywhere I better get over the fear. It is still not my favorite thing to do, but its not the worst, either. Doing something over and over helps quell the fear (though I still get nervous about logistics, that’s for damn sure).
Write a word, make the phone call, visit the gallery you want to represent you. Send the query, ask someone for something you want, whatever it is that fear prevents you from doing. Sit down at the computer and write the next scene of your novel or memoir. Because here’s the best part–once you’ve done that thing you’ll be flooded with the most glorious feeling of sweet relief. Because you’ve overcome fear. In many ways, I think it is the life journey we all share.
How do you overcome fear? Please share.
I’m off to teach at Sitka today, which is located on the beautiful Oregon coast, so I won’t be back in this space until next week. But follow me on Instagram for lots of photos!
The image is The Scream, by Edward Munch, of course, and it is in the public domain.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: focus drive the fear away. Yup, it does.
Because when you are focused in the moment, you are connected with your work. You’re not thinking about the past, the 100th rejection you just got on your novel, or how the essay you’re working on refuses to come together.
You’re not thinking about the future—where you will submit this story, what your agent will think of it, if it gets rejected again.
You are in the moment, right here, right now just you and the computer, or typewriter, or pen and paper. And in that moment, there is no fear. Just you, putting words on the page.
Ah, but here’s the rub: it is fear itself that stops us from focusing.
I separate fears into two levels.
The first level is the obvious stuff, the things we let distract us. We fear we will miss something if we don’t check Facebook first thing in the morning. That we have to answer that text or phone call right now. That the email we’ve been waiting for might have come in, so it is imperative to check one more time. That one quick game of Spider Solitaire (or insert your favorite) will relax your mind.
But then we get to the second-level fears, the really juicy stuff. Fear that what we are writing isn’t good enough. Fear it won’t accomplish our goals for it. (Best-selling novel! Article published in the New York Times! Short story accepted by the New Yorker!) Fear that all the hours alone in the room will come to naught. Fear that family will read the completed memoir and get angry. I could go on and on but I don’t need to, because I’m pretty sure you can insert your own special fear in a hot second.
The thing is, it is most often these deeper fears, the second level stuff, that leads us to first level activities. It is ever so much easier to read emails and cruise around social media first thing in the morning than it is to concentrate on your current work in progress. And, worse, as a writer, you can, convince yourself that it is vitally necessary for you to do all these things. You’re building your platform, after all. Keeping up with what’s going on in your field (we have to know everything about marketing and publishing now, of course).
And the really funny thing is that once you get to the page and start throwing words at it, you likely will be so absorbed that you’ll forget all your fears. You just have to get there and you have to give yourself a few minutes at it to sink in.
So, I’m telling you focus is it, baby. If you’re struggling with it (and I do all the time), here’s some suggestions for you:
Call yourself out. Don’t tell yourself you’re researching when you’re looking at cat videos. Tell it like it is—you’re wasting time and distracting yourself from what you should be doing. Or:
.Observe yourself. If you’re really in a distractible phase, #1 might be too much. The other technique is to just start observing what you are doing. Oh isn’t this interesting, I got distracted by ________ again. The idea is that when you catch yourself doing it over and over again, eventually you’ll want to change your behavior.
Build in breaks. If you really, truly must watch those cat videos give yourself time to do it—after you’ve finished your writing.
Don’t rely on shadow comforts. I believe Jennifer Louden coined this term, and the first time I read it I knew exactly what she meant. A shadow comfort is mindlessly surfing the internet or whatever your distraction of choice is. It may be your default that you turn to when you are stuck in your writing or don’t know what else to do.
Do things that feed you. Take a break and do the crossword puzzle, or go knit a few rows. Pet your cat (I say that because one of mine has just taken up residence between me and my computer). Walk around the block. Whatever you do, make it intentional. It may be cat videos, and if so go for it. But decide what works for you ahead of time.
Do timed sprints. I tend to forget about and rediscover this technique all the time. When I’m doing it, I love it. Set your timer for an amount of time you’d like to totally focus. Mine is 25 minutes. Then focus only on the task at hand for those minutes. When the timer goes off, take a break. Get up and walk around, stretch, grab a glass of water. And then start over.
Download Freedom. It will disable the internet on your computer for however long you tell it. A wonderful tool, worthy of its name, and the basic plan is free.
