Embrace the Naked

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(photo by flickr’s alice popkorn)

I talk a lot about digging deeper in the writing process and putting more of our true selves on the page. It occurred to me about halfway through my second post on the subject that at some point I was going to have to address how to protect oneself in light of all that truth talking and self exposing. But I was okay with that because I’d just embarked on my own journey to discover that very thing! I was absolutely certain that I’d be back here in a few months with Seven Tips for Self Protection, or Five Key Ways For Writers to Protect Their Emotional Selves. No lie—the working title for this post for the last few months has been Shields Up! because I was certain I would come back here with answers on how to shield oneself.

Well, Dear Reader, I was wrong. Sadly and horribly wrong.

The truth, I have discovered, is much more complex than that.

As writers, we are utterly exposed the moment we put pen to paper. Which is probably why even considering writing can be an act of tremendous courage.

All of that is bad enough, but when we’re diving deeper and deeper to make our stories more authentically our own, when we commit to trying for a creative home run rather than just getting to first base, it is inevitable that we will have more invested in our books—more heart, more soul, more blood, sweat, tears and lamentations.

And if you think that it’s scary to intentionally put more and more of yourself on the page, to become more and more vulnerable, you’re right.

For some, it will never be a problem—they were born with a core sense of self and confidence that makes others weep with envy. But for the rest of us, those for whom this is a struggle, those for whom this is a Great Barrier of Fear, here’s the kicker: part of the journey of creation is about learning how to get comfortable getting naked. It’s about how we learn to step out of and away from everyone else’s expectations and assumptions and be our own selves, proudly and comfortably, warts, quirks, foibles, and all.

Maybe, maybe that’s even the reason some of us are drawn to creative pursuits in the first place—because that journey will force us to grow for our art in ways we would be hard pressed to grow without it.

So when you are that exposed on the page, that fully committed to your work and your vision, how do you protect yourself from the inevitable negative reviews and reader reactions? Let alone keep from feeling as if you are walking around naked while everyone else is garbed in heavy layers of thick rhino hide or steel plate.

The answer?

You can’t.

I’m hugely sorry I don’t have something more encouraging to report, but that’s the truth. Or at least, it has been for me. Here’s what I have learned.

You simply can’t make good art and stay covered up at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. A creative path is not about least resistance or playing it safe—by its very nature it is about casting off layers and dancing along edges that others fear to tread. If you do that from a place of fear, your steps will falter, your rhythm stumble, your movements become false and stilted. Holding back in a desire to play it safe is the equivalent of a toddler putting a blankie over his face and believing he has disappeared from sight. Because here’s the truth of it—even when we don’t intend to put parts of ourselves into our books, even when we are clutched up tight with fear and protectionism, pieces of ourselves still find their way onto the pages. It is the very essence of what writers do. We leak and bleed and sweat our way onto the page, even when we think we’re bottled up tight.

The act of writing is not only about claiming our truths, our selves, but having the courage to not apologize when we do. Our writing is where we need to be our bravest and most fearless selves. You can’t write your best work if you’re not all in—and once you’re all in, you’re vulnerable. We don’t serve our audience—our true audience—by holding back.

Authenticity, genuineness, and raw truth are things we admire and respect in others—but it is often terrifying to be those things ourselves—especially in front of possibly thousands of readers.

While of course, intellectually, we may understand that not every reader will like our books, the emotional reality of it is quite different. And I think most writers don’t really anticipate some of the truly intense hatred some readers feel for some books, and that can be very hard to come to terms with when yours is one of those.

The truth is, I feel sad when someone doesn’t connect with a book I’ve written. I want to connect with people through my fiction and feel I’ve failed when I haven’t. On really tough days? That feeling can be closer to shame. And no, I’m not proud of that. I’m rather horrified, actually. All that personal work toward self-empowerment, forgotten in a second. Sometimes I wish I could apologize to the reader; they invested time and energy in my book—time they could have used reading other books. I want to explain to them that I didn’t try to set out and write a boring or shallow book or flat characters or a distant heroine.

But the thing is, chances are that our book isn’t those things—even though some readers respond that way to them. Because the truth is, the writer only writes the first half of the book, it is the reader herself that writes the second part of the book. All that white space we leave in the book is filled in by the reader’s own personality, world view, and expectations, and there is simply no way we can control that. And if we tried to control that by adjusting our stories to gain those readers approval, we could very well destroy the parts that created such a strong, resonant connection with other readers.

It’s not about pleasing ALL readers, but about finding OUR readers, our tribe. Those people who are fascinated by the same things we are, who ask the same questions, who look at the world through a similar lens, or are at least willing to do so for a short while.

