Facing My Fears

In my last post, I was pondering whether or not to continue writing my current work in progress–a novel I have been working on for a little over a year. I had come to a point in the story where my premise had run its course and things needed to start happening. I was making things happen, but they felt random. My novel was starting to feel like some kind of 90210 episode with pretty sentences. I was a HUGE 90210 fan, so I’m not saying that I was completely surprised or upset about where things were headed, but I don’t know…the stuff that I was making happen to the characters just felt random. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to write random stories. I wanted to write stories that have a point because those are the stories that I like best. I don’t really want to spend three years of my life writing and editing and selling a story that doesn’t really mean anything to me. A random collection of made-up events is just not worth it. I want to write a story that tells some truth about life. I want a reader to put my book down and need to talk about it with someone else.

So this week I’ve been learning about story structure in the hopes of shaping this story into something that feels satisfying to me, a story that feels worthy of telling. And what I’ve learned as I’ve dug into this topic is that stories are not a random collection of things that happen. We don’t read to find out what happens. Why would we care about what happens to some fictional character? It’s like listening to someone describe their dream. Does anyone really listen when someone describes their dream? We pretend to listen, saying “wow” or  laughing at the appropriate places, but we don’t really care about the particulars of the dream because we know that none of it really happened and therefore none of it matters. Oh my goodness! You were flying? Then you went to school in your underwear? Who cares? That didn’t actually happen and nothing will happen as a consequence of that dream, so we zone out. 

Novels are fiction (just like dreams), so what makes us care about what happens? We care about what happens because we care about the characters. What happens in the story (aka, the plot) is not a random collection of events, but stems organically from what the main character wants. As the writer I need to know what my protagonist wants most and why. The “why” is the driving force for what happens in a story. It moves the protagonist to take action, to move from the status quo at the beginning to something new by the end of the book. The plot is what happens as they move from point A to point B.  

In her webinar on creating a two-tier story outline, author and writing coach Jennie Nash gives a handy template for creating a story that flows from the “why” rather than “what happens.” Nash recommends starting by asking yourself “Why am I writing this book? Why do I care? What am I really trying to say? What do I really believe?”

Nash’s advice is rooted in Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond  Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel* 

*Before you waste three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere. 

That’s actually the title, footnote and all. She might as well have added “comma Elizabeth” after the word nowhere. I have totally wasted three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere. Have you been spying on me, Lisa Cron?

It sucks wasting that time and energy. It definitely makes you feel like you should hang up the whole writing dream. As of a month ago I was ready to quit novel writing altogether. I could sense my draft veering headfirst into 90210 territory, and I wanted to cry. It felt like I was working so hard. And yet what was coming out on the page was trite and superficial. What is the point of this? I started asking. I could be doing so many other things with my time. And instead I’m spending time writing something that I wouldn’t even want to read.

I had inadvertently stumbled across exactly the question I needed to be asking: What is the point? 

Well, once I started asking myself what the point was, what the root of this story is, then I really started getting somewhere.

I spent an afternoon thinking about my characters and what they wanted and why. I traced those same wants back to me and realized that I was really writing about what I want. I was getting at some core thing in me that needed to come out. The events of the plot have nothing to do with me. The main character is not anything like me. But the heart of what she wants deep down and what she is afraid of losing–totally me.

Then something really weird and unexpected happened. I got really scared.

I woke up the next morning in a full-on panic. Like I literally felt physically scared. And what I was scared of was writing that story that I had mapped out the day before. It felt too real, I would have to dig into things that I wanted to push down and ignore. I wanted to leave all the scary stuff under the giant boulder I’d placed on top of it. Writing this story was going to require me to excavate that boulder and see what was really under there. Nope, nope, and nope. My heart starts racing a little just thinking about it. It really does feel like a physical panic when I think too much about it.

So, then I felt really confused. Was the fear I was feeling God telling me to turn around and run in a different direction? Was the fear protecting me from something I should be legitimately afraid of?

A little voice somewhere piped up. Maybe the fear means you are headed in the right direction? Maybe the fear means you are actually in the arena, daring bravely? Maybe you should try facing it? The voice whispered. Ahh, it makes my hands sweat just to type that.

With butterflies in my tummy I started reading everything I could about the creative process. I turned to books like The Artist’s Way and The War of Art that I’d always known about but never bothered to pick up. I listened to Oprah’s podcast with Brene Brown and cried my eyeballs out when she said things like “vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we want.”

What I was afraid of, what I am afraid of is being vulnerable. Of sharing my WHOLEheart. I want to create, but I don’t want to create just to create. I want to create to transcend, I want catharsis. I want to write stories that lead me to a better understanding of myself and the world. Otherwise what’s the point? I should just knit or cook elaborate dinners. Those are creative acts, but they do not require me to do any hard, meaningful work that leads me to some new understanding.

