Scaring Myself Out Of—and Back Into—Writing

Miss Kowalik had curly salt-and-pepper hair that was beautiful to my eight-year-old eyes. She gave us half-sheets of blue-lined paper, that kind that shredded under the slightest pressure from a pink eraser, and told us to write a paragraph just describing something using the five senses. “Don’t exaggerate, just describe,” she instructed. My first creative writing assignment.

I put my pencil to the paper and entered the Zone. I loved it.

And I also loved the praise I got for my writing. I was the shortest kid in class, the perpetual “new kid” because we moved so often, and my mom made me wear little flowered dresses every single day of school. It was a relief to have something I could do that made me stand out in a good way.

All the way through college, I wrote frequently and I wrote recklessly, tossing words onto the page and leaving no corner of my life secret to anyone who happened to read my writing. I felt nervous, sure, but I also felt courageous and capable. The zone was always there for me, and I always loved being there.

In the years since college, the nervousness has achieved more of a foothold, and I rarely feel courageous and capable about anything anymore. I held onto a writing community for a while, but moving and motherhood provided convenient excuses to let the fear get the upper hand. For a long time, I stopped writing except for my journals and our annual Christmas newsletter.

Then I started blogging. Blogging didn’t involve much fear for me because it didn’t mean much to me. I was just talking, and I didn’t care much whether people were reading or not. It actually feels comforting that I’m  small potatoes. I like my solid following of thoughtful readers. According to Gertrude Stein, Picasso once said of young artists, “even after everybody knows they are good not any more people really like them than they did when only a few knew they were good.” I’d like to be good, but fame doesn’t necessarily mean the writing’s any good.

But blogging doesn’t give me that Zen-like calm that writing’s always given me, and blogging—or at least the way I’ve been blogging—isn’t really helping me to improve my writing, either.

So, I decided that I was going to get serious about my writing. I would take it to the next level. No time like the present. I’m not getting any younger. Go big or go home. Fish or cut bait. I recited to myself all kinds of motivating slogans.

And then I froze.

CIMG3359Writers talk about the paralysis they feel when faced with a blank page/screen. I’m familiar with that terror, but this wasn’t it. This was a fear of trying, not because trying is inherently scary but because trying makes failing hurt worse, and failing is always scary, even when it’s for the best.

While I was just kind of “La, la! I’m blogging about today’s lunch!” it didn’t really matter whether my writing was good or not. But here I was thinking about really, truly trying, putting my neck out there and saying, “Here, World! Here’s the best I’ve got!” and waiting for the World’s reaction. Bad reviews would be bad, but the most likely reaction would be silence, and that might well be worse. As Oscar Wilde writes in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

In the week since I froze, I’ve thought up a plan to help me to write more, write better, and to support me through the scary bits:

1. Trade r-selected blogging for K-selected blogging.

I’m good at writing lots of posts, but that involves lots of writing and very little editing. In order to do my best writing, I need to edit. So, I plan to publish a lot more selectively and put more time into each post.

2. Embrace prompts.

When I feel scared about writing, prompts help me get back in the zone. The two I’m planning to employ for blogging are the now-monthly Remember the Time Blog Hop and WordPress’s always-weekly Weekly Writing Challenge. I won’t always publish the posts I write from those prompts because I don’t want to encourage my habit of just posting to have something to post whether it’s my best work or not, but I do plan on playing around with the prompts and if something good comes out of it, I’ll put it here. I’ve also got a shelf and a half devoted to books about writing. There are plenty of prompts there to keep me busy in my non-blog writing, too.

3. Be judged.

I’ll be looking for writing communities, both online and off, so I can get used to writing my best stuff and requesting feedback, which I’ve not done for quite a long time. I’m not ready to make a plan for submitting my writing for publication in literary journals, but this is a baby step in that direction.

4. Find a writing mentor.

I’ve always loved singing, but I’ve also always been terrified of singing in front of people, so when I joined our church choir last year, I also made the leap and started taking voice lessons. Now I’m still terrified of singing but I’ve got a professional helping me along. Christina gives me challenges tailored to my voice. She gives me labeled praise and constructive criticism, most of which I think is gentle, but it’s hard to tell because really, even the gentlest criticism stings a little. But I don’t mind the sting because I can see my progress, and that’s enough encouragement to keep me working.

I want the same thing for my writing. I want someone who will listen to my writing voice, identify my strengths and weaknesses, and help me figure out how to make it better. I want specific, personal suggestions from someone who knows about writing and knows about all of the emotional blah that goes along with writing. I’m on the lookout.

