Turning Whine into Gold
Fear can waylay even the most intrepid writer. Recently, I found myself in its confidence-rattling grip.
Followers of this series might be saying, What? This can’t be written by Kathryn, the relentless optimist who would never be caught whining on the Internet and who I’ve come to count on for my monthly shot of can-do attitude!
In order to be real—or “Velveteen,” as Therese Walsh called it at the Writer UnBoxed UnConference in Salem, MA earlier this month—I want to share the perfect storm of emotions I battled when I came home. Is this whining, or just a cold hard look at the life of the writer? You be the judge—but I promise to turn it to gold by the end of the post.
How to stir up a doubt-fest
Start with exhaustion. After a week of joyful interaction with a slew of new writers at the UnConference, my inner introvert needed her down time. Way down, as it turned out. Overstimulation and sleep are rarely happy bed partners. The first night I got home from the conference I slept 12-1/2 hours and couldn’t shake the resulting fog.
Add several handfuls of overwhelm. With a dream team of presenters led by Donald Maass and Lisa Cron, the UnConference prompted dozens of ideas to incorporate into my next novel, challenging everything I thought I had so far accomplished. How would I bring it all together? Even though I’m an experienced writer, I’d never traveled the path this novel needed to take. Sitting with the discomfort of not knowing what to do, and allowing a new vision to distill, is an emotionally challenging but necessary task.
Whisk in separation anxiety ’til dizzy. Before leaving for the conference I had completed all work on my second novel, The Far End of Happy. Writing under contract for the first time, I’d had all of ten months to create this important and very personal project based on my first husband’s suicide standoff—all while launching my debut. It took 17 years of climbing to gain the perspective needed to write about this life-changing event—I did it!—but the all-consuming, high-altitude effort left me reeling. And leaving it behind felt like walking off a cliff into an abyss.
Bake until dough cracks. I fervently believe that the Universe would not call me to write the book of my soul and then kick me to the curb without the tools to make it happen. But it’s one thing to trust the Universe when improving the book is still under my control, and another when my primary role is complete and the team takes over. Doubt creeps in.What if it isn’t as good as it could possibly be? What if I let my publisher down? What if, despite my fervent promotion, it never finds its audience? What if, after all these years of tilling the soil of my soul, and investing so much time and money into my writing education, this book doesn’t matter?
This wasn’t just a recipe for doubt, my friends. With these ingredients I had concocted a full-out crisis of faith.
The antidote to fear
People have been having crises of faith for as long as the human spirit has yearned to be part of a bigger, more meaningful story, and the antidote is readily available in our wisdom literature. Marianne Williamson, in her #1 bestseller A Return to Love, simplifies the issue by saying there are only two human emotions: love and fear. At the root of all negative human emotions—jealousy (I’ll never have what she has), disappointment (I’ll never be able to get what I want), and anger (I’ll never be treated as I deserve)—is always a seed of fear.
And look at all the seeds of fear I’d been feeding on! Luckily, my writing buddies helped me see this and helped me find compassion for myself—an emotion rooted in love.
Williamson suggests, as does the Bible, that love will heal our fear. And what do I love? Writing. As soon as I removed the opening scenes that weren’t working and typed my notes into my document, a resurgence of love and excitement drew me into the task.
Because I had already raised questions about my new project before overstuffed at the creative banquet that was the UnConference, hidden magic had been brewing upon my return, even during my week of despair. As UnCon session leader Meg Rosoff would have said, my unconscious mind was chewing on my problem and synthesizing a solution—and it showed up on the page when I began to write.
And once again, the same journey that led me into the dark forest of my psyche has delivered me to the sun. Through this work that I love, I am healed.
Have you ever noticed that fear cannot touch you while you are actually writing? What ingredients feed your storm of doubt? Let’s be real today. We will not whine, but share the burden of our doubts across empathetic shoulders, and try to love one another back into wholeness.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.
Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.
Photo credit by Lorena G at Dribble.