Here’s what The Artist’s Way says about fear:

Most of the time when we are blocked in an area of our life, it is because we feel safer that way. We may not be happy, but at least we know what we are–unhappy. Much fear of our own creativity is the fear of the unknown. If I am fully creative, what will it mean? What will happen to me and to others? We have some pretty awful notions about what could happen. So rather than find out, we decide to stay blocked. This is seldom a conscious decision. It is more often an unconscious response to internalized negative beliefs. 

I can’t tell you how good it felt to read those words. I realized everything I was feeling, this whole process, was totally normal and basically a textbook case of being blocked. I am not alone. In fact I am in the company of all the other artists and writers who I respect and love. This fear I’m feeling is not a sign that something is wrong with me. It’s a sign that I am tiptoeing my way into artist territory.

Here’s what The War of Art has to say about fear, a.k.a. Resistance:

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North–meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

In my last post I was wishing for a divining rod that would help me know which project I should work on. Well, I think I got my answer. According to the passage above, I should go towards the thing that scares me the most. The thing I don’t want to look at, I should look at that. I mean it makes total sense, but I don’t want that to be the answer. I want to do my writing and always feel like a million bucks while I’m doing it. I want it to be easy breezy and fulfilling and then walk away without a scratch on me. But that’s not how it works.

So these books had me pretty convinced, but they are books about overcoming creative blocks, so it’s not surprising that they got me pumped up. But what was really crazy and made me think maybe God was trying to tell me something was when I picked up my devotional book that I’ve been doing the past few months. The book is called Made for This: 40 Days to Living Your Purpose. Highly recommend, two thumbs up. It walks you through exercises to help you discover what your gifts are and how you could use those gifts to serve God and the world. It’s been a really cool process to go through that book. So all throughout reading this book I keep coming to writing as being my gift, but I don’t think God is being served by me writing the literary equivalent of 90210 episodes. So I have been praying about and trying to discern how God wants me to use writing. Just tell me, God! And I will do it. Is the gist of what I’ve been praying since January.

Here’s what Made for This had to say this week:

Something is stopping us from running wild toward our purposes. In fact, we stop ourselves. When we let our hearts run wild for a minute, we can experience a sudden shift–our eyes drop and we remind ourselves in some way that we shouldn’t go there. Why do we do this? Because there is a war. And I wish I were being dramatic. But it’s real, and you know it because you feel it too. It’s a resistance that comes any time you consider doing something potentially important, and suddenly all you want to do is grab a bowl of peanut M&M’s and get lost in your third viewing of Downton Abbey. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield observed, ‘The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.’

Umm, I don’t know about you, but the devotionals I read don’t usually quote creativity manifestos. What in the world? And it was exactly the passage that had struck a chord with me when I read it in The War of Art. This had to be God answering my prayer. I am sure of it.

Made for This goes on to say something that I find very encouraging–and I mean that in the literal, gives-me-courage sense. “He [God] is in the trenches with us. In the fear. In the uncertainty. He is in the unknown–knowing and leading and working. What we don’t know yet is meant to lead us to dependence.”

Writing is not just something I do to be creative and express myself. It is an act that forces me to rely on God. It is a reminder that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I do not have to muscle my way through this fear. I can take a breath and ask for help and courage.

The Artist’s Way says this: “Remember, there is a creative energy that wants to express itself through you; Don’t judge the work or yourself. You can sort it out later; Let God work through you.”

God is after all a creative. He totally gets it. And he made us to do this work. Whether we are writers or teachers or doctors or mothers. We were made to create something with our lives, to transcend our day-to-day humdrum with sparks of the divine. If you are battling it out with Resistance and fear right now, know that you are not alone, and that you are doing the work you were made to do.

 


Step in a Puddle Early

country lane field meadow puddles

Photo by SplitShire on Pexels.com

“My one piece of advice? Step in a puddle early,” I overheard a seasoned-looking trail runner say to a fellow racer. It had flash-flooded the day before the race and we were at the starting line, about to embark on 30 kilometers of slippery mud and flooded trails.

I’m not a step-in-the-puddle kind of girl. And we weren’t talking about little puddles that get the bottoms of your shoes wet. This was standing, murky water that went up past your ankles. And it was in the mid-40s outside. So it was cold, standing, murky water. Under any other circumstances, I would be like, no thank you, no puddles for me. I’ll be tiptoeing around those for the whole race.

But because I am not a seasoned trail runner, I was very open to any advice anyone might be able to give me that cold December morning. So, once the race started, the first puddle I saw, I closed my eyes, felt my body brace for the cold, and stepped right in it. I might have let out a little gasp from how cold it was, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. In fact it was a little thrilling. My feet were wet, but other than that I was totally fine. I could now cross puddles off my list of things to worry about. Check.