Do you ever frighten yourself out of doing things that you love to do? How do you work through the fear?

The Big Old Whiny Freakout

When I was four years old, my mom and I were at the mall. This was a California mall which means that where malls in colder places have roofs between stores, we had just sky. Reaching for the sky in the center of the mall on this particular day was a kind of enormous temporary cage. Inside were…

“Lions! Mommy, look! Lions!”

Head rubbing and licking are common social beh...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were both full-grown lions with manes and everything and little spotted lion cubs.

“Oh, look!” my mom said, as excited as I was. “They’re taking pictures of people with the lions! Would you like to have your picture taken with a lion cub?”

I answered by grabbing my mother’s hand and dragging her to the end of the line. The woman in line in front of us smiled down at me and then went back to watching the big cats.

The wait was long enough that the constant spark of my natural anxiety had a chance to kindle a flame. I watched a man posing with one of the adult lions, and a concern entered my mind.

“Mommy, do the lion cubs bite?” I asked.

“Oh, no. They don’t bite!” she responded. “They’re just like kittens.”

The woman in front of us spoke with an air of authority. “You don’t need to worry at all!” she said. “They only bite a little.”

In just a moment, I came to a conclusion: I didn’t want any lion bites, not even little ones. And what if one of the big lions got in while they were taking my picture with the cubs? Those big guys sure didn’t give just little bites.

Male Lion (Panthera leo) and Cub eating a Cape...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia. Luca Galuzzi – http://www.galuzzi.it)

I had to get away from those lions. Pulling on my mother’s hand, I started repeating, breathlessly, “Mommy, I don’t want my picture taken! Mommy, we need to go! Mommy, let’s go! I want to go home! I don’t want to have my picture taken with the lions!”

That was the first big old whiny freakout in my conscious memory. There have been others.

There was the time we went to Disneyland when I was eight. My dad and I were waiting in line at Space Mountain. We were moments from getting on when I realized that Space Mountain was a roller coaster. I pulled on my father’s arm with both hands until we were back out in the sunshine again.

When I was in my 20’s, my sister, my spouse, and our friends went to the stadium at Duke University to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. I saw flaming fireworks debris falling into the audience from above and I snapped. I jumped from my seat and grabbed my sister by the hand. “We’ve got to go! We’ve got to go!” I kept repeating as I pulled my sister out of the stands and under an overhang where we both watched the rest of the show without fear of burn injuries but with plenty of time to think just how silly I must have looked to the people who craned their necks to watch me as I lost my mind. It took moving out of state for our friends to stop poking fun at me.

Then just this summer, my kids, my spouse, and I were all four in a canoe in a wake-filled lake in New Hampshire when I got a very clear image of the canoe capsizing and me trying frantically to keep my children afloat in the rough water (since in a pinch I trust neither my spouse nor our life vests, apparently). It’s only after we were climbing out of the canoe back at the dock that I started to worry what our fellow boaters thought when they observed my histrionics out on the water.

At least when I was four, it wasn’t all that surprising. A four-year-old freaking out? Heck, that’s what they’re made for. A thirty-six-year-old woman freaking out is another matter entirely. I think the effect is exacerbated by the fact that I appear pretty laid-back most of the time (or so I’m told) so the freakouts seem to come from nowhere. But that’s pretty much how they are for me. As soon as I’m aware that the wave is building, it’s already broken, and I have no idea how to stop it. My limbic system is in charge; I’m running for my life, and I’m the only one who can save my loved ones. Or so I think until the moment passes.

Back in the sunlight, or safe under the overhang, or gliding alongside the dock, the cause of my terror seems distant and tiny. As soon as I feel safe again, both the feeling of terror and the superheroic feeling that I’m the only one who can save us fades away. What’s left is exhaustion and embarrassment and the very clear knowledge that I’ve overreacted. In front of lots of people.

Back in that mall more than three decades ago, my mother cursed the woman in line with us all the way back to the parking lot. By the time we got to the car, my fear was gone and I felt only shame for acting so babyish and for ruining my mother’s chance to sit with lion cubs. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m okay now. We can go back, Mommy, if you want to have our pictures taken with the lion cubs.”

But the appeal had waned, and she just packed me into our Toyota Celica (in the front seat without a seat belt because back then, people weren’t afraid of anything).

“Maybe they’ll come back another time we’re here! I won’t be afraid then!” I promised as we drove home.

I didn’t have another chance to prove my bravery with the lions, but I did have plenty more chances to freak out in public. I know there will be plenty more to come.

This post written as part of this week’s Remember the Time blog hop. Click the badge to hop on over to The Waiting and check out the posts that have been linked up there!

