Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears

I’ve been reading a lot about fears lately. Not intentionally. But the subject keeps coming up, so clearly it wants to be written about. I guess by me.

Fear #1

I wanted to give myself a break and read something funny, so I chose Paula Poundstone’s book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. I enjoyed her writing so much, I even stuck around for the Acknowledgments. And there it was, staring back at me from the page: fear.

I don’t know how anyone writes for a living. Every writing session is a deep dive into a sea of self-doubt.

If that’s the kind of fear that keeps you from writing, change the subject. Write about something you don’t care quite so much about. Or if you can’t change the subject, change the style: write it from the perspective of a five-year-old. Write it in poetry—in limericks.

Write something that makes you laugh. How can you doubt yourself when you’re laughing?

I do, however, have personal experience with Poundstone’s next observation:

“Once I get going, it can feel exciting and rewarding, but I often have to lure myself with the promise of Butterfingers or raisin toast as a reward for writing progress. It’s a really hard job and can cause weight gain.”

My toaster gets quite a workout when I’m writing for some clients. I think there’s an inverse relationship between carbs and confidence. The more I have of the former, the more I lack the latter.

I need to work on that.

Fear #2

After the Poundstone book, I turned to a book on writing, one I’ve been looking forward to: Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.

I hadn’t even finished the first chapter when…

“As with everything I’ve ever written, I start out paralyzed by fear and frustration.”

Many people mistake fears for writers’ block. But you see? Paralysis is just a natural part of the process. Karr continues:

“The tarantula ego – starving to be shored up by praise – tries to scare me away from saying simply whatever small, true things standing in line for me to say.

Ts’ok. That’s why God gave us delete keys.”

I think you can definitely expect a separate blog post about Karr’s use of language. She’s a poet as well as a noted memoirist. And apparently she fights fears as well.

A few pages later, she clarifies: this paralyzing fear isn’t about writing, per se—it’s about how readers will perceive her writing. She gets the Willits, in other words. But not about whether she’s writing well; about whether she’s fairly representing the other people who appear in her life story:

“The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night. I always tell my students that doubt runs through me every day I work, like the subway’s third rail.”

Okay, let’s cut Paula Poundstone a small break here. After all, her “search for human happiness” is part-memoir. Maybe she’s deep-diving in the same part of the ocean as Mary Karr.

Fear #3

Okay, I don’t really have a third writer to quote here; I just thought “Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears” sounded like a nice title.

I could throw in something from the always inspirational Elizabeth Gilbert, but I’ve written about her work before. If you deal with fear and you haven’t read her book Big Magic, don’t even talk to me.

Well, I have read Big Magic. Several times. But I still get scared. And sometimes I feel paralyzed—not generally about writing. About marketing.

And I’ve heard all the stuff. How it’s just an exchange of information. How you can’t make anyone buy something they don’t want to buy. My latest coach just reminded me it’s just another form of storytelling. And Lord knows I know how to do that.

Doesn’t matter. Every time I run a marketing campaign, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a very narrow diving board—the highest one they have at the Olympics. Maybe even higher. And I’m diving into a pool the size of a teacup. Is it any wonder I get scared?

Liz Gilbert says to talk to your fear-monster. Mine even has a name: MarProk—Marketing Procrastination. But if I forget to give him an alternate assignment before I start marketing, there he is all up in my face talking about the joys of toast and sleep (sequentially, not together) and how little the world needs whatever I’m selling.

Just right

So here’s a reminder to you—and to me—that Goldilocks did eventually find a bowl of porridge, a chair, and a bed that were Just Right for her.

Damn! I just remembered how the story ends. The three bears return home and scare her off. Hmm. Not the metaphor I was looking for.

Time for a quick rewrite:

Keep going and you will find writing work that sustains and feeds you (porridge rather than Butterfingers).

You will find the support you need to do that writing. And comfort in the work, too (the chair and the bed).

And when the bears show up, don’t try to change their nature. It’s their job to be bears; find a way to peacefully coexist with them. And get on with your job:

Write.

Transformation: when your window wants to become a sail

I’m in the transformation business. One of the things that excites me most about working with writers is seeing the “afters” from their “befores” as they absorb my feedback and hone their craft.

But transformation can be scary stuff. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not the kind of person who’ll volunteer to be scared. And pay good money for it? No thanks.

not a great transformation
[not my window]
During the big storm that swept up the East Coast recently, a large plate-glass window at the back of my house tried to transform itself into a sail.