A few minutes later I hit my first muddy climb. It was a ridiculous, comical, impossible slog through heavy, slippery mud going uphill and then an out-of-control sloppy slide downhill. Repeat over and over again for 30k. After a while, I rejoiced when I saw a puddle because it meant I could rinse off some of the caked on mud that was making my legs feel like they weighed 200 pounds each.

Throughout the race I kept thinking about the advice of stepping in a puddle early and my natural inclination toward doing just the opposite–in life and in running. Stepping in a puddle feels like a mistake, like something to be avoided. It reminds me of that scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray steps off the curb into a big slushy puddle over and over again until finally, because he is living the same day on repeat, he learns how to avoid it.

I am a puddle avoider. For me, puddles equal discomfort and fear of the unknown. They make me anxious. What if that puddle causes me to have blisters? What if it makes my toes cold? Then what will happen? It could be terrible. It could lead to failure. I might not be able to finish the race, and I will be humiliated and embarrassed and have wasted $90.

Therefore, my brain does a quick calculation and says, “avoid all puddles. I repeat, no stepping in puddles at any cost.”

But I was in such a vulnerable place at the start of that race–a trail running newbie open to any and all suggestions for how to tackle this impossible, gross task that lay before me. I was so open to ideas at that point that I would listen to a stranger telling me to submerge half my leg in freezing water at the beginning of a race. Not even telling me, telling another stranger. I was just eavesdropping, soaking up any tips anyone might be throwing out there.

That race was the hardest race I’ve ever run. It felt lonely and scary and it hurt. Each muddy step felt like an obstacle to overcome. I was so happy when it was over. But I’m also so happy I ran it because I’m still drawing on the experience of it, the lessons it taught me. That little race in the woods was one of my proudest and most favorite achievements because I pushed past my comfort zone, way past. And that, in my experience, is where the really good stuff happens (unfortunately).

Last night I read this passage in Born to Run and thought of my muddy race and the next even longer, even scarier 50k that I have coming up this weekend.

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”  -William James

That quote sums up perfectly why I love long-distance running. It’s not that I am a masochist and just want to torture myself. It’s that I know from experience that the discomfort you feel is not a wall, it’s a door that you can choose to go through. And what’s on the other side of that door is pretty awesome.

I love this description of running a 62-mile race in Haruki Murakami’s running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

“While I was enduring all this, around the forty-seventh mile I felt like I’d passed through something. That’s what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body had passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I’d made it through, I can’t recall, but suddenly I noticed I was already on the other side. I was convinced I’d made it through. I don’t know about the logic, or the process, or the method involved–I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through. After that I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically. If I gave myself up to it, some sort of power would naturally push me forward.”

Marukami goes on to describe how during the last portion of his race he is basically able to turn off his brain and pretend like he is a running machine. Once he can separate his anxious mind from his body, he’s able to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make it to the finish line.

As someone who lets their anxious mind dictate much of the decision-making, I enjoy the way long-distance races force me to turn off those thoughts. They force me to be brave. Races force me to run through puddles, to push past what I think I am capable of, and they force me to ignore that little voice in my head that wants me to avoid making a mistake or being uncomfortable.

This blog forces me to do that too. It is very uncomfortable sharing thoughts I probably would not share with people in normal conversation. It makes me feel exposed and vulnerable in a way that I deeply try to avoid in real life. Feeling exposed and vulnerable is like a giant puddle that I do my best to tiptoe around. But on the other side of that vulnerability there is the awesome feeling of being known. When someone tells me they’ve read my blog, it makes me blush and want to hide under a chair, but then after that feeling subsides, it makes me feel wonderfully known and understood. That feeling is so good, that I’m willing to risk writing again.

What would happen if we decided to stop avoiding puddles and chose to go right through them? What wall are you up against that might actually be a door? I am all about the metaphors today, but I’m not really talking about puddles and doors in case you’re confused. I’m talking about the areas of your life that feel like barriers, keeping you safely and securely in your cozy status quo. What are the places in your life that feel like they could never possibly be different, so you avoid challenging them, stepping into the mess of them? Did you ever imagine that maybe there was something on the other side?

I love the saying “We can do hard things.” A naysayer might say, but why do hard things? Hard things are hard and might expose our weaknesses or make us look bad. Let’s stick to easy things! Easy things make us look like we know what we’re doing. Maybe that’s true to a degree. But I’m guessing the stories that you are proudest of, your defining moments, the times you felt like you were on top of the world were not easy accomplishments. And there were likely some puddles you stepped in along the way to get there.