Don’t even think about multi-tasking. Think you’re good at it? You’re wrong. Read this article and your mind will change.
What are your favorite ways to find focus and defeat fear? Please share below, or hit reply and email me. And now please excuse me, but I’ve got a date with a game of Spider Solitaire.
What Who I'm in Love With: My new grandson, Owen Lewis Hopman, born October 13, thus becoming the 9th Libra among our extended family and friends. He was two weeks overdue, and I'm convinced that he just wanted to make certain he had his very own birthday, rather than sharing it with a grandfather, grandmother, father or uncle (two of them), because he wasn't a big baby–7 pounds 6 ounces.
What I'm Writing: My next novel, the one I started in France. I'm the kind of writer who doesn't like to talk much about a book until it is done so I'll leave you guessing. But I was struggling a little bit with the story, so this week I had a plot session with Cathy Yardley, in which she asked me a lot of questions about the story so far. By the end of the hour, I had designated the inciting incident, plot points, pinch points, and my main character's goals, motivations and conflicts. Since I no longer belong to a critique group, I really needed someone to bounce ideas off, and she delivered in a huge way. Highly recommended.
What I'm Reading: A silly Christmas/knitting novel set in a small English village, which I can't even remember the name of. It reads like a first draft, self published novel that has not been edited, and yet it was put out by a major house. Of course, I'm still reading it–and I'm the queen of ditching books–so maybe that's why. Up next is Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie by Beth Howard, (research!) and the sequel to Me Before You, the blockbuster-ish novel by Jojo Moyes, which I enjoyed a lot and we used as a teaching book in the 2014 France workshop. And I still have the gazillion novels I downloaded on my Kindle before I went to France to read.
What's Going On: You may have noticed that I've not been blogging as much lately. I got out of the habit while in France and haven't recovered my momentum yet. But I will. This here blog has been around for eight years and counting, and its not going anywhere. One of the problems is that I hate the current design, which looks the way it does only so it works on mobile devices. Getting the design I want is going to require moving from Typepad to WordPress. I've been twiddling my thumbs over what to do, mainly because of those eight years of content, which is a bit onerous to transfer from Typepad to WordPress. But I think I'm coming up with some feasible solutions, so stay tuned.
What's Coming up: Okay this makes Six Things on Friday, but oh well. We will be announcing the topic and location of our 2016 France workshop (hint: Ceret, Ceret, Ceret, my most favorite town in the south of France). AND rumor has it there might be another European destination in the works for the spring. I'll keep you posted!
Okay, that's it for me. This weekend I'm going to finally finish setting up my office, which I moved from upstairs to downstairs right before I left for France, and catch up on work. What's up for you these days?
Note: I grew up in the printing plant my father owned, and he had a whole stack of pads titled While You Were Out, with check boxes and lines to fill in about things that happened in his absence. I am going to be out for a few days at a wedding, so I thought I'd fun some oldies but goodies. Here's the first, from back in 2010:
Since I seem to have been writing a lot lately about fear, and how to keep it at bay while you write, I thought it might be time for a little practical exercise. This is one I present in my Writing Abundance workshop. I did it for the first time years ago and have found the results of it–a way to deal with my critic–incredibly useful.
One of the problems that I often hear about is people being sidelined by perfectionism. They get paralyzed because they are afraid they won’t do something right. What this problem really is about is listening to your own inner critic, who constantly tells you that you are not good enough. It is one thing to tell your critic to shut up, but it doesn’t really work. Instead—meet your critic head on and disarm him. Here’s how, by giving him and image and a name. I met mine years ago. His name is Patrick and he looks like a Will Ferrell in Elf, only small and not nearly so goofy and friendly. Instead, Patrick is a bit of a prig. Let’s go ahead and have you meet your critics and then I’ll tell you a trick to deal with her or him.
Meet Your Critic
1. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths 2. Think about how you feel when you are being critical of your writing. 3. See if any images come up—color, energy, sound, smell? 4. Hold with whatever you are getting and let it come into form. It might be an animal, a human-type creature, or something totally abstract 5. Now open your eyes and write. More details will emerge as you do. Write a description of what you saw and then see if you can give it a name. Even a purple circle with the name Stan works.