Scared? Uh, yes, I believe I screamed. Well, “exclaimed.” With growing urgency and volume each time I saw it bow in. Eventually we found some tape to support it. I’ve been through enough hurricanes to know you’re supposed to tape the windows, but this wasn’t supposed to be a hurricane!

After taping the window, we hung a blanket over it for good measure. My friend said it was to prevent the glass from blowing into my house if the window shattered. I think it was more to prevent me from screaming at each new shape the window assumed. She assured me the window was rated to withstand 100 mph winds—and she’s a builder; I figured she should know.

Transformation & Fear

My friend and I reacted differently to the window’s attempts to transform itself into a sail. I went straight to fear; she saw nothing amiss. That’s the thing with transformation. No two people approach it in the same way.

Something that’s routine for me—like writing—may scare the living daylights out of someone else.

Other people can sell ice to Alaskans (a phrase that packed a whole lot more punch before we destroyed the polar ice caps). But even thinking about selling can render me practically comatose with fear.

How do you move through the fear to transformation?

First, if it’s a rational fear—like shards of plate glass flying through your home to decapitate you—Take Appropriate Action. By the way, the local newscast said winds reached 93 mph in the town next door, which totally vindicated my fear. Then again, it wasn’t 100 and the window remained intact, so my builder friend was right too. But I was right-er. (Not that I’m competitive or anything.)

If it’s an irrational fear—if it’s not going to kill you—then by all means Take Appropriate Action. Action is the only thing that can banish fear.

I know, I know. I hate reading that too. I wish there were a pill you could pop, or a website where you could click a button and the thing you’re afraid of magically gets done for you. But really the thing you need to do is…suck it up and do the thing.

How? When you’re paralyzed with fear, how do you take even one step forward?

Elizabeth Gilbert says to have a conversation with your fear. If you haven’t read her book Big Magic yet, do that ASAP.

And I’m going to offer another suggestion based on my recent experience: Hang a blanket over it. Picture your fear on the other side of a big window and just tape up a blanket. Or draw the curtains if you’ve got ’em. And leave your fear standing outside.

If you’re feeling vindictive, you can imagine your fear standing out in the cold. If you’re a kinder person—and I feel certain Liz Gilbert is a kinder person—give it a lawn chair, a strong SPF sunblock, and a gossip magazine to keep itself occupied while you do that scary thing.

Then Take Appropriate Action

Writing isn’t going to kill you—not unless you do it while hanging off a mountain one-handed. And marketing hasn’t killed me yet. I have no doubt that one of these days, I’ll remember that.

Transformation can seem scary. But the more you can ignore the fear and do the thing that scares you, the less power that fear will have over you. At least that’s what they tell me.


Transform yourself into a more powerful storyteller. Join my one-day Anchor Your Ideas challenge, March 17th. (Blanket over the window optional.)

The Willits strike again

the Willits strike again
(Royalty-free image from GetStencil.com)

I’ve been thinking about the Willits a lot this week—you know, those annoying thoughts that show up whenever you stick so much as a pinky-toe outside your comfort zone to write:

Will it be any good?
Will it make people like me?

and the worst Willit of all:

Will it sell?

This isn’t the first time the Willits have come to call. I wrote about them last summer when they barged uninvited into my vacation.

But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.

I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.

And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?

Will it be a complete waste of time?

I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.

My Willits, and yours

Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.

I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.

If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:

The Willits are full of shit.

The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.

Here’s what I wrote last night:

Just out of Adam Gopnik’s show at The Public and I need some time to myself before I head back.
It was the kind of evening where you sit there thinking, “This is what I want to do.” And then, 10 seconds later, “How can I think I could possibly do anything as brilliant as this?”
He built his show around some dichotomies—individualism and plurality, for instance. I took away inspiration and defeatism. How can I snatch victory from its jaws?
First by realizing that Gopnik’s brilliance didn’t just show up one day. This show aggregated work he’s been doing since at least 2002, when Mr. Ravioli made his debut in the pages of The New Yorker. That’s 16 years ago. Who knows how long some of the other pieces have been marinating?
So I think: I’m writing memoir-ish pieces like this. But I don’t see a more universal significance in them. Does that make me a failure? No, it makes me a writer. A writer-in-progress. Once I’ve got all the material out of me and onto paper, then I can start looking for universal meanings, for strands that tie the pieces together, for something—anything—that someone who’s not me would find valuable in my work.
In the meantime, my job is not to judge. My job is to write.

