Kit Dunsmore asked: How do you deal with the different stages of a writing project, especially the ones that are least natural for you?
A: At the personal level, what stops me from pushing through the unfamiliar is always fear. Fear that I’ll fail, that I’ll be mediocre, that I’ll be mocked, irrelevant.
But I understand that these same issues follow and inhibit me wherever I go — whether it’s in the classroom when I advocate for my child, at a car dealership when I’m making a purchase, or when standing before the mirror and deciding between white and vermillion blouses. (My advice is to ditch them both for the Mr. Bean t-shirt. You can’t go wrong with Mr. Bean.)
I don’t like to be afraid or to mute myself. Frankly, it pisses me off. And since I can’t escape the desire to break from safety into something bigger, why not face it down in the one place I’ve always yearned to be: writing?
Let writing serve as life’s crucible.
With this orientation, no matter how long I flail — and trust me, I could teach a PhD-level course in flailing — I seem to return to proactivity and action.
Now, in case that’s way too deep and personal of an answer for you, below are more concrete suggestions. I used them to babystep myself through medical training, family practice, and twenty-six years of marriage to the same, long-suffering man. So far they’re helping me in this world, too.
You’ll notice I’m explaining through extended metaphor. If you’re like me, you’re an overthinker; story can hit a different part of the brain, closer to where fear originates.
You’ve entered a gourmet restaurant in pursuit of the ultimate dessert. You’re prepared for the prices and snooty waitstaff, but not the plate that’s set before you. This chef is eccentric, your waiter informs you. You may have your cake — possibly — but you must first eat the octopus. Every last bite.
How do you cope?
If you’re like most people, you begin with rebellion. Alas, no matter whether you employ charm, negotiation, or threats, the waiter remains unmoved. He tosses a Byron Katie quotation in your face: “When you argue with reality you lose, but only 100% of the time.”
This is where some will drop out. They know their heart. They’re not willing to eat the octopus for any amount of sweets.
Others almost immediately shrug and reach for their utensils. When they catch you staring in horrified fascination, from around a dangling tentacle, they utter a, “Wha—?”
If you’re a member of either group, you’re probably at peace. You’re living aligned with your values.
But what if you’re in the third party? What if you think you want the dessert, but you’ve never tasted it to be certain it’ll be worth the effort? What if the thought of ingesting something with a beak and eight legs makes you want to puke?
A few principles:
1. It’s natural to want to study the problem first.
Prudence isn’t a bad thing, especially if it means you’ll skip food poisoning. Gathering useful tools can save time. You come to this restaurant with a familiar learning style — whether it’s to watch an expert, get a cookbook, take a course, etc. Go with your strengths.
But beware staying in preparation too long. Eating is about action. It’s not necessary to know the scientific name of your octopus’s species. You’re in trouble if you’re knitting him booties and calling him Blinky, yet haven’t tested his weight in your palm.
So yes, prepare. But whenever you think you can eat, do. Immediately. There’s nothing like taking a bite of octopus to build confidence that you can handle taking a bite of octopus.
2. Eat the worst first every time you sit to table.
That way, when you have a bad day and find yourself balking at a tentacle, you can legitimately say, “I already ate an eyeball. How hard can this be?”
On the bad days, if all you do is tie the napkin around your neck and manage a nibble, do it. It keeps your head in the game. That’s one less nibble for tomorrow. You might also discover your appetite.
3. Celebrate each time you finish a milestone, either privately or with other patrons.
4. Don’t dwell on how much you hate the process. Victimhood equals nausea.
5. Pick the people at your table carefully.
Hang around with the eaters and not the people who think it’s hilarious to make gagging sounds right when you’re lifting fork to mouth. Bravery is contagious. Borrow courage from the eaters. Borrow their thinking processes. Borrow their recipes and watch how they negotiate with the chef for ketchup. Ask them to watch your eating technique and give you pointers.
Most of all, hang with the ones who by word and deed imply a quiet expectation of good things from you.
6. Pass it on.
Share your own bravery or eating competence, not just with people who need it, but with the people who help you put butt in chair. You’ll feel better, and your own appetite will be strengthened.
7. Make a practice of remembering when you ate or did strange things before and it turned out better than expected.
8. When you stall-out, go into problem-solving mode.
Is the issue your heart or your tools? Do you need a break for a while – some sherbet to cleanse the palate? Do you need to take care of your body, relationships, finances, greater life?
Many people try to flog themselves or shame themselves into eating more, or compare themselves to others. Long term this doesn’t work. It only magnifies anxiety which, in turn, contributes to nausea. As in life, when it comes to eating octopi, “carrot” makes a better side dish than “stick.”
9. Keep your eye on the “why.”
As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Why do you want the chocolate cake? What does it represent for you? Are there benefits to finishing besides the dessert? Might your children learn bravery at the table? Might you see yourself differently? Might you learn it’s not the end of the world to look silly in front of others? Get conscious of all the things you gain in both the attempt and the achievement.
10. See the unknown as opportunity and mystery.
Be honest with yourself: aren’t you the teeniest bit curious about how it feels to poke the tip of your tongue into the concavity of a sucker? Don’t you want to see if you’ve got it in you? Maybe you can have a swordfight with a tentacle; dip it in water and use it to lick a stamp; create a tentacle-shaped popsicle and make millions. Mystery can equal fun.
11. Use resources to keep your head in the game. Some of my favorites:
- Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment – by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott
- The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication by Ralph Keyes
- L.J. Cohen’s recent post here, Accentuate the Positive: Hope and the Aspiring Writer
- The Forest for the Trees (Revised and Updated): An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
- Byron Katie — the site’s not specific to writing, but it’ll teach you to kick limiting beliefs to the curb. Check out the resource page and the videos.
Now how about you folks? Any other tidbits you can offer on pushing through fear of the unknown? Don’t feel you have to stay with the octopus metaphor, but bonus points if you do.
Let’s cast a wide net. ;)