I talk about fear and bravery a lot because they’re big parts of my writing life—and not just because I write horror. I encourage writers (including myself) to be brave and take risks. Ideally the groundwork of education, hard work, and patience is already laid so they’re smart risks. But once it is, we can’t get anywhere truly special without facing down fear and going for it. I believe that down to my bones.
And yet, sometimes risks don’t pay off. Sometimes we face fear only to fail. Sometimes boldness and bravery still aren’t enough.
What do we do when risks go wrong?
This is something I’ve struggled with quite often, I’m afraid. Part of being a big dreamer and a big risk-taker is failing a lot. There are all kinds of trite sayings about how failing just proves you tried, that it’s one step closer to succeeding, etc., but those things aren’t very comforting to me when I’m in that heartache phase. Not much is, to be honest.
That’s why I’m a big believer in giving myself time to grieve. When a risk goes wrong, I let myself take time to mourn the loss. Depending on exactly how big that risk was, that might mean taking a few moments with tears stinging my eyes or it might mean a week of changing course or it might even mean months of licking my wounds. I don’t mean that I throw an epic pity party or wallow in it just for the sake of wallowing; I just mean that I respect my emotions. They’re an unavoidable human reaction. Why pretend we can stop them?
Of course that also entails understanding when to move on. Some hurts can be kept fresh for far longer than they need to be, and that doesn’t benefit anyone. I wish there was a formula or some easy wisdom on this one, but if there is, I haven’t found it yet. All I know is that at some point, we need to move forward.
Often, moving forward means making new plans and/or setting new goals and accepting that these, too, come with inherent risk. If they’re worth anything, they have to. No risk, no gain, right? But how do we let ourselves risk again when we know how badly it can hurt when it goes wrong?
I take an eyes wide open approach. I’ve found, over much trial and error, that I cope better in the case of failure if I’m aware of the possible repercussions before I take that leap. It helps me brace for the worst, yes, but it also helps me be realistic in weighing my options. There are times when the risk really isn’t worth it. There’s no shame in acknowledging that. We don’t have to bully ourselves into things we aren’t actually ready for just to get bravery points.
So I brainstorm my options. I weigh the best outcomes against each other, and the worst. Often this involves making lists or talking it out with my husband or a writing friend. Occasionally, on really sticky situations, it might mean emailing my agent or mentor or an outside resource who has some special experience or knowledge. This also involves emotional honesty, because quite often the risks are less concrete (expense, energy, time) and more nebulous (embarrassment, exposure, reputation). I try to really imagine the worst-case so I can get a taste for how it might feel, and how hard that feeling might be to cope with should it come to that.
A made-up example: let’s say I wanted to enter a writing contest of some kind that entailed putting my work (poem, story, novel, personal essay, whatever) on a forum for other people to read, critique, and vote on. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, but I can imagine it. Maybe the essay I think has the best chance of winning is deeply personal and exposes part of my life I don’t normally talk about online. Let’s say I’m a newer writer still who doesn’t have tons of confidence in my skill yet. Let’s say there are no pen names allowed, and that it costs $50 to enter.
What am I risking? Fifty bucks, to start. So my financial situation alone might dictate that this isn’t worth the risk. But if not, what else is at risk? Well, I might not be ready for critique, if I’m a new writer. I might especially not be ready for anonymous critique about a deeply personal topic. And I might not be ready for friends and family to read my work. And I might not be ready to accept that I’m not at a certain skill level yet—or that people may judge my subject matter. So I’m risking money, hurt pride, a breach of privacy, exposure to the public before I’m ready, and possible exposure to my loved ones.
Is that risk worth it? That depends entirely on what they payoff is, and how I feel about those risks. If I’m ready to take them, then why the hell not? How ready I am might also depend on how big the prize is. Is the risk of those bad outcomes worth the potential positives? For me, probably not if the prize was just a digital badge to put on my blog. But maybe if the prize is a residency at a prestigious program that might teach me a lot—or a huge monetary payout. Or maybe I think the experience itself is valuable: exposure and critique and judgement as a learning curve.
Only we can decide which risks are right for us, and when, and why. Weighing options and being honest help, but at some point we usually have to trust our gut, too. There’s not always, or even usually, a right answer. That’s why we call it risk.
But risk is ultimately necessary for success. How much and how fast is up to us, but at some point we all have to look it in the eye. For me, that works best when I’m honest with myself, carefully weigh the options, and make my choice knowing that it still might fail. That way, if it does go wrong, I have some solace in knowing that I chose the best way I knew how. Then I let myself mourn the loss as long as I need to before I pick myself up and move on.
What about you? How do you deal with risk? How do you cope when one goes wrong?
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