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The Art of Falling, or How to Overcome Your Fear of Face-planting

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photo by sara’mer

I’ve recently started taking aerial silks classes. For the unfamiliar, they’re long silken cloths – sometimes two loose pieces and sometimes one connected ‘hammock’ – that hang from the ceiling, which you use to perform acrobatic tricks on. You might have seen them in circus acts or in some of Pink’s music videos. I have a background in dance and a distaste for boring exercise, so it seemed right up my alley.

I’ve been to a handful of classes so far (at the time of this writing, which is now a few months old), learning how to climb the silks, how to lock myself off with foot wraps, how to twist and hold myself in certain poses, beginner spins, and other basics. This morning, I went to class and performed my first big “drop.”

Yeah, a drop is exactly what it sounds like.

First I inverted myself in the hammock in my lotus pose. Those of you familiar with yoga know lotus well; for aerial, just flip it upside down. (Believe it or not, aerial yoga is a thing!) Then I pulled myself up into my diaper wrap, which sounds just about as glamorous as it feels (egads, the bruises). Next I straightened my legs and leaned forward through my silks holding on behind my head so I was flying upright like superman, held by the fabric wrapped around my thighs and hips. Then I separated my legs, bent my knees, took a deep breath, and… took another deep breath, and took another deep breath…

And thought of the perfect metaphor.

Hey, is anyone surprised? What writer can resist the perfect metaphor?

It’s just that I was so scared. This drop in particular is nerve-wracking because you’re diving face-first towards the floor (or in this case, the big safety mat – don’t worry, Mom). Do you know how hard it is to look directly at the ground from several yards up in the air and fall forward? The human body has spent millions of years evolving to resist the face-plant.

I knew a week in advance that we’d be doing the big drop in that class, but still I was scared. And if there’s any emotion in my life that has taught me the most lessons, it has to be fear. (Again: horror writer.) But really, what writer doesn’t have to face fear on a regular basis? We have to overcome fear to choose to write, to tell people we write, to write the things we truly, deeply want to write [2] no matter how dark or embarrassing or intimidating, to show people what we write, to submit what we write, to publish what we write, to do it all again and again even in the face of criticism and failure. Hell, fear is practically my assistant at this point. Maybe it can bring me the coffee.

So when I hung up there, perched in position for my drop, hesitating, I recognized it. Ah, I thought. This is fear again. Hello, you.

I’d done my prep-work. I’d taken my safety course. I’d listened carefully to instruction and asked questions as needed. I’d watched the example several times. I’d done the easier drops first to get used to the jolt of it – the feeling of letting go and having a piece of fabric catch you in the hips or under the arms. I double checked my posture: chest up to the ceiling, neck relaxed, hips forward, legs bent and apart, toes pointed. All I needed to do was let go.

My instructor said, “Inhale, exhale, close your eyes, and drop.”

I inhaled. I exhaled. Because I’ve always had a little bit of secret rebel in me, I kept my eyes open. I let go.

I fell forward, arms out, legs spinning over my head as I plummeted toward the ground. Then the fabric caught my lower back exactly as it was supposed to and I flipped again, swinging upright and sliding down until my armpits caught me and I came to a giddy stop. I did it! I executed a flawless drop on the first try, and my face never kissed the floor.

Oh y’all, a girl could get addicted to this. (A girl already has if we’re being honest.) The challenge, the fear, the moment of trust, the utter abandon. The triumph. Indeed, this is what life is all about.

It’s also what writing is all about. How do we let go when it looks like we’re headed straight for a face-plant? It’s exactly like a drop in silks: you do your prep work. You don’t just climb up something high and swan-dive off. That’s madness, and a great way to get hurt (or dead). You learn, you work hard, you earn your bruises, you build your way up with smaller, less scary drops to get the feel of things, and you grow confident with your technique. Only then do you set up the bigger drop and let go.

My instructor has said three very useful things that make me metaphor-happy.

First: If you’re ever at the top of your drop and it doesn’t feel right, back down. If you’re not certain that you’ve set yourself up correctly, don’t risk it. Come down and do it again. So if you’re about to send your manuscript out to an agent because you met them at that conference and they sounded really excited, but a little nagging feeling is telling you you’ve actually rushed your editing and it isn’t quite ready yet, step back and take another month to do it right. The agent will still be there when the book is really ready. (And if they’re not, thank goodness you dodged that bullet.)

Second: When it comes to aerial, it’s really not a matter of if you get hurt, but when. (Sorry, Mom.) If you’re doing something inherently dangerous, you have to accept the risks. No matter how hard you work and how good you are, sometimes you’ll botch it. You have to be ready to walk away with a sprain, a silks burn, some really ripe bruises. The good news: you probably won’t face-plant. More likely, you’ll fling yourself backwards or slam your feet into the mat. (I mean, you could face-plant. I’m not going to lie to you. But you prooooobably won’t.) It’s the same with writing, but switch the body for the heart and/or ego. Any time you put your work out there for submission or public consumption, you have to be prepared for rejection or public criticism. It’s just a fact of the sport. If you can’t accept that, don’t climb the silks. I’m not being snarky, either; I mean it. Not everything is about publication. If you don’t want the stress of public consumption, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with keeping your writing private.

Third: The way you’ll eventually get hurt is by not trusting yourself. If you’ve done your prep work and checked your posture, and no warning signs are telling you to wait, when you decide to let go: let go. You have to trust that you’ve set yourself up right and that the silks will catch you. If you try to grab something at the last minute or stick your arms back in or do something funky to slow your drop or “break your fall,” you’ll end up painfully tangled or painfully on the floor instead of in your fabric. Once you’ve made the decision, trust yourself. If you’ve honed your craft, gotten your feedback, revised your work, done your research, and feel you’re ready… you probably are. Your gut knows. (See lesson number one.) Send out that story. Query that agent. Write that book. If you’re ready to drop; drop. You’ve got this.

I can tell you that each time you drop it gets easier. (And you want to climb higher and learn harder tricks, but that’s a blog for another day.) The only way you can ever feel the elation of landing a perfect drop is by letting go.

What scary drop have you been avoiding? Do you need to listen to your gut and back down, or do you need to trust yourself and let go? And are you willing to accept any bruises or ego dents that may come?

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About Annie Neugebauer [3]

Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet with work appearing in over fifty venues, including Apex, Black Static, and Fireside. She's an active member of the Horror Writers Association and webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas. In addition to Writer Unboxed, she's also a columnist for LItReactor. She's represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. When Annie’s not frightening strangers with her writing, she’s most likely frightening her husband and their two cats, Buttons and Snaps.