Most of the time, it's easy to think about beginning something. To dream it up. Starting a new project, or starting a writing practice at all: It feels just safe enough to talk about it. Exciting, and full of good possibility.
Dreams feel safe. Everything is possible in Dreamville! It is a good time! Your feet don't get sore, you never run out of ideas, your skills rise to the challenge. And confetti floats down, and a feel-good soundtrack hums in the background...
Okay, maybe you vaguely account for snags and difficulties, but they are dream-snags, wispy-difficulties. They aren't enough to squash the floating, ethereal dream itself.
The actual beginning part--well, that's different.
As I make that transition from dreaming and early happy planning and excitement into the actual start--the actual rubber meeting the actual road--my knees get mushy.
Dozens of fears snarl up in my face. I find myself procrastinating, making excuses. I discover a new TV series that I MUST watch in entirety. I find any clutter unbearable and "need" to organize whatever I put my hands on.
I put off the new adventure. Or discard it completely. Or maybe I do start, but so halfheartedly that it fails. And it's kinda on purpose.
Ugh. That's just no good, watching fear snatch a beautiful beginning out of my hands.
Here are three fears that persistently try to derail me:
Fear of looking foolish.
This one's really easy to spot, because it's the voice in my head saying, "Oh my gosh. You look like an idiot."
See? Not that subtle.
This fear cannot get over the fact that I'm a writer.
You're actually going to play with a bunch of imaginary characters, and write down what they say, and then try to sell it to other people. And you call this a job. Your peers are flying planes, leading churches, teaching children, or performing dentistry. And you've got the mental equivalent of puppets on your hands, making yourself laugh, alone, at your desk.
This fear says, "You're not going to be able to tell anyone that that's what you write about, that that's what you do." And so I'm tempted to skip it completely.
Fear of hard work.
The trouble with this fear is that it has its roots in cold, hard facts. It has some truth on its side.
This is that thickening in the stomach that I get when I look at the almighty list of things that went wrong in a book. I come up with these crushingly huge revision treatises. Thousands of things that need fixing. You could probably run a country with a less comprehensive list than that.
And I absolutely quail at the sight of it.
I still think of this feeling as "syllabus shock." It's what descends during the first week of new college classes. I'd pick up those syllabus packets from my professors, look over the collected amount of work I'd be doing that semester. And slowly realize the colossal size of the undertaking.
All the hours of work, all the pages of reading. The dreaded group projects, dozens of essays, and OHMYGOSH even an oral presentation.
"Actually," I'd say to myself, in a clear calm voice (though slightly higher pitched than usual), "I don't want a degree at all. That's all nonsense. I would just like to go to my hometown and open a coffee shop. I believe in coffee. It is a noble undertaking."
And then they'd find me three days later, wandering the wilderness preserve on campus, with my clothes in rags and my hair on end, raving about espresso machines...
(Okay. That didn't really happen exactly. But I felt like it could happen.)
Fear of failure.
This is the mother fear. The one that gives the others their power.
What if you face down the silliness of your proposed project, and what if you've even managed to believe you can do all the work. Then there's always this one:
This fear says that all your efforts won't amount to anything at all. No one will sign your project. Even if by some miracle you sell the book, no one will read it. Or everyone will--but they'll hate it. They'll write mocking-yet-accurate reviews. And also, bonus: You won't even make money from it.
All around failure.
Turning Fears Around
This is the full fear chorus I hear at the start of an enterprise: You're an idiot, you'll never get it done, and it won't be worth it.
Well. That is some fun chatter. That's a real happy party.
Listen to that too long and too loud, and you'll believe it. But that's not where we're going to stay, right? You and I, we're going to get better at beginning well.
So what works?
For starters, I think it can help to expect a bit of fear. After all, a taunt that's expected loses some of its power. It might still sting, but you were looking for it. You can block the punch that you know is coming--at the very least, you have a shot.
But if you're going to expect it, you also have to decide not to be paralyzed by it.
Deciding not to be paralyzed has been huge for me. I remember that fears don't speak the whole truth. I remember that I have more options than fear wants me to believe.
Sometimes this is as simple as announcing to myself: "I'm going to feel like running away. But I won't run."
Call its bluff.
When it comes to looking foolish, it helps to call for definitions. Pin this fear down. What the heck does foolish even mean?
Does it mean not serious enough? Not valuable? Frivolous?