And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.


Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.

“Day of Utter Suckitude” — wisdom from composer Dale Trumbore

If you’d asked me before this morning, I would have told you that writing music and writing words don’t have much in common. For one thing, we word-writers have a whole lot more material to work with—26 letters in the Western alphabet vs. 12 tones in a Western scale. That’s 14 more things we get to play with and, well, if you want to know how many more combinations that gives us, you’ll have to ask a mathematician.

utter suckitude
Dale Trumbore, photo by Krysti Sabins (from Dale’s website)

What changed this morning? I read a piece my friend Dale Trumbore, the very talented composer, wrote about creativity. And every word in it rings true.

Before I even finished the first paragraph, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about Dale’s piece. Everyone who creates in any medium goes through what Dale calls the Day of Utter Suckitude, when everything you’ve created seems like crap. On those days, I even hate the punctuation. I’d bet Dale even finds faults with the rests.

The important thing to remember is that the Day of Utter Suckitude isn’t the entire creative journey, just like McDonald’s rest rooms aren’t your entire road trip. You get to look at prettier things along the way, too—the back roads, the quaint inns.

Can you tell I spend far too much time on Rt. 95? And, yes, sometimes it feels like my entire day is just one McDonald’s rest stop after another. I remember one quick round-trip from Massachusetts to New York when I was so sick of driving that the only thing that got me back in the car was realizing that the alternative was spending the rest of my life in a McDonald’s.

And that’s what bounces creative people out of our Days of Utter Suckitude.

Marketing Block — Writer’s Block’s evil twin

marketing blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ve written about that dozens of times, including this post about Fran Lebowitz’s decades-long block. But when I came across that post the other day, I had a new appreciation for what Lebowitz has gone through. Writer’s block may not be real, but I’ve been locked in mortal combat with its evil twin for a couple of weeks now. Marketing Block. It’s a bitch.

Interviewed in 1993 for The Paris Review, Lebowitz talked about the pain of not writing:

“Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”

Replace “writing” with “marketing” and you have a snapshot of my life the past month. “Exhausting,” “psychically wearing”—Fran, I see those adjectives and I’ll raise you “painful.”

Of course, if writer’s block isn’t real…

Damn. Really?

I’ve been suffering for a month from something that doesn’t exist?

Marketing Block and the F-Word

In my blog post last spring, I wrote:

If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

At this point, I gotta tell you, “fear” isn’t the only F-word floating around in my head. Perhaps I’ve been too smug about people who fear writing so much they pathologize not doing it. They may be inventing the condition, but they’re not inventing the pain they experience from it. Neither am I.

Okay, time to pick myself up and deploy some well-placed F-words in the direction of my fear. Maybe if I tell Marketing Block I’ve decided it’s not real, it will get the hell out of town.



Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

What can I do when I get nervous? — Frequent Questions

Q: What do I do when I get nervous?
A: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

A friend of mine gave a speech yesterday. “I’m nervous,” she told me.

My response? “Good. That means you’re alive.”

Really, folks, everybody gets nervous.

That speech you’re so nervous about giving, I bet you were nervous about writing it, too. But you survived the writing and you will survive the reading. The key to both is:

Don’t pathologize it.

nervous
got nerves?

Being nervous is just part of the process. Like making sure you put the page numbers at the top of each page. Like printing out two copies of the draft, so you’re sure to remember one. Like tapping the pages on the lectern to make sure they’re all lined up neatly before you speak. It’s a process.

I guarantee that every speaker—no matter how experienced—feels butterflies. But the pros just say, “Hey, butterflies. How ya doin’?” Breathe, maybe strike a power pose in the bathroom. Stand up straight and walk onstage with a smile. Maybe the butterflies will flutter after you. But once you hear the first applause or laughter, you’ll relax into it.

If you’ve rehearsed your piece—you have rehearsed your piece, haven’t you?—you’ll be fine.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

Speaking up — a hairy story

The universe has a wacky sense of humor. No sooner do I start writing about the importance of brave communication than I’m thrown into a situation that requires speaking up for myself.

Was it scary? Yes, sadly. And that’s all the more ridiculous because the incident involved would barely register on the scale of all of the #metoo outrages we’ve been reading about in the last month or so.