Page Fright

Tomorrow I begin my very first ROW80 writing challenge.

I am terrified.

I’m not “horror film, hysterical screaming” terrified. I’m “trying to find a logical reason not to do the challenge” terrified.

I’m not afraid to write. I write a lot. I write long blog posts, I write long e-mails, I write long journal entries. I’m even a last-remaining member of that rare breed who writes actual sent-through-the-postal-service letters to friends and family. What I am afraid of is what’s on the page and its reception in the wider world.

Part of the fear is that people won’t connect with my writing. They’ll finish reading—or, worse, just start reading—and say “meh,” and continue on with their lives unchanged. I can accept this possibility. I’ve not written a story or an extended personal essay in ten years. It’s quite possible that I’ll need a good deal of practice to get my internal writing apparatus into good working order. “Meh” writing is frustrating, but I can cure it through deliberate practice, writing more, seeking feedback, and reading effective writing by others with an eye for effective techniques I might incorporate into my own writing.

If it were just a matter of setting my mind to it and carpet-bombing the publishing industry with my written words, I think I could handle that. What worries me more is the fear that rejection of my writing equates to a rejection of me. If someone says, “This story is pedestrian, cliched, idiotic pap,” I fear that translates to, “CJ is an ignorant loser who is an idiot for even trying to write.” If someone says, “This story is mundane and utterly inconsequential,” I fear that’s not just true of the words I’ve written but of me as a person.

And I fully realize that even this fear is cliched. Mundane. Even inconsequential. (I’m not even original in my anxieties, says that nasty voice in my head.)

My ROW80 challenge this round doesn’t sound terrifically ambitious. I plan to use the book The Pen and the Bell by Holly Hughes and Brenda Miller. I’ll write and meditate each day (aiming for five days a week, but seven would be fine, too), focusing on the exercises and reflections in one chapter a week. My goal is to neutralize some of the scariness of writing by establishing a writing routine and recapturing some of the playfulness I used to feel around writing.

The key, I think, will be finding a way to face the reality that not all of my writing is going to be any good as well as the reality that not everyone is going to like me. It’s true whether I write or not, so I might as well write.

Still. I’m scared.

Tomorrow it begins.

Cheering On People Bolder Than I

Sailboat in San Francisco Bay

Image via Wikipedia

My friend Tucker posted the link to this blog post, Ten Lies, which refers to another blog post by DivineCaroline.com. Both are about the things people say to talk others out of pursuing their dreams.

You know the thing that pops into my head when I hear about someone taking bold steps to pursue their dreams?

“Wow. That’s really selfish.”

What’s strange is that I don’t even believe this. I think it’s one of those thoughts that my inner critic comes out with to protect me from doing something bold. Even at the moment I think this, I know it’s a lie. Or if it’s true, who cares? Is it selfish to live one’s life the way one wants to? What exactly is selfish about identifying what you want to do, taking into account its potential effect on those you love, and then taking steps to make it happen?

I think the big thing behind the comments of any naysayer is fear. They’re afraid of doing it themselves, of taking a stand and making a bold choice in their lives. So they try to convince others to do nothing to pursue their dreams, too.

Acting out of fear isn’t going to bring anyone much joy and satisfaction, except perhaps the schadenfreude that comes with watching other people not-quite-make-it when they try for their bold dreams. That’s certainly cold comfort.

Tucker and the blogger of “Ten Lies” are part of a community of people who’ve arranged their lives so they can live aboard their sailboats and go traveling the world. I’m not a sailer, and the idea of traveling around the world, no matter how I would travel, scares me. But I don’t have any inclination to try to talk Tucker and his friends out of their dreams.

I might not be interested in sailing around the world, but I sure as heck want other people to try. And succeed. It gives me hope for the rather smaller bold things I want to do in my life.

And after this situation with my aunt, I realize that what scares me more than sailing around the world is deciding to stay in bed until I die. It’s a very safe option, but not one that is appealing to me at all. For which I am incredibly grateful.

Another question: Is life to be endured or to be enjoyed? Or perhaps life just is and what it is is open to individual interpretation.

Everyone’s journey ends at the same destination. But we each get to determine the scenery along the way.

On a related note, when I asked my daughter what she thought about the idea of living on a sailboat and sailing around the world like our friends Ruby and Miles, she at first didn’t like the idea. She said she liked living in a house because it’s bigger than a boat. She wanted to travel places, she said, but she didn’t want to sail around the world.

