Taking the Longview

Opposites Attract (my attention): I read two blog posts yesterday morning that stayed with me. Do yourself a favor and go read them both. The first was an excellent post about fear, aptly titled What’s the Worst that Could Happen? by my friend and fellow writer Lisa Ahn. In it Lisa relates how her mother used to try to allay her fears by offering her the title’s query. But, as she relates: “It turns out this is not the best coping mechanism for a child with an adroit imagination. My ‘worst’ is always catastrophic.” I’m the same. I’m not claiming my imagination is as adroit as Lisa’s, but I can come up with some pretty bad stuff.

The second post was Thinking A Career, by Steven Pressfield. In his post, Pressfield makes a marvelous case for keeping a positive perspective on our potential. He says that our muse has plans for us, and that the future exists for us as writers in the form of a shelf full of our books. He asks if we’ve heard ‘the call,’ as in the invitation to our own Hero’s Journey. And he asks if we are doing everything in our power to bring our ‘work-in-potential’ into material form. I believe I have a shelf full of books, and I consider it my solemn duty to strive toward bringing them into material form.

The two posts are quite different, nearly opposites—one a witty take on the power of our imagined fear fueling our writing, the other an almost mystical take on the power of staying optimistic about the future of your work—and yet both resonated for me, and led me to this post.

Imagining the Worst—A Specialty: Lisa’s post reminded me of one of my most powerful fears. I’ve always had a fear of heights—at times it’s been near debilitating. Between my time in the business world and devoting most of my energy to writing, I did quite a bit of carpentry. It started with the building of my own house, which I’ve already written about here. As you can imagine, framing a multi-story structure, or doing any job on a rooftop, is damn difficult for a guy with a fear of heights.

I remember when I framed, sheeted, and shingled the backside of our two-story garage (the top half is our guesthouse, or FROG—free-room-over-garage). The drop to the ground is only about twenty or so feet. It wasn’t the highest work I’d done, but just below it, about where a falling object—say a person’s body—would naturally land, is a wooden fence (see picture). When I did as Lisa’s mother advised, and imagined the worst, I pictured falling backward, landing with my back (or worse–we won’t even talk about a straddling landing) hitting the fence top. Then I easily conjured an image of myself laying there with a broken back. Of course in my imagined scenario I’d be paralyzed, so there would be no way to dial a cellphone for help. And so on. Imagine yourself there, and let your own fears run wild if you dare. Might I suggest the addition of a wandering bear or wolf pack?

Good-To-Go With Vertigo: So you might be asking yourself how I did it. The secret will sound pretty simple. Forward focus. It’s more like a philosophy than a way of seeing with your eyes. It involves more than simply not looking down. Whenever I was on high, I focused all of my attention on each and every movement needed to get the job done. I’m not talking about big stuff either, like ‘today lay and nail the plywood sheeting onto the rafters.’ I’m talking, ‘put your left foot there, now your right there; now put your weight on your left hip; now reach to your tool belt, get out a hammer and a nail; now drive the nail into this corner of the plywood, etcetera, etcetera.’ I know it sounds cumbersome, and it was, but it got the job done each time. By truly focusing my all on getting each step done, I didn’t have the time or attention to be diverted to imagined paralysis or wandering wolves (no, we don’t actually have wolves or bears in our woods). And each day I survived added to a small store of accumulated confidence—until the next roof job, where the process starts over again (damn it!).

Fear and Self-Loathing in Rewrite-ville: Turns out I’ve got some pretty powerful fears regarding my writing, too. Fear of rejection is the most obvious. It can be difficult to share something so personal, let alone offer it up for subjective judgment by the world at large. And it only gets worse, I know.

Turns out that the farther you go in the process, the deeper you must ask yourself to go. During the rewrite process, in order to make your work the best it can be, you have to dig deeper, for the darkest stuff inside you. The deeper and darker you go, the more dire the obstacles for your characters, the better the work—the more likely you are to succeed. As sure as you ratchet up the fear and peril for your characters, you are ratcheting up your willingness to lay your own deepest fears and most hidden inner demons on the table… For all to see! Ironic, isn’t it?  

I’ve been navigating the angst-inducing publishing minefield in the same way I approach carpentry on high. Taking it a step at a time. First draft, check. Rewrite without knowing what you’re doing, check. Find a group of beta readers, done; try to respond to their feedback, got it. Write query letter, check; submit work—scary, but okay. Rejections all around *Cue cartoon deflating balloon sound-effect*

Okay, what’s the next step? I know, write another one—a prequel (okay, that step was mostly avoidance, but it turned to be helpful, and at least it kept me writing). What else can I do while writing prequel? Hire a pro—very scary, but did it! See? Step by step, inch by inch.

From Baby Steps to Big Ones: I just shared the last manuscript of the trilogy with my fabulous development editor, Cathy Yardley of Rock Your Writing. Some of my deepest, darkest stuff, the toughest to share, is in book three, and I feared the worst. But you know what?—I survived. She didn’t laugh at me (I don’t think) or tell me it was awful or that it would never work or that I had to change any of the major elements. She told me it needs work (quite a bit). But that should’ve been a given, right? In fact, she singled out some of that very deepest, darkest stuff as being some of my most effective writing. Go figure.

My point is, the farther you go, the bigger the steps, but the more you gain of that accumulated confidence with each one. The next steps for me are big ones—a major overhaul of the opening of book one, an accompanying rewrite (all to dig deeper and go darker), and then resubmission. But I’ve been up on this roof for a while now. I’m still scared, every day, but I’m feeling pretty good about my footing. I can allow myself to glance up and see the peak ahead. This job’s nearing completion. I’ll have to start all over again on the next one, but those are steps I can’t focus on yet.  

Taking the Longview: Some of you might be wondering what all of this has to do with Pressfield’s ‘career-in-potential’ advice. A funny thing happens after you’ve been on the roof for a while, after you’ve accumulated a small reserve of that confidence. You can start to look around, and enjoy the view. It’s still scary as hell to look straight down. It can take you right back to imagining laying down there with a broken back, unable to dial your cell. But as you near the peak, you can take the longview. You see things from a new perspective. From where I am now, thanks to the encouragement of my tribe, the affirming praise of some of my beta readers, and inspiration and instruction from pros like Steven Pressfield and Cathy, I can even see the shelf that will someday hold my books, which I can imagine more clearly than ever before.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever fully defeat my fear of heights. But I know I can keep my fears at bay well enough to enjoy the views from wherever I am on my climb. And the higher I go, the more lovely the view.

And you? What are your fears? Does imagining the worst help you deal with them? Do you have a coping method or mechanism? Have you accumulated enough confidence to take, and enjoy, the longview?