Acknowledge Fear, Breathe Courage


“Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventures or to be limited by the fear of it.” – Judy Blume

I have a few true fears that make my heart race and my blood pressure soar. I try not put myself in situations where I may begin to feel the claustrophobic effects of a small, enclosed space or the stomach-dropping terror that comes when I am dangling from a ferris wheel. These fears are visceral. I have no control over the physical symptoms, so I choose to avoid certain circumstances that might accelerate the panic. 

Other are not so well-defined. I can’t swerve around sudden change, failure, rejection, or the unknown. These fears come at me like fast-moving projectiles in an 80s video game. I may attempt to dodge or side-step, but they are always there, bombarding me with anxiety.

The world can be a grim, terrifying place. Danger lurks, even in the bright light of day. How do I cope? Do I hide, cowering in the safety of my little house, never venturing out? Unless I want to embrace agoraphobia, that isn’t a realistic choice. 

Fear is a big part of my writing. I enjoy the process, but I fear everything about it. I’m too old. It is drivel. Someone will be offended. It is embarrassing. I’ve run out of ideas. No one wants to read my inane ramblings. These fears often block my creativity. Fear is my personal writer’s block.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Big Magic about how she lives simultaneously with fear and creativity. She states, “…I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. Instead, I make all that space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day…I allow my fear to live and breathe and stretch out its legs comfortable. It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back.” So she invites fear on the journey. Fear is allowed on the trip, yet it doesn’t make decisions and it definitely doesn’t drive. Fear must sit in the back seat as a member of the family, but it does not have a vote.

This is a novel approach. So much of our lives we are told to “conquer our fears.” If we are afraid of the water, we must learn to swim. If we are petrified of flying, buy that ticket. And if we are scared of the deep water, dive right in. Sometimes these approaches work, but often we are just more afraid. 

What if we invited fear in, introduced ourselves and told it to have a seat? We don’t feed fear any snacks, and we never let it touch the thermostat. We acknowledge fear is part of the family, but we sit it at a small card table in the next room, knowing it is there yet not letting it dominate the conversation. 

Acknowledging our fears is acknowledging our vulnerability. Creative work requires vulnerability, putting our voices out there for the world to judge. We are often shamed back into the cave by our harshest critics, which often are the voices in our own heads. I know this personally. Shame and fear run neck and neck in my world. 

I have been working on a novel for over three years about loss and grief and learning to forgive. Every time I enter the world of my characters I become lost in the smells and sounds. I want to live there. Yet. Yet, I have struggled with the ending. A few weeks ago my dear friend Ann came for a visit while my husband was on a business trip. We giggled, ate, drank wine, and shed a few tears over our shared stories. One night I began to tell Ann the plot of my book. After I was done, I looked at her and said, “You know, that is the first time I have shared the details of my story with anyone.” And she replied, “I’m honored.” I then said, “You know, I think I’m afraid to finish the book, because if I complete the story, then what do I do? I’m scared.” Ann replied, “Then you need to do it. Who knows what will happen, but you’ll never know until it is finished.” The day after she returned home I sat at my laptop and banged out the ending. I then printed out the 150 pages. Three plus years of words stared back at me. I read through them, circling errors and making notes. Some of the story was wonky, but other parts were good. Damn good.

My shitty shitty rough draft now requires hours of editing, revising, and reworking, but I have relegated my fear to the back seat. It is buckled safely in its car seat. I will glance at it from time to time, but I will not grant it power over my process. I will not worry about publishing. Now is the time to dive into the details and work on the flow, dialogue, and pacing. It terrifying and exciting and I’m ready for this journey.

Courage is not conquering fear. Courage is recognizing fear, not giving it power over your heart. Brene Brown writes, “Courage is like – it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn to courage by couraging.” Courage is knowing the truth and showing your truth to the world. My courage, my vulnerability, my truth is writing, and I will no longer grant fear the power to silence it.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.” – Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something-anything-down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

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