Conquering Fear

Yesterday I spent the day with writer friends from the Northeast Ohio chapter of RWA, participating in a workshop presented by Bob Mayer. He spoke about many things in his six-hour talk, including turning ideas into stories, recognizing and developing conflict (my biggest problem, perhaps), outlining and plotting, characters’ needs and flaws, and story arcs. But for some reason, the part that resonated with me most was his discussion of fear.

FullSizeRender (1)Fear, Mayer said, is “a feeling of alarm or disquiet caused by the expectation of danger, pain, or the like.” It stems from uncertainty. Since life is one long uncertainty, all of us have fears. We fear failure, rejection, criticism, loss. We fear making the wrong decision, making mistakes. I can remember three times in my life when I was truly fearful: the day I graduated from college; the day I made a commitment to start my own law firm; and the day I sent off my first manuscript to an editor who’d requested it. Every one of those marked a decision to leave the safety of the known and start on an unknown path potentially fraught with peril. Graduating from college I realized it was the first time in my life I really had no clue what I was supposed to do next. The entire world was before me, and absolutely anything could happen. Starting my own law firm, I left the security of a regular paycheck in exchange for freedom–to take the work I wanted, to get away from the backstabbing bullshit of my old firm, and to spend more time with my four-year old son. And the day I sent that manuscript was the first time I faced either real acceptance or true rejection of my writing.

That editor did reject my manuscript, which stung. I am extremely fortunate in that another editor was waiting to see it too, and when she did, she bought it, and my life as a published author began. But all three of these moments in time taught me that to act in the face of fear is, while scary as hell, worth every tear shed and every night spent tossing and turning, asking yourself whether you’ve done the right thing. Mayer said yesterday, “Heroism is taking action in the face of fear.” While I certainly don’t consider myself a hero for facing my fears, perhaps all of us who take that step into the unknown do have a bit of the hero inside us. Although you’re never going to see me jumping out of an airplane. No way.

If fear is preventing you from accomplishing your dreams, take a closer look at yourself. I’ll bet there’s a hero inside of you too.

Fighting Fear

Once upon a time, I knew a guy who spent three years in law school, but when it came time to take that last class to graduate, he just didn’t bother. His employer gave him time off to study for and take the bar exam, but although he took the time, he never took the exam. Because, of course, he couldn’t. He was a smart guy, very knowledgeable in the field, but he never took those final steps to become a lawyer. I always wondered why. My ten year old just read this paragraph over my shoulder and answered the question for me: “I think he was afraid.”

I think so too. You can’t be called a bad lawyer if you never finish law school. And you can’t be called a bad writer if you never finish a book.

I typed “The End” in my manuscript seven months ago. I need to add a couple of scenes and it requires some serious editing, but the bones are all there.  And yet I cannot seem to finish it. I even started another book, and although that is going well, I am being haunted by the first one.

Generally speaking, I am not a risk-taker; I never have been. When I graduated from college, I cried for two days because for the first time in my life I had no idea what to do next. When I started my own law firm I was so freaked out I didn’t eat for three weeks and lost about 15 pounds.  Both involved leaving a safe cocoon of support and certainty. To me, a manuscript is a bit like that. When it’s in your own head or on your own laptop, it’s safe and secure. You can imagine that it will be perfect, that everyone will love it.

So I suppose it’s understandable, if pathetic, that the idea of pitching and querying the book scares the crap out of me. I squandered a recent opportunity to pitch at the NEORWA conference, and didn’t participate in a query workshop I took a few weeks ago. I told myself it was because the book wasn’t ready, but I was lying: the truth is that I was terrified.

This morning as I had both the old and the new manuscripts open on my laptop, I thought about that guy who never finished law school, who as far as I know still works in a cubicle doing the same thing every day. I thought about how I went abroad for my junior year and it was an unforgettable experience that inspires me to this day. I thought about how I left my cushy life for law school, and I graduated cum laude. I thought about how I started my own firm, and it’s doing fine. And I realized that I actually am a risk taker when it counts.

Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” So every day I will do something scary, or at least a little difficult. I will write a logline, a pitch, and a query letter. I will shelve the new MS until I finish the old one. And then I will send my baby out into the world.


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