I could have walked away. Perhaps in the past I would have walked away. No, no–if I’m going to be honest here, I’m going to be 100% honest: I have walked away in the past. Hasn’t every woman? (And apparently every man who’s been within an arm’s length of Kevin Spacey.)

But then I thought about all I’ve been writing lately about speaking up, communicating like a leader. And so I spoke up. Here’s the story.

The 12-year-old boy inside the grown-ass man

Sunday morning, heading down the hall to the choir room to don my robe, this older dude from the choir is walking behind me. As we pass the church’s thrift store holding room, he says, “You need a hair dryer.”

speaking upI thought perhaps someone had donated an ancient hair dryer and he was making a joke about it. I said, “What?”

He repeats, “You need a hair dryer,” and then flips the back of my hair.

For the record, my hair was perfectly dry–and awesomely shiny thanks to my new shampoo. But even if I’d just climbed out of Cape Cod Bay, the dude–I didn’t even know his name (it’s New England; I haven’t been introduced to half the people in the choir)–had no standing to comment on my appearance. And even less standing to touch me.

This is the second time an old man at this church has touched me and spoken to me as if I were his child. 

I hadn’t visited the church more than a handful of times, but after one service I took out my phone to note an upcoming church event in my calendar. Dude sweeps by and slaps me on the shoulder, saying, “Put that thing away!” He may have thought his avuncular smile would mitigate his intrusiveness. It didn’t. But it did delay my reaction–took me maybe a week to figure out that he was treating me like his child.

So when this second dude touched me on Sunday, I recognized the gesture for what it was. My friend Angie described it best: “rude, impulsive, and thoughtless.” And while part of me wished fervently that I could just walk away, the rest of me realized I’d never forgive myself if I did.

I spent the entire service considering my response. The more I thought about it, the more juvenile his behavior seemed. Like a 12-year-old boy insulting a girl and then pushing her just so he could touch her–because that’s the only way he can think of to get her to notice him.

This dude hasn’t been a 12-year-old boy since before I was born. And I wondered how his wife (also in the choir) would feel about his juvenile need to get other women to “notice him.” Yep, I needed to speak to both of them together. Or at least make sure she heard whatever I said to him.

Speaking up — scary but satisfying

Back in the choir room after the service, I waited until the wife showed up and then I walked over to the dude and said, “Sir”–that was probably the hardest word to get out of my mouth, since I felt zero respect for him. But I wanted to get his attention. I said, “Sir, I don’t know your name.”

He told me his name and stuck out his hand, which I shook. Perhaps he’d been expecting pleasantries. This is what he got:

“I just wanted to tell you that I don’t appreciate you insulting my hair. And you do not have permission to touch me. What in the world would make you think that you could touch a woman you don’t even know?”

About halfway through my little speech, his head dropped.

“I’m sorry,” he said to his shoes.

As I turned to walk away he told his toes, “I meant no offense.”

I drove out of the church parking lot, my heart pounding, and stopped in the nearest safe place to calm down and regroup.

“Just” and justice

It would have been so easy to walk away. After all, he “just” touched my hair, he didn’t shove his fist in my crotch like the giant assh*le who tried to rape me in college. But it’s all on the same continuum:

Your body doesn’t belong to you; as a man, I can touch or grope or worse. If I don’t choose to acknowledge your agency as an adult human being, then you have none. Tough titties. (Oooh, titties!)

So I set aside the “just” (he just touched my hair) in favor of justice. It’s my own variation of the old Broken Windows policing theory–serve notice about every personal intrusion, every boundary crossed without permission, no matter how small. Because if you don’t tell the perpetrators you care about the small transgressions, they have no incentive to stop. And some of them will escalate to even larger transgressions.

I’m sure I bewildered the old dude by getting angry about something he’s done hundreds of times in his life. But I guarantee you his shoes were more confused than he was: You’re sorry? What, for not using the shoehorn this morning?

Still, you know, I’m okay with leaving a string of bewildered, handsy dudes in my wake. We need to tell them this is not normal or acceptable behavior. For sure someone should have done that before. But now it’s our turn; we need to take it.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”–a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

Mwah-hah-hah: Fear

Hallowe’en is (at least partially) about Fear, right? Good-natured fear. You know the toddler in the Dracula getup isn’t going to puncture anything more serious than the wrapped candy you distribute.

