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The Courage to Try

I am tackling my book project, and I’m struggling. Like all of you, I’m juggling a few things right now. I’m parenting a toddler, teaching a few college courses, maintaining a home, nurturing a marriage, blogging (OK, barely), and trying to take care of myself. And writing a book. Some of those things seem to rise to the top of my priority list every day, and others always seem to be lingering at the bottom, which invariably means that they either don’t get done or they don’t get done well. Working on my book is one of the things that keep ending up at that bottom, not seeming to be as important as my other responsibilities. I know that if I’m going to write this book and write it well, that has to change.

It isn’t just about finding time and keeping a lot of balls in the air, though. It is also about fear. It is the fear that I can’t write the book I want to write. I don’t even really care if anybody reads it. What I care about most is that it is good and that at the end of this process I am proud of it. And I’m afraid of all the hard work that I know is between here and there. It isn’t just punching a clock and meeting deadlines. It is about the labor of thinking and synthesizing and storytelling. I know that it requires my full attention and energy for at least some portion of every day. The scale of the project scares me.

Husband tells me: “You only get one chance to write your first book.” I’m so afraid that it won’t be any good that I sit and stare at the screen or go and fold a load of laundry instead, neither of which will bring me closer to a book.

In light of all of this fear, I was inspired the other day by an interview with Ben Affleck on NPR’s Fresh Air. Terri Gross asked Affleck about his experience with directing his first movie, Gone Baby Gone, and this is what he had to say:

“I was very, very scared. I just didn’t know if I could do it. The only thing I can think of is … running a marathon where you just don’t know: ‘Am I even going to finish? You know, maybe I’ll fall over at mile 15 or something.’ It seems so daunting and so far, and, yeah, I had been prepared in the sense that I had directed shorts, I had always wanted to be a director. … But that just felt like very little compared to the task of directing a movie, when I went into it. And every day I was scared, and I probably stayed that scared throughout … and not sure of myself at all.”

This reminded me that even great people must get scared sometimes when they tackle a new challenge. And still they begin. They start with the first mile and then the second, and that’s the only way to finish the task. And then someday they reflect on their self-doubt and laugh with Terri Gross on NPR. We can’t all have the talent to produce a great work of film or writing, but we do all have to start somewhere. We have to have a little courage to begin and to keep coming back day after day, even when it is difficult.

It made me think back to other challenges that I have tackled and completed – and eventually done well. Preparing for my qualifying exam. Writing a dissertation. Developing a completely new area of expertise for my postdoc. That massive review article that consumed most of a spring. Grant proposals. A few nonacademic tasks come to mind, too. Planning a smallish wedding. Moving, many times, and once with a baby. Packing that first box and then the second. I’ve done a few difficult things in my life. Is writing a book so very different?

Anyway, thanks for the pep talk and the little dose of courage, Ben. I needed it.

What have you tackled that scared the crap out of you?

28 Comments
  1. I can relate almost-word-for-for with both you and Ben–fear and self-doubt can be paralyzing. But every marathon is finished one step at a time, and every book written one word at a time. You should give yourself credit for starting what many people are even too scared to attempt at all and be proud of every small step you take toward your goal. Good luck to you!

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • Thank you! Some days I think, “What have I gotten myself into?” But then again, I’m also glad that I’ve committed myself to doing something difficult. The hardest things are usually the most satisfying in the end.

      Like

      January 23, 2013
  2. I admire how you handle all that, never mind writing a book! Don’t for get to breathe. And sleep.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  3. mt #

    My scariest challenge was moving to Germany for a year to conduct my dissertation research. I had only started learning German in college and there I was, having to discuss my research to with German university professors, museum curators, archivists (who can all be very intimidating!). I never completely gave up the jitters before these meetings, but about halfway through that year, I found myself sitting in an archive reading 17th-century German documents, cheerfully asking questions of the archivist, and thought, “hey! I’m actually doing this!” Several years have passed since then, but I have kept in touch with many of the people I met. One of them even sent my son a plush rabbit doll when he was born, and my little one sleeps with every night. Despite the challenge and occasional frustrations, I’m sure that writing this book will give you many happy memories and the opportunity to meet some lifelong friends, the way my research year did for me. Here’s to hearing your post-book interview on Fresh Air!

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • Wow, mt, you are a rockstar! Seriously, foreign languages are terrifying to me. Your courage is inspiring, even though I know you were probably very scared at the time.

      Like

      January 23, 2013
      • mt #

        I was scared! But it’s great to look back and know I did it. You probably already know this, but here’s another thing that helped me actually finish my dissertation: a hard and fast rule to write. every. day. Even if it’s only a 15-min. freewrite, even if I throw out everything I write tomorrow. It’s really hard to find excuses with the 15 min. rule–only on truly extraordinary days can we not find a quarter of an hour if we’re (honestly) trying. You can do it!

        Like

        January 24, 2013
  4. Tara Sotherland #

    My husband has been deployed for the past year. Every morning I wake up and remember I have to survive another day by myself with a 1-year-old. Scares the hell out of me.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • Yup, that sounds like enough on your plate. And yet, you survive!

      Like

      January 23, 2013
  5. Good luck writing! I know what you mean about the book landing at the bottom of the daily list, I too am struggling with similar daily things :-). But what is important is starting, I look forward to updates! Some days I manage 1000 words and other weeks a big fat zero! But it’s always on my list and I’ll get there – you will too. The challenge of juggling, that’s what makes us mums right?! 🙂 Fx

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • Yeah, I guess you’re right. I wouldn’t have the stories and perspective that I hope will make this book good if I wasn’t juggling all these things.

      Like

      January 23, 2013
  6. AWSOME! you go girl! THE GREATEST PLEASURE IN LIFE IS DOING WHAT PEOPLE SAY YOU CANNOT DO:)

    Like

    January 23, 2013
  7. Good luck. Start with an outline. That always helps me write. It somehow seems easier to fill in details than to start from scratch.

    Like

    January 23, 2013
    • Yes to outlines! I have at least a brief one for each chapter. I’m actually having a harder time just enjoying the writing part right now. I’m trying to just get words and science down, hoping that I can go back to do some major editing when I’m feeling more inspired to write well.

      Like

      January 23, 2013
  8. Thank you so much for writing this post! I am finishing up (hopefully soon!) a PhD in developmental biology and sometimes I put off doing important experiments because the fear of even a slightly non-ideal outcome is overwhelming.

    I also totally recognize your husband’s statement about your “one chance” on this first book since I’ve had similar thoughts about my own work. For me, though, this absolute type of thinking can feel even more paralyzing, and often these thoughts aren’t based in reality. Sure, you only get to publish one first book. But based on how writing books actually works, the draft you write now will go through several iterations and rounds of edits, making it more and more awesome each time.

    Glad you found some good inspiration and courage, too, and I hope they hang around.

    Like

    January 23, 2013
    • I was thinking later that developing a new protocol in the lab is another example of something I’ve tackled that felt totally daunting at first. So many mistakes to make before you get the hang of it!

      You’re right about the value of editing. I loved that my husband said this before it was in the context of talking about how to take this project really seriously, how to make space in our lives for it, how he can support me. It was nice to know that he really wanted me to succeed at this. But I think you’re right that I can’t let some vision of the perfect manuscript stop me from writing really shitty drafts.

      I think I’ve found a little courage, but I’m still looking for the inspiration:)

      Like

      January 23, 2013
  9. Wow! So many people thinking and writing about fear at the moment. I really liked this article, but an up and coming director:
    http://everydaygoddess.typepad.com/everