What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
Vincent Van Gogh
Writing is a scary endeavor, don’t you think? There’s that frightful blank page staring at us, taunting us, daring us; then the first sentence; the first paragraph; the first page; the ending; and all those paramount decisions we make to fill the space between. Our nerves quake against the inner critic with a dialog stuck on repeat: What if I can’t do this? What if the world finds out I’m a fraud? What if I’m too scared? What if the reviews are hurtful-or true? Every time we face the page, we are taking risks. Big, potentially-career-changing risks. Damn right, we’re scared. Or… maybe it’s just me?
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I dip my pen in the blackest ink, because I am not afraid of falling into my inkpot.”
Well, good for ole Ralph! But I’m currently knee-deep in research for two books I’m writing for an educational publisher, and I am a tiny bit afraid. Partly because of the reeeally short deadlines, and partly because I’ve agreed to write about subjects that deserve the utmost sensitivity and respect. And I know very little about them. Yikes!
I instinctively reached for my version of the Cowardly Lion’s badge of courage. Ain’t it purdy? See, a million years ago, in 1994, I suffered a slobbery, whimpery, crushing heartbreak. You know the kind. I was a weak-kneed wreck until I ran out of tears. One day, the cosmic switch flipped and I found my sea-legs again. I dressed up in my favorite white suit with a red belt and red pumps (you can tell this was pre-writing career.) I trekked to the nearest jewelry store and zeroed in on this pendant. The cute panda on the front wasn’t the draw. The back, however, was engraved 1994. Sold! Originally, I called it my declaration of independence. I know, I know… corny, right? This piece of gold and credit card balance had a purpose: to remind me to never be a human door mat again; to stop hiding behind insecurity; to take risks; to be brave!
This symbolic shot of courage has been with me through tough times and triumphant times, in my writing life, and my personal life. I tend to reach for it when I’m feeling anxious, or vulnerable, or just plain scared. Like when I hiked the glacial ice fields miles above Juneau, Alaska; scuba-dived in various oceans; white-water-rafted; blew both knees in skiing trips; submitted to agents; collected rejections; gave my heart away again. I do think we need to step outside our comfort zones sometimes, to remind us we are alive.
Andre Gide, recipient of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature wrote, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
I love that, don’t you?
I’ve struggled to push myself out of my comfort zone (aka the shore) at the page. I’m not alone, right? The best stories come from weaving our souls into the stories we tell. It would be easier not to dig that deep. I am in awe of all you mega-talented authors (I’m looking at you, fellow EMU’s Debuters) who have stared down the inner critic to push boundaries. You write from the pov of the opposite gender, you dare to write torture, you use language that would make your grandmother blush, or touch on subjects that might shock someone, all because it is paramount to your stories’ heart. Art takes courage.
Last month, I survived a sweltering weeklong Boy Scout camp in Arkansauna with 150 sweaty Y-chromosome-beings, a bazillion ticks and spiders, and nights full of creepy crawlies that wandered in and out of my tent and my bedding.
But, when I faced the multi-stage high-wire COPE (Challenge Outdoor Personal Experience) course, I got scared.
The voice of doubt rang in my ears, “You’re crazy! You’re too old, You’re not fit enough, strong enough, tough enough! And, oh-my-gawd, that’s high!” What I learned about walking a highwire is to 1) always look ahead, 2) tell yourself YOU CAN, 3) Remember that someone is watching your back, and 4) Breathe! Sounds a bit like a writing career.
An unfamiliar scout dad left his son behind and followed my progress through the various stages of the course. He hollered up to me at one point, “I don’t know many women who would try that.”
“It’s my year to be brave,” I said.
And it still is.
Let’s all be brave, my friends.
Madeleine L’Engle once quipped, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-ups we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…To be alive is to be vulnerable.
Smart woman, that Madeleine!
Donna Bowman Bratton is a Texas author with a passion for cool nonfiction and historical fiction for young readers. Her debut book, STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY, will be released in spring 2015 by Lee and Low Books, followed by EN GARDE! ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS from Peachtree Publishers. She also writes books for the education market.