No, I don’t have the song lyrics in mind when I pose that question. Although, come to think of it, Tony Bennett’s song would make a great theme for a romance novel: “Learn what love is made of. / What are you afraid of?” But that’s a topic for another day. Today I’m asking myself that question and another that is related. What am I afraid of? How are my fears affecting my writing?
Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi
I know I’m not perfect, and I really don’t want to be. I rather like knowing that I’m part of what Emily Dickinson called “freckled human nature.” But my writing—ah, that’s harder because, you see, the book in my head is perfect. It is polished and flawless and scintillating. The gap between the book in my head and the book on the page fills me with dismay and fear. If it’s imperfect, it can fail—and that leads to my other fear.
Psychologists say that fear of failure interferes with our analytical, cerebral thought process and pushes us toward “fight or flight,” instinctive responses connected to basic survival that are generated in the pre-rational part of our nervous system. Now these instinctive responses that result in tense muscles, pounding heart, and floods of adrenalin are useful if I’m confronting a woman-eating tiger in a jungle or a gun-toting neighbor who dislikes my choice of music, but they short-circuit the reasoning I need to move past the fear that tells me I can’t write fiction, that I’m wasting my time, that there are other things I should be doing.
The rational part of my brain can remind me that failure may be a necessary step in moving toward success. Thomas Edison failed to invent the light bulb 1,000 times before he succeeded. Babe Ruth is remembered for his 714 home runs, but he struck out nearly twice as many times as he homered. Stephen King’s first novel was rejected thirty times. It was 27 years between the time Anna Campbell completed her first manuscript and the sale of her debut novel Claiming the Courtesan. But I can’t remember all these anecdotes and draw inspiration from them if I’m all caught up in “fight,” meaning I claim all responsibility for the situation, or “flight,” meaning I assume no responsibility for the situation. I need that reasoning part of my brain to remind me that some things are out of my control. I can’t control market trends or agents’ lists or the state of publishing, even though any of these and doubtless a thousand other things equally beyond my control play a role in the rejections I have received/will receive. I am responsible for disciplining myself to write even on the days I’d rather do anything else, for producing the best work I can, for being professional in my actions and interactions, for recognizing that in writing, as in most things, to stop growing is to die.
Dr. David Perkins, author of The Eureka Effect: The Art and Logic of Breakout Thinking (W. W. Norton, 2001), believes that creativity is fostered as much by attitude as by talent. Believing in yourself and working in a disciplined fashion toward a goal frees the imagination to become more productive. I also take comfort in the studies that suggest age has its benefits in terms of creativity. The young use one side of the brain for creative problem solving, but beginning about 40, when overall cognitive abilities begin a slight decline, people begin using their entire brains to think even more creatively than when they were younger. Gene Cohen, M.D., author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (Basic Books, 2006) compares it to “shifting from two-wheel drive to all-wheel drive.” Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her mid-60s when she published her first Little House book, and Grandma Moses, American primitive artist, was 76 when she began painting and 80 when she had her first one-woman show.
The difference between those who succeed and those who fail frequently has less to do with degrees of talent than with degrees of perseverance. My goal for 2011 is to conquer the paralytic fear of failure, to remember those things that will encourage me to persevere, and to keep writing. To that end, I copied and placed above my desk the advice of Kaki Warner, whose first two books in the Blood Rose trilogy (Pieces of Sky and Open Country) won high praise in 2010. (The third book, Chasing the Sun, has just been released.) In her interview on January 11 with PJ at The Romance Dish, Ms. Warner advised aspiring writers:
Never give up. Love your characters, because if you don’t, how can you expect an agent or editor to? Get all the feedback you can—discard half of it—use the rest. Keep it real (I know, in Romance that kinda defeats the purpose, but try anyway). And remember, no matter how much of yourself you put into your work, industry rejections are not personal. Finally, it’s your story, your voice, your plot—don’t write to please a critique group, an agent, an editor, or a market. Listen and consider…but in the end do it your way, as true and honest as you can make it. And did I say “never give up?” I mean it. Never. Ever.I'm still afraid of failing, but I'm writing past the fear.
What are you afraid of? What advice are you set to follow in 2011?