Here’s the deal: after you have identified your critic, you can talk to him. I made a pact with Patrick years ago: he lies quiet while I write rough drafts, write in my journal, and do free writing. In return, as soon as I begin editing and rewriting, Patrick is up and at ‘em, ready to help me out. Because that is where Patrick excels—at being critical. Sometimes I forget about Patrick and he gets cranky, very cranky. But then he jumps up and down to get my attention, generally when I am first starting on a project. Then I remind him of our deal. And then he's content to go hang out wherever it is he hangs out until I call him forth.
So give it a try. And report back if you feel so inclined. I'd love to hear what shape your own critic takes.
I wrote a guest post for Jessica Baverstock at Creativity's Workshop on the writer's Inner GPS, our internal guidance system that is never wrong and can help us greatly with our writing. (You can go read it now, I'll wait.)
And because of that, I started thinking a lot about the Inner Critic, which is the antithesis of the Inner GPS. And because I was thinking about the Inner Critic, mine (a gnome-like imp named Patrick who is dressed all in green), popped up with a few things to say. Inner Critics are vocal that way.
Here is what Patrick had to say about what your inner critic wants you to know:
1. We love to make a lot of noise. We can't help it, making noise is our nature. And most often you'd probably think of it as discordant noise. That's because we're the aggregation of years of the negative messages you've received–the teacher who made red marks all over your paper, your cranky grandma, your alcoholic father who raged at you, your bitter aunt.
2. We also like to lie. We tell you that what you're writing is a stinky, steaming pile of crap when really its a deep lyrical essay. We say that your house is a mess and your family hates you for it when really they are so, so happy that you are at your desk writing. We tell you that you are stupid, fat, ugly, no good down to your very soul, when really you are a beautiful, spirited child of the universe.
3. We can be tamed. It takes consistent effort, but we can be trained to be quiet. We don't like it (see #1), but it's the truth. We can be tamed with this process: acknowledge the negative thought we offer, release it, and replace it with a positive thought. The thing we actually love about this process is that you really have to do it over and over again and many of you get bored and quit. And then we can run wild and free again.
4. We accept negotiations. Maybe you can give us something to do while you're busy writing the first draft and then call us in for the editing rounds? Perhaps you can send us off to practice yelling and screaming elsewhere until you're ready to do a grammar and spell check? Think about what how we could help you and then pitch us a deal. We might just agree.
5. We are not the boss of you. We like to make you think we are. It's so very easy to convince you that such is the case. A snide comment here, a negative remark there, and before you know it, you've slunk away from your desk before you've even written word one. The other Inner Critics will probably hate me for this, but here's a little tip: when all else fails, we respond well to war being waged on us. Stop slinking away, turn and face us and yell, "Shut the f@#$ up, you measly, slimy son of an old shoe!" And then we'll do exactly that.
When I was invited to speak to the Living Writer's Collective in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, my topic was the Fear of Writing. The subject was enthusiastically received, with several writers sheepishly admitting to me that they suffered from it (and Lord knows I've dealt with it off and on throughout my career), so I thought I'd adapt part of my talk here.
I've identified two broad arenas that your fears of writing might fall within:
This is when you fear sitting down and putting words on the page. You might not think that you actually have this fear, because fear is a sneaky beast that masquerades as all kinds of other things. Like suddenly needing, desperately needing, to do laundry. Or mop the kitchen floor. Or go grocery shopping. Or do just about anything but get to the page in the time you've allotted to write.
The fear of the writing process can also pop up once you've actually gotten to the computer. There you sit, facing that wonderful blank screen. When you get tired of looking at the screen, you gaze out the window. And then maybe you go grab yourself a cup of coffee and stare out the kitchen window for awhile. I've got news for you–all this staring is not writing.
Or, has this ever happened to you? You are writing along, lost in the process and suddenly your fingers come to a halt. You've written something that's threatening to the old ego. And now you're terrified. All was fine one minute and then next, well, it's not.
Product fears gather around putting your work out in the world. What if you're rejected? What if people don't like your book when it's published? What if you get a bad book review or your mother reads it and is shocked? What if you wrote a thriller about a murdered and people think you have first-hand experience with crime? The what ifs go on and on and on, and many of them are as silly as the last one I listed. But here's the deal: fears are often silly. But they take on enormous power despite this.
So what's a person to do?
Here's the bad news: the only way out is through. Well, it may not be the only way out, but it's the best way out. Yup, to get over your fear of writing, you must write. And then put it out in the world, even when you don't want to. In so many ways this is counter-intuitive and probably not at all what you want to hear. Wouldn't it be just so much easier if there were an actual program you could take that conquered your fear of writing without you having to do any writing? Well, that program is, you guessed it, writing.
Here are a couple ways to approach it that might help:
–Try freewriting. This old favorite really does work. If you do it correctly, it bypasses the conscious mind and taps you into something deeper, beyond fear. The way to do it is this: pick a prompt (any prompt, it doesn't matter), set a timer for 20 minutes, and then write. Write without stopping, even if you are writing the same word over and over again. Keep the flow going–it is this that subverts the fear. And don't worry about staying on topic, you probably won't. When you're done, underline or highlight anything that you might find useful and use this as a starting point for another writing session.
–Chunk it down. Many of us writers are big-picture people. We look at a project and see the whole thing all at once. This has many advantages, but a big disadvantage is that it can be overwhelming. Remind yourself that you only need to look at your project in little bits. Make a loose outline and take one line of it at a time and write to that. Then take the next line, and then the next, until you have a rough draft for each item on the list.
–Take time for process time. In a book called Around the Writer's Block, author Roseanne Barr talks about how important process time is to writers. By this she means things like journaling, or morning pages. It can be a conundrum: take precious writing time to journal or get right to the project at hand? But studies have shown that taking time for process writing helps you beat writing resistance on a consistent basis.
–Approach it playfully. Try some fun writing exercises every once in awhile. Open a dictionary at random and fun your finger down the page. Use the word you land on as a prompt. Combine it with anothe word and make the start of a sentence and then use that. Cut up old manuscripts into long strips, one line to a strip and put them in a box. Choose one and use as a prompt.
–Write something different. I know I get stuck on thinking that I must work on my novel and only my novel. But last fall at a workshop I tried my hand at Flash Fiction and loved it. Writing that could be a quick warm-up to displace your fears. So could writing Haiku.
–Remember to write and let everything else fall into place. Because it will. Your job is to put words on the page. This is the best thing to remember when you feel that fear of putting your work out in the world, or of submitting it to editors or agents. Your job is to write. It's not to worry about what people are going to think of the final product. At the heart of it all, you just need to write.
What about you? How do you banish your fear of writing? Leave a comment!
For the last two years, I've been in the habit of choosing three words to guide my next year. (You can read the posts explaining my word choices for 2012 here, a check-in post here, and the words for 2011 here. For another blogger's take on the process, check out Sandra's post at Always Well Within.)
But this year I'm doing something a bit different–choosing one word. That's because this one word has been pulling at me for a month, insisting it is the word, and the one and only word that will mark my 2013. In general, I am a "more is better" kind of person, and such is the case with choosing words for the year–why choose one when choosing three is so much better?
My word won't let me do that this year. And so, with no further introduction, here is that pesky word that won't let go of me:
I want to be:
Fearless on the page.
Fearless in my personal life.
Fearless in my career.
A Course in Miracles says that you've got two choices: love or fear. So, by definition, this year is going to be about offering a whole lot of love. But to me, the opposite of fearless goes even deeper than love, if that is possible.
To me, the opposite of fear is faith.
Faith in my ability to splash words on the page. Faith that this is the bottom line of what I need to do in the world.
Faith that good will triumph over evil. That somehow, someway, we will transmute horrendous events like the Newtown Sandy Hook massacre.
Faith that love really does trump fear.
I'm not at all sure I know how to be fearless, and I'm guessing that's why the voice within was so insistent that I choose this word for 2013. Because lately it seems that little things have made me anxious. That fussing over my writing is easier than just letting the words flow. That obsessing over the possibility that something bad might happen is more common than enjoying the moment.
And, somehow, that wise voice within knows that striving for a practice of fearlessness is the antidote to all of the above. I'm not about to go jump out of an airplane or climb Mt. Everest. The kind of fearlessness that most interests me is the kind where I meet the demons within. The ones who say the words I put on the page are silly. That nobody will think my novel is funny. The ones that remind me how many other talented writers there are in the world.
Yeah, those. Responding to them fearlessly is my number one task this year.
So that's my word for the year. Are you choosing a word or words for 2013? Please share it or any thoughts you might have about this in the comments.
***By the way, if putting words on the page is a goal for you in 2013, you might consider giving yourself the gift of coaching. My current clients are accomplishing great things. Wouldn't you like to join them? Check out my coaching page here. It's a wonderful present for yourself.
We don't always think of fear and focus at the same time, but there's very good reason to pair them.
Focus. It's what we all desire, what gets the writing done. Because the words don't go on the page without it.
Fear. It's often what keeps us from focusing.
The kinds of fears we writers and creative types deal with are the insidious ones. They may very well be so insidious that we don't even recognize them as fears. Instead, fears can masquerade as a lack of focus. Have you ever told yourself any of the following when it came time to write?
—I don't need to work on the book today
–The kitchen floor needs washing. I better do it now, instead of writing.
–I need to check my email.
–Writing is too hard, I'll look at Facebook instead
Perhaps some of the following fears are hiding behind this sudden desire to do something, anything, other than write:
—Not knowing what to write
–Not knowing how to write
–Not being good enough
–Being too good
–Putting yourself and your words out in the world.
Interestingly, dealing with issues of focus takes immediate care of many, if not all, of these fears. Why? Because choosing to focus is choosing to be in the moment. Choosing fear is opting to be mired in the past or worry about the future. You can't do either when you firmly in the present.
So herewith, some strategies for both fear and focus.
1. Remember that you are enough and have enough for what you need in this present moment. You have all the tools you need to write or create.
2. Have a curiosity about life instead of assuming an air of knowing everything. Be present to the amazement of life.
3. Move before you feel ready. Send that story out even though you know it's not perfect, commit to writing a novel even though you don't know how. Such leaps keep our creative selves alive and are one antidote to fear.
4. Stand for yourself. Take responsibility for yourself and your work. You committed to writing, now do it. For some weird reason this always helps me with my fears.
5. Meditate. Everyone recommends it for a reason. It really does help.
7. Develop a morning ritual and/or spiritual practice that grounds and centers you.
8. Do ONE thing at a time. Multi-tasking is death to focus. My tried and true trick is to set a timer for 30 minutes and only write during that time period.
9. Work hard, play hard. Focus and concentrate. Then take a break and have some fun!
10. Don't forget physical exercise. Move your body in some way, whether you like to take walks, do yoga or Qi Gong, swim or ride bikes. Sometimes we just need to wear the old brain out to get rid of our fears!
Do you have strategies to accomplish focus and banish fear? Please share.
A few years ago, I helped my friend Suzanne sell her photographs at art fairs. The photos were gorgeous shots of flowers, spectacular close-ups.
People would walk by and say, "I don't need to buy one of those, I could take a photo like that."
Um, really? You could get the settings on the camera right so that all the detail popped out, and you also had the eye that could make the creative angle of the shot pop out? Really, you could?
A couple weeks ago, my husband and I were flipping through the TV channels on a Friday night when we landed on the coverage of Nik Wallenda's tightrope walk over Niagara Falls. Talk about inspiring. But news reports featured people's doubts because ABC made him wear a harness:
"Onlooker Gary Neal was disappointed.
'I reckon I could do it myself with a safety harness,' he laughed. 'That takes the excitement away for me.'"
Really? You could stroll on over that high wire, with spray from the Falls blinding you and wind whipping you? Without any training?
Both of these are examples of naysaying. And naysaying is an example of fear.
Naysaying is what we sometimes do instead of creativity. We say, "yeah, but" in order to take down the person who has actually gone out in the world and done something creative, the person who walks the highwire or takes gorgeous photographs. We want to take them down to make them more like us, we who are not actively being creative and daring.
I've found myself doing it with other writers:
"Yeah, but, even though the book is a bestseller, it's poorly written." (Fifty Shades of Gray, anybody?) The fact remains that the book has struck a huge chord and its an enormous accomplishment.
We do it in order to somehow diminish the other person's accomplishment. And what it really does is diminish ourselves.
Fear is like that. It's a sneaky bastard, and it'll overwhelm you in a variety of guises. One way it acts is to make you inauthentic, to make you scared of being yourself. Because diminishing yourself and your authentic creativity is the ultimate naysaying act.
Which is why I am THRILLED to announce a class that I'm offering with Karen Caterson, better known as Square-Peg Karen, on Authenticity + Creativity. It's an affordable one-session class coming up on July 10th and we'll be getting to the heart of this topic.
I won't recap all the details here, when there is a perfectly lovely page that explains it all that you can click over to right here. We'd love to have you join us!
What about you? Have you ever naysayed before? Or do you diminish your creativity in other sneaky ways?