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The Elephant in My Living Room

Therese here to introduce our newest regular contributor, Kim Bullock [1]. If you’re a part of WU’s Facebook community [2], you’ll certainly be no stranger to Kim, who has long been a part of the Mod Squad there. Kim has also become a valued right hand for me here at Writer Unboxed, and as one of WU’s two Assistant Editors (along with Julia Munroe Martin) is a big part of the reason my sanity is mostly intact. When Kim’s longtime blog, What Women Write, was shuttered, it seemed the right time to see if she might like to bring some of her writerly wisdom to WU. Luckily for all of us, she accepted. Welcome, Kim!

Flickr Creative Commons: David Blackwell [3]
Flickr Creative Commons: David Blackwell

Let me start with a confession.

It’s something I’ve told no one. Not my former blogging partners at What Women Write. Not my friends here at Writer Unboxed. Not my parents, my children, and certainly not my spouse.

Those who attended the WU UnConference with me last November would never have known I carried a secret shame, that there was a reason why the laptop I’d dutifully dragged with me from Dallas remained closed.

With the exception of blog posts, I had written nothing for half a year.

I started each day with the best of intentions. I’d open my manuscript to that same damn spot in the middle of page 242.  After staring at my blinking cursor until I wanted to throw the laptop across the room, I’d scroll back to the beginning of the chapter and read it over. Every day I wondered why the person who had written that polished prose could no longer compose a sentence she’d let live.

The words flowed in my head while grocery shopping or stuck in traffic. I woke from dreams so vivid it took half the day to feel grounded in this century. I imagined my protagonist’s face superimposed over my own in the mirror. I saw my story as my hero saw his paintings; each brushstroke clear before ever setting brush to canvas.

The image vanished the moment my fingers touched the keyboard.

I might still be stuck on page 242 had I not attended Donald Maass’ 21st Century Fiction Workshop on the last day of the UnCon. One of the many questions he posed to us that day was this: What is your greatest fear?

I fear a lot of things. A tragedy involving my children, losing a parent or my spouse, tornadoes, doctors, having blood drawn, wasps, knives, night driving, large social situations, flying, pain, feeling shunned, failure and, of course, death. I nearly wrote down the latter because, let’s face it, that’s a biggie that will happen to everyone eventually.

Fear of death was not what made me set aside a story that literally pulses through my veins in favor of dust bunny eradication, though. There was another, more immediate, fear wreaking havoc on my psyche. One I happen to share with my protagonist. Go figure.

A revelation from the UnCon. [4]
A revelation from the UnCon.

I fear success as much as I want it.

Seeing that sentence written in my own handwriting still shocks me. Of course I want to break my long trend of being “thisclose” to The Call. I want the publishing contract, the book tour, and the validation that would come with at last being invited to join the author table.

And yet each time I’ve received an agent reply in my inbox my anticipation has been laced with panic. My disappointment is tinged with…relief.

I wonder if fear of success is behind a lot of writerly self-sabotage habits.

I’d covered this proverbial elephant in my living room with a soft blanket and used her as a chaise lounge for years, but the time had come to admit I needed a chair that didn’t smell ripe and cause cricks in my back.

If you, too, have an elephant you’d like to banish, here are some things to consider.

Remove all decorations

Once you strip her bare and see how much she’s blocking your view, you won’t want her to remain.

Write a list of reasons why you have let her stay

What exactly do you fear? Here were a few of mine: Will the life my kids have come to expect be disrupted? Could I handle deadlines and the stress of marketing one book and writing another at the same time? Could I avoid the pitfalls of the publishing world? What would happen if my future editor and I had a vision clash?

Do these reasons justify keeping her?

Most worries on my list were silly. My kids are fourteen and ten, not toddlers, and there are three perfectly capable and willing adults to get them to where they need to go. Deadlines, while stressful, make me prolific. I have a fantastic support system of writer friends, many of whom have run the publishing gauntlet and survived.

How many of your reasons are easily dismissed?

What if there are real concerns?

Do you have small children or other dependents? This may be a valid reason to delay leaping into the publishing world, but there’s nothing wrong with writing a novel or two while you wait. Do you lack connections? Start cultivating some. Follow your favorite authors. Join writing groups. WU’s Facebook group [2] is a great place to start.

This exercise taught me that I was paralyzed by fear of not getting the story right. I had too many outside expectations, many conflicting, of what should be included. Earlier drafts had not worked because I had shared my work too early and taken too much advice. In trying to placate everyone, I had silenced my own voice.

I wish I could say that I came home from Salem and found my elephant gone. She was a bit portly and didn’t fit through the door right away. Each day I opened my manuscript and told myself, “Just write the story. No one has to see this.” The elephant lost a pound or two during each writing session, and one morning in late May I realized she was gone.

I had just typed “The End.”

What fear most sabotages your writing? Have you been able to overcome it? If so, how?

About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [5], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.