The truth of the matter is, creativity is not a means to an end (publishing); it is a life choice, a way to live. If you want to walk a creative path and live a creative life, you have to get naked with yourself, and be okay with that.

This book I just finished frog marched me kicking and screaming to hard places I didn’t want to go to. It broke me wide open and forced me to face some of the tattered, maggoty parts of my psyche and then, as the deadline drew closer and closer, forced me to put everything back together again—whole and remade and better.

And you know what? I did it. It was the impossible book on the impossible deadline, and I did it. No one, no professional review, no reader reaction can ever take that accomplishment away from me. And for the first time ever, that is enough. I am happy with that. I am proud of the book and simply content to have written it the way that I did. I am well aware that some of the story choices I made may not work for some readers, and for the first time, I’m okay with that, too. I have to say, while it has taken me fifteen books to get here, I love living in this place and find myself wanting to do whatever I can to stay here.

The ideal of perfection is incredibly seductive but it is also unattainable, and the act of pursuing it will cause some of the most interesting and genuine parts of ourselves to wither and fade. But we are, all of us, terrified of being exposed for the fraud we secretly fear ourselves to be.

And therein lies the true power of negative reviews and harsh criticism: it stings not because the people who dole them out mean so very much to us, but because they give external voice to our deepest held fears and suspicions—that even all in, we’re not enough.

But through the act of owning these vulnerabilities, by simply saying quietly, firmly, yeah, I do believe that, I do feel that, those issues are important to me, we immediately remove some of the power such exposure has to shame us.

Writing is about being brave, taking risks, accepting and embracing our essential humanness; it is not about being comfortable or safe or a way to stay invisible.

Accept that.

Embrace the naked

Do the work.

Ignore the rest.

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    I think I’m going to bookmark this and come back and read it whenever I’m getting particularly afraid of what I’m doing.
    Because the things I’ve been most paranoid about putting out in the world have always been the ones that get the strongest reactions from other people. And I think that’s because the things I’m most nervous about are the most honest — when you get down to a raw emotional level people connect with that. (Or that reaction is schadenfreude.)
    I tell myself that those projects make me nervous because I’m working outside my usual constraints, in the badlands and that makes my work better. (Or it makes it freakier and people like to point and laugh.)
    Er. Anyway. It’s lovely to have another voice saying, “Bleed on the page, it’s worth it.”

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    • says

      “Because the things I’ve been most paranoid about putting out in the world have always been the ones that get the strongest reactions from other people. And I think that’s because the things I’m most nervous about are the most honest”

      Yes! This is true! Even for blog posts. :-)

      So glad the piece resonated for you!

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  2. says

    Agatha Christie ran into this problem, and solved it by writing under a penname, Mary Westmacott. Biographers have noted the connections between those books and her inner life, and how the books changed after she was revealed as their writer (she produced two more books afterwards, considered not as good).

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  3. says

    Robin, I think I’m going to have to start a whole “Robin” folder for all the WU posts by you that I bookmark. :)

    So many good things in this one but this line especially rang true for me -“The act of writing is not only about claiming our truths, our selves, but having the courage to not apologize when we do.”

    It reminds me of something Don Maass said at the BONI Conference (Orlando 2012.) He talked about being a more fearless writer, and it’s something I’ve been working toward ever since. Now, not only will I do that, I will do my best to no longer apologize for it either. :)

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    • says

      I like your comment on ”The act of writing is not only about claiming our truths, our selves, but having the courage to not apologize when we do.”

      For me it’s not that I don’t have the courage to write the truth, I have lots of courage when I’m sitting here just me and my laptop, its the editing that catches me-makes me question-do I really want to say that-do I want people to know that about me. And because everything I am currently writing has grown out of my personal experiences the result is most attacks will feel a bit personal.

      But that is my problem and I’ll have to live with it if I want to move forward. And I do want to move on. But no doubt some days it is scary and other days the injustice of it all pushes me forward.

      It is reassuring that so many of the writer/readers have these concerns. Thanks for all the great comments.

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    • says

      Would it be wrong for me to say how very flattered I am at the idea of there being a Robin folder??

      And as for apologizing–oy! One year, one of my sons pointed out just how often I apologized for stuff. It was rather painfully eye opening and I have been really working on that ever since.

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  4. says

    Robin, what a great post. Thanks for sharing the truth about negative opinions about your book. It’s true we all have to deal with them, whether it’s a critique or a review of a published. Thanks for sharing how to handle it.

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  5. says

    Robin, In reading your post, I finally found a positive in my lack of boundaries – thank you!