“I like flying on planes because they give you food, and I like driving because we take snacks,” she explained. I’m amused to find that my daughter shares my anxieties around a reliable food supply.

When I told her that the sailboat would have a kitchen on it and we could make food, she got excited about the idea. When I told her about Ruby going up the mast in the Bosun’s chair and Miles playing a game in which he shot clothespins off a counter in the boat, she got so excited, I thought she was going to ask me to put her on a boat right that moment.

We’ve Nothing to Fear but an Overactive Amygdala

Anterior cingulate cortex.

The anterior cingulate is in orange. (Image via Wikipedia)

NaNoWriMo Day 22 word count: 40,141

This morning, during our daily “Good Morning” phone call (my husband goes to work before the kids and I wake up), my husband expressed concern about some things he’d read in the New York Times.

“There’s a lot of fear in the articles I read today,” he said. He went on to describe two situations in which the writers of various articles were expressing fear. Apparently, a lot of liberals are expressing fear about the current political climate.

Let me note here that this post is not going to be about politics. It’s about fear. I have no desire to discuss politics. It just annoys me.

And then there are a lot of people who are afraid of texting. Well, they’re afraid that kids these days are texting too much and that it’s negatively affecting their brain development and ruining their ability to think deeply and at length about a single topic.

My husband and I went back and forth about whether texting really is turning the brains of the future leaders of our country into little caffeinated prairie dogs. I agreed that it’s likely that the way we use media—including text messaging—today is probably changing the way our brains work. But I’m not certain that’s necessarily a problem. I mean, apparently ancient Greek scholars were certain that the written word was going to change our brains and ruin our ability to think. It has changed our brains, but I would argue that it hasn’t ruined our ability to think (but then, I might be a little biased). I suppose it’s always possible that, if we could look at all of human history from a distant enough perspective, we’d see the widespread adoption of the written word as the beginning of the end of human civilization, but I don’t think we could say that definitively at this point in time.

I also suggested that the people who fear texting are all people over 35 or so who don’t use texting on a regular basis, and so they’ve become Generation X’s crotchety old men railing about the kids today and how we were all so much more enlightened when we were their age because we used e-mail over a dial-up connection and all text glowed green against a black screen.

I wondered more what this multi-tasking might be doing to our capacity for interpersonal connection and our propensity towards reacting with fear rather than calmly analyzing a situation and coming to a rational and compassionate conclusion and, if necessary, solution.

In my spare time, I’ve begun reading How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. They describe the activity of the anterior cingulate as it relates to the amygdala. The anterior cingulate is a brain “structure that is involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory.” It also “plays a major role in lowering anxiety and irritability, and also enhances social awareness.” The activation of the anterior cingulate also decreases the symptoms of depression. The amygdala “governs your fight-or-flight response to a perceived or imagined fear.” Apparently, as the amygdala becomes more active, the anterior cingulate becomes less active. The opposite is also true, that as the anterior cingulate becomes more active, the amygdala becomes less active. They also mention that the brain really doesn’t know how to tell the difference between reality and fantasy (hence the “perceived or imagined fear” part of the amygdala description).

Meditation, which the authors define as any sustained focus of your brain regardless of the subject (this can include prayer, yogic breathing, playing a musical instrument, or just contemplating any of life’s “big questions”), increases activity in the anterior cingulate and decreases activity in the amygdala. It seems to me that multi-tasking precludes sustained focus and so potentially diminishes the activity of our anterior cingulate, making us more likely to experience fear and a fight-or-flight response whether a threat is real or imagined.

I’m wondering if the fear that the authors of the New York Times pieces my husband read this morning could be a result of their own personal lack of sustained focus. Maybe their own multi-tasking behavior (which, by all accounts, has become pretty much the norm in American society) has caused their amygdala to work overtime, leaving them more likely to feel fear, irritability, and anxiety than compassion.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t danger inherent in texting or in electing conservative ideologues to public office. There might be or there might not be. It’s the reaction people have to this perceived threat that interests me. If these things—or anything else that people are concerned about—truly are threats, then reacting with fear and anger isn’t likely to help us find a different path to take, and it certainly doesn’t facilitate open and intelligent discussion about the possible alternatives.

I was also thinking that, while I put myself on a Facebook fast for November simply to help give me more time to write while I’m working on my novel, maybe it’s also helping me to have the sustained focus necessary to write a novel by decreasing the amount of time I spend multi-tasking in my daily life. Maybe the craving I’ve been having for a religious or spiritual community and/or practice is also related to a personal need for less anxiety and more happiness. Maybe my brain’s smarter than I realize and knows better what it needs than I do.

I can always hope.