I just checked my "Speaking Like Fear" phrasebook... and yeah, that's what my fear is talking about. My work isn't as smart and clever as my work "should" be. I took poetry classes. I memorized rhetorical structure and stuff. I should be all smug and intelligent with my words. (I shouldn't type kinda and publish it on a blog post, for crying out loud.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here's something I learned recently: When a person is going through a really tough time, they need a laugh. They need a bit of an escape. Yes, they might also need a pilot, a pastor, a teacher, a doctor.
But they also need someone to cup hands around their very humanness. They need someone to hearten them.
They need that bit of encouragement that comes in with laughter. They need the understanding of their very selves that they find in a piece of good fiction. And that is no small thing. That's the very work of living.
So here's the absolute truth: The idea that this is foolish is an illusion.
And that goes for so much more than fiction. That goes for whatever work you do. If it's big enough and important enough that fear gets all up in arms--well! Almost by definition, that stuff is not foolish. Fear doesn't get all riled up with things that don't matter. I mean, why bother?
Fear shows up for the big stuff. So call its bluff. You're not being foolish at all.
Grab hold of perspective with both hands.
To fight the fear of hard work, I have to change up how I'm looking at the project.
There's a falseness that creeps in when I look at a huuuuuge list of problems with a work-in-progress. There's a lie that sidles up. Because I'm looking at a list that will cover months of my life. But I can't live "months of my life" all at once.
You get what I mean?
In college, I'd look at those syllabuses, and I experienced the weight of all that work at once. But the truth is, I'd do the actual work of it one day at a time.
That's it. One hour at a time. Fifteen minutes at a time.
The pressure of all those deadlines at once--it felt like it was going to kill me, or make me a lunatic, one or the other. But I survived semester after semester just fine. Not dead. Not crazy.
Whenever I start a new book, I hear that shriek: I can't do all that work!!
And I'm learning to respond very calmly and very sensibly: "Well, you're not going to do it all right now."
You eat an elephant one bite at a time, and you write a book the same way. You do that tiny piece of work in front of you, and then you pick up the next tiny piece of work. And bit by bit (or Bird by Bird), you get the work done.
Also? You can totally give yourself breaks, refreshing retreats, and mini celebrations with each project milestone you tick off. It doesn't have to be all grim, all fingers-to-the-bone.
Fear of hard work: It's hysterical when it doesn't need to be.
Decide what success is.
All right. So, failure is real. I mean, it's really real. Stuff dies, ends, blows up, fades.
I spent four years drafting a dead-end novel that I don't know if I can ever rescue. It has a tendency to haunt me, as I work with my other projects. With each revision I start, part of me thinks: "This is the one when you destroy the story irrevocably. This is when it all goes pear-shaped."
Here's my best weapon for that: I take a good, hard look at what success is.
This fear has a very specific definition of success. Something along the lines of: a five-book contract, an advance that lets me buy a car and a cool loft downtown, three big-time awards, and eight weeks (minimum!) on the New York Times Bestseller List.
It wants my enterprise to pay off in a "legitimate" way. This means money, career recognition, and all the naysayers crying, "We should never have judged you!"
If it can't have all that, this fear says, You failed.
I have a nice long history with this fear, because I'm a recovering perfectionist:
I have literally been sickeningly disappointed by a 100% on a test--because I didn't get the extra credit. Seriously.
But once you realize that you can be disappointed by a perfect score, you start to question just what's driving that disappointment.
In other words, that fear is completely bonkers.
To shut it up, I've come up with my own ideas about success. And instead of black-or-white requirements, it is a list of questions:
- Am I learning?
- Am I growing?
- Am I moving toward a better understanding of stories, and of my story in particular?
- Did I try?
- Was I honest?
And lately, I'm also asking more and more:
- Is this healthy?
- Am I loving the people around me?
- Am I being kind, to others and to myself? Am I being compassionate?
These questions open up a whole new paradigm. A whole new way of looking at work, at projects, at beginnings.
Those four years I spent on my first novel--I grew a lot. I learned so much about the kinds of stories I loved, and the kinds of stories I didn't so much like. I learned like crazy about the writing process itself. I tried very, very hard. And I found out just how short-sighted it is to work in unhealthy ways.
So actually, that novel is a total success. I learned things that I couldn't pay for, and started incorporating habits that are making me into the kind of writer I want to be.
That's crazy successful! That's like a whole degree in writing!
So when the fear of failure shows up, force it to voice its definition of success. And then dare to redefine it.
And then? Be bold about claiming your successes. Celebrate them! And button that fear's mouth for good.
What does fear say when it moves in close to you? What strategies have you used to shut fear up? We're stronger together, so share your thoughts on courage in the comments!