    Honestly, I’m one of the ones who don’t have a problem with feeling I have to protect myself. I’m not sure logic will help those of you who do, but I’ll try to offer tips.

    When I write, I write for me, for the characters, and for Stephen King’s ‘constant reader’ – the ideal reader in my head.

    That allows me to be wide open, and pour what is needed on the page.

    When it’s done, revised and submitted, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, it becomes my product. It’s something I sell. A widget.

    Now I’m not saying I no longer care about it, or that bad reviews won’t hurt. But I think they hurt me less than most.

    Because if you’re selling cookies at a bake sale, are you devastated because one person doesn’t like the oatmeal ones? No. You assume it’s personal taste, right?

    Works for me…

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    • says

      Laura, this is a FABULOUS strategy, if one can swing it. I especially like that cookie analogy.
      (Or maybe I’m just hungry…)

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  6. says

    Bravo! Just reading this post was like a journey. I started out shivering and naked, and feeling vulnerable about having to be vulnerable–and with no shields! Then you brought me along to feeling that it could somehow be accomplished. After that you had me bloating with dread, imaging hateful reviews. But you quickly expelled my dread with the hiemlich of the apparent wisdom that we can’t please all, and that–if we’ve really exposed ourselves–we can obviously only really connect with certain readers–our tribe. And finally you puffed me up again, but this time with determination and fortitude for what must be done. Phew.

    Yesterday Alex said he was thinking of tattooing Lisa’s WU post on his forearm. Today, Robin, you gave me my tattoo in those last three lines. This is pure awesomeness! Thank you.

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  7. Carmel says

    Yes, yes, yes!! “Because the truth is, the writer only writes the first half of the book, it is the reader herself that writes the second part of the book.”

    We can’t protect ourselves as we write (and shouldn’t), but we can protect ourselves afterward. Don’t read reviews, remember no one else is perfect either, and be thankful for all the good things that have come from our faults.

    Ha! This is from someone who doesn’t have her book out there yet. ;o)

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    • says

      ” Don’t read reviews, remember no one else is perfect either, and be thankful for all the good things that have come from our faults.”

      Definitely words to live by, Carmel!

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  8. Stephanie Claypool says

    Robin, thanks for the timely advice. I think I started writing in a closet, hidden away. Then I moved to the cafe, at least the public saw me. I maybe naked now, but the lights are off. You’ve convinced me it’s time to turn them on.

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  9. says

    Soooo needed to hear/read this today. Thanks. Best parts (for me):
    “…the writer only writes the first half of the book, it is the reader herself that writes the second part of the book.”
    “It’s not about pleasing ALL readers, but about finding OUR readers, our tribe.”
    YES! Great attitude. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  10. says

    Thank you, Robin! Your post made me remember the time some girlfriends and I went to one of those women-only Korean Spas . . . where everyone’s just walking around naked, and it ain’t no big thing.

    Because I tend to go about my day fully clothed, it initially felt so weird to be walking around naked, going into the hot tub naked, getting out of the hot tub naked, going into the other whirlpool naked, all the while thinking, “I gotta act like I’m totally fine being naked, when really, all I am thinking about is OH MY GOSH I AM NAKED!!!”

    But then I started to notice all the beautiful bodies, especially the old lady bodies, and you know what? Those ladies don’t give a fig that they are soft and saggy. And that woman over there has clearly never spent time at the gym. And she doesn’t care! Why? Because they are who they are, and who they are is beautiful.

    And once you notice that, being naked gets easier. You kind of start not to care because no one else cares and really, you’re just there to relax and feel good.

    Of course, if there were a bunch of Amazon Reviewers giving my nakedness a certain number of stars, that would have been not so relaxing.

    BUT what I realized, the longer I was there, was that there’s the immense freedom that comes when you willing to carry on, sans clothing, because you are really saying that you know that your own imperfect beauty is good enough, and that’s just about the most liberating thing in the world. When I see writers (and other creative types) baring themselves, I think, rock on. You are one brave and beautiful mutha, you naked person, you!

    Thanks so much, Robin!

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    • says

      “There’s the immense freedom that comes when you willing to carry on, sans clothing, because you are really saying that you know that your own imperfect beauty is good enough, and that’s just about the most liberating thing in the world.”

      Yes!!! I loved your entire comment, but especially that part. I so wish more of us could find our way to that place earlier in life…

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  11. Jeannine Thibodeau says

    Wow, oh, WOW! Thank you for this post, Robin! I’ve already bookmarked it so I can come back and read it again and again.

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  12. says

    I’ve highlighted and shared so many lines from this post with my crit group, but in spite of all my favorites, the ones I most needed right now were: “Do the work. Ignore the rest.”

    Thanks for this wonderful and encouraging post, Robin.

    Like sports, so much of the “game” of writing is not about natural ability or talent, but about mentality. You’ve just coached me back into today’s match.

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  13. says

    Admittedly, I was drawn here by the use of “naked” in the post title. Still, I’m glad that I came. This post addresses a very tough question in the life of every writer: Are you ready to put yourself out there? To me, I think this one of the advantages of the traditional publishing model. If the “gatekeepers” said it was good enough, it seemed to offer a shield of sorts. Sure, there would be bad reviews, but the wise ones on the mountain had said it was good enough. Great, even. So enduring the bad reviews and the comments of awful trolls probably wasn’t so hard. For self-published authors taking advantage of new electronic publishing paradigms, the question may — and should — return tenfold. Without the imprimatur of a big publishing house, you might end up believing the negative responses and feeling the bite of the attacks. But the answer to this is in the post as well. “Find your tribe.” If you’re putting your heart, your naked self, into your writing, then it will have value to those readers who see the world much as you do. So you put it out there, you find them, you take away from constructive criticism what you can, and you ignore the haters. Great post!

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  14. Aaron Phelps says

    Even though I KNOW this is true for most writers, its really nice to read it and know that you’re not the only person. I struggle with putting myself out there a lot and that fear has been crippling for my career. So thanks for this.

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  15. says

    God, this is good. I’ve long felt that we have to be thin-skinned as writers to deeply absorb the world–and that makes us vulnerable to harsh words via reviews, critiques, etc… But we have to learn to live with it.

    I recently had the experience of getting “more real” with an aspect of my story. I knew I was skirting the edges of personal experience and was handling the topic too shallowly because I didn’t want to go there out of fear. Then I just did it, to the extent that I pulled out a journal page and added bits from the page to the manuscript. It was scary, but it was the right thing to do for the story.

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    • says

      “I’ve long felt that we have to be thin-skinned as writers to deeply absorb the world–and that makes us vulnerable to harsh words via reviews, critiques, etc… ”

      Oh, I so, SO agree with this, Therese!

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  16. says

    What a wonderful post! I think this element of writing — finding the way to expose yourself, to be vulnerable — is one of the hardest challenges. You can learn every element of craft and until you’re willing to put yourself on the page and make it personal, make it MATTER, you’ll fall short.

    When you talk of protecting yourself, I think it’s the same as falling in love. You can’t protect yourself from getting hurt, it’s impossible. It happens. You KNOW it will happen. That, in itself, is the protection. But the incredible joy and vibrancy that comes from being in love is worth the moments of pain, so we rush forward and forget about what might come later.

    Every step of the way in writing my most recent book, I worried that it was too much, not right, didn’t fit, no one would want it. Turns out they did. I received an offer for it in December. But I KNOW that wouldn’t have happened if I’d listened to those fears and played it safe.

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    • says

      It IS one of the hardest challenges, Jeannie! And I love the falling in love analogy.

      Congratulations on NOT playing it safe, and congratulations on the offer for your book!

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  17. says

    This is so very true. I have compared it to that moment during labor when you realize that, with your feet in the stirrups and your gown hiked up, that the last fifteen people in and out of the room got a full-on view of your nether-regions.

    In fact, writing is pretty much exactly like that.

    Hugs to you, and thanks for speaking the truth.

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  18. says

    Writing as crucible? I agree.

    Medicine is the same. You have a choice of how to manage the pain you witness: disengage emotionally, feel battered, or take what feels like an enormous risk and go deep. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m enormously stubborn. It took years and overwhelming circumstances to crack me open, but when it happened, it was the Best Thing Ever. The next time was easier. The time after that, still a challenge, but I was buoyed by self-trust.

    Writing feels even harder. I think it’s because it’s self-imposed. No one will die or be crippled if I don’t go the right way, except me. It’s like forging the crucible, volunteering to be fuel, and then setting the match to oneself. And yet, who wants to quit? ;)

    Love this, Robin. Thank you for your honestly.

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  19. says

    I couldn’t resist. I pulled out most of my favorite bits (though not all of them) and posted them all over my profile and author page on Facebook. Just couldn’t help myself.

    Obviously, your words resonated. Thank you.

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  20. says

    Wow, Robin. Very powerful words. And some I needed, 18 days before my debut launches. The last time I remember being this excited and terrified at the same time, I was walking into the hospital to deliver my first baby.

    Congratulations on finding your happy place, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  21. says

    I love the idea of a creative life, and I feel like you handled it in a way that is so much more than the classic “starving artist.” Growing up, we were all about “good thoughts” my house (something I still think has great superpowers for bad moods). However, since I started writing fiction, I let my brain wander to places maybe it shouldn’t, all the while feeling confident in the truth and the fiction of my brain.

    The wandering makes for much more interesting writing!

    Thanks for a compelling blog. Well worth the read.

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  22. says

    This is so tightly connected to how I want to approach my writing this year it makes my head spin. Thank you for digging so deep for this post — it’s one of the best pieces on the writing life I’ve read … ever. [And I have shelves full of books on the writing life and craft and pages of links and quotes ;) ]

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  23. says

    Thanks, Robin. We don’t always think of writing as something that requires courage but unless we expose ourselves, the writing will always be bland. Tugging at my blankie….

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  24. says

    Wow! This was quite the kick in the pants. I don’t know if I’m more nervous or less about my writing now, but I know I’m inspired. Thanks!!

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  25. says

    Beautifully written, Robin. Yes and yes and yes. The keys: Come out of hiding, write for yourself, enjoy the process, do your best work, strive for excellence not perfection, and ‘ignore the rest’. Yep!

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  26. says

    Robin, I really, really needed to read this, so thank you. I hate feeling like I’ve disappointed some readers. But you are so right; we have to let the book go and let readers write the second half of the book. I keep telling myself – let it go. And stay away from reviews until I don’t care so much. For now, the best thing I can do, I think, is to put my sensitive soul to work writing another book.

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  27. says

    Robin, just gotta say, I’ve spent all morning reading all of your posts here at WU and printing several. You are awesome incarnate. You really should consider pulling together a book for writers. Thanks for sharing so much important fodder for much thought.

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    • says

      I agree with Joni,
      All the other books tell us how to structure our writing but few tell us how we will feel and how we need to feel to be true to our topic. Few describe their fear of baring their souls and how intimidating it is. Every post that has followed the first one has provided support for those of us who are worrying about exposing their feelings. It is liberating to hear so many admit to concerns or to tell how they over come and believe that it is the only way to go.

      I was and still am in complete agreement but I had to come back again today for reassurance. I am half way through the last edit before I find a critique group. At page 89 I thought “oh my God what am I doing! Am I crazy?”

      And that’s why I’m back and have read them all again. I’m off to complete my edits. Thank you all sharing your thoughts.

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  28. Catherine Knutsson says

    Robin, I’m new in these parts, but wanted to thank you for your words. I worked as a classical musician for years, and thought I understood what “being naked” was like (after all, one of my teachers said that singing Mozart was singing naked) and how to prepare myself for that, but…I was wrong.

    I keep on trying to write things to say what’s in my heart, about how difficult I’ve found the transition from a writer to being an author, but I’m not sure I’m in the right headspace for that, so instead, I will just say: thank you. I needed this today.

    All the best to you!

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  29. says

    This paragraph, Robin, holds so much power. “You simply can’t make good art and stay covered up at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. A creative path is not about least resistance or playing it safe—by its very nature it is about casting off layers and dancing along edges that others fear to tread…”

    Your post is so timely for me, and so validating. Several months ago, with the help of Steven Pressfield’s TURNING PRO and a few other events, I realized I was writing protected and almost constantly protecting. Now I’m not.

    The writing is completely different.

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  30. says

    When my first novel came out in September, I felt so exposed–and kind of afraid. Not that I cared if folks would like it or not–that is their choice–but now people would finally see a part of my soul. It would be out there, naked, and they would KNOW.

    It was harder than I thought. I just wanted to hide for a while, but you can’t hide when a book is coming out, can you? It just felt like so much of me was OUT THERE already, you know?

    Anyway, very resonant post. Very.

    xo-

    Shelley

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  31. cindy says

    Wonderful and inspiring post. What’s the name of the book you just finished that’s mentioned here? I would love to read it. I’m sure I will love it.

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  32. says

    Robin, oh my goodness, Robin. This is perhaps the most lovely, brilliant, profound, insightful, thoughtful, honest, true, meaningful, beautiful, inspiring, perfect piece on the true art of writing…and life.

    This post sums up living a meaningful, authentic LIFE.

    If I could applause and light my lighter for an encore I would.

    Damn, girl. Testify up in here. AMEN. *claps*

    Thank you. THANK YOU. <3

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  33. says

    Wow. Just what I needed to read this morning as my the ARC of my first soon-to-published book begins winging its way out into the world. I thought rejections were hard to take but I’m feeling intense nausea at the idea of people I know (and people I don’t know) reading this book of mine. And at the same time, I’m working on a revision of another book and wondering if I’m up for doing this all over again.
    Thanks for reminding me that this is no time to play it safe. Taking risks, going All In–that’s what you have to do.

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