The fear that hits writers sometimes is like that, too. It’s not gonna kill you, so as the cliché has it that must mean it’ll make you stronger. But it’s so, so hard to remember that. To remember that all you need to do is keep putting one word in front of another. You may not be able to outrun your fear, but you can write yourself a path through it.

So I asked my writers this week to write about their fear. We looked at the conversation Elizabeth Gilbert shared in her essential book Big Magic; I  couldn’t wait to see what this creative group came up with.

Gilbert sets boundaries with her fear: you can do this, but not that. I am in charge. One of my writers took a similar approach, but added a trio of enforcers named after personal growth qualities we all need. At the end of her piece, the enforcers escorted Fear outside “to have a talk.” Tony Soprano would have been proud.

Another writer could have been writing a movie script called Fear Takes a Holiday. Instead of calling in the goons to beat up Fear, she showed Fear what a good time looks like. Encouraged it to take a load off and hang out in the sunshine. You could almost see the piña colada in Fear’s hand, see the smile slowly dawning on Fear’s face.

Smiling Fear? Well, that’s no real fear at all. So whatever you fear, hand it an umbrella drink and show it a grand old time. It’ll never want to go home again.

It’s not always easy

Oh I talk a good game. I tell you not to believe in Writer’s Block, the Loch Ness Monster of the word world. But just because Writer’s Block is a myth doesn’t mean it’ll always be smooth sailing when you write.

Take today—well, yesterday by the time you read this. I had to add maybe two sentences to a draft I’d been working on. Two paragraphs at the most.

No, it’s really not always easy

Most days I can turn out 300 words in under half an hour, so this should have been a piece of cake.

Cake…yeah, that’s about the only thing I didn’t eat as I tried to avoid my work. Everything seemed to get in the way: the constant rain (I felt trapped inside), the conference calls that punched a hole in my day, the exhaustion that overtook me as soon as the calls were done.

Did I remember all of Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful advice about dealing with fear? Reader, I did not.

Did I remember any of my own wonderful advice about just making your fingers hit the keys, even if all you end up writing is “I have no idea what to write”? Negative.

Did I…yeah I know lists are supposed to have three things in them. But whatever the third thing would be here, you can rest assured I didn’t do that either.

I moped. I pouted. I napped.

I felt like a hypocrite.

It's not always easy

And then I remembered that I’m not a hypocrite; I’m a human being.

So I popped a piece of dark chocolate and I sat my ass down at the keyboard. Well, in my chair in front of the keyboard.

And I wrote what I needed to write.

It may not be the most brilliant work I’ll ever do. But it’s done—and that’s the most important thing.

It’s not always easy. But you can’t let fear silence you.

So write, already.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Nothing to fear but fear itself?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

fear itself
By USCapitol – Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inauguration, Public Domain

Like most things in life, the truth of FDR’s famous quote turns out to be not quite as attractive as the words burned into our brains by decades of misquoting: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Ah…I wish this post were about President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. But it’s not. It’s about me. Because I’m always telling you how important authenticity and transparency are, I have to be authentic and transparent with you now.

Fear itself

I talk a lot about fear. So much, in fact, that some of you may believe I’ve conquered it.

Um…no.

Fear is quite the shape-shifter. You beat it back in one form and it comes back in another; you learn to use one set of tools against it and it learns to work around those tools. Or worse, to use them against you.

I once had such a strong fight-or-flight reaction that the only way I could stay put (and I needed to stay put) was to imagine that my feet were encased in a bucket of cement.

I stayed put. And I got the job, too. Needless to say, that wouldn’t have happened if I’d let Fear win that round.

So I’ve adapted to some of the tactics Fear uses to stop me from creating, but I can still find myself reduced to tears by fear of doing something new.

Do I keep doing new things? You betcha.

And so should you.

My most recent fear—a fear that reduced me to tears only a few days ago—was, at bottom, fear of not doing something well. Of getting a C on the great pop quiz of life.

Of course, I’m not going to be perfect all the time. Or maybe even ever. And especially not the first time I do something.

So when Fear perches on the corner of your desk, looks deeply into your eyes and suggests that you Stop—take a deep breath and tell Fear to take a hike. Keep your fingers hovering over the keyboard, pressing down one by one. Make words appear where there were no words before.

Because you’re not alone. Ever. Anyone who’s ever created has been there. And have you read a book lately? A magazine article or blog post? Words on a screen or words on paper—those are proof. Proof that we can beat Fear Itself. And be imperfect. And go through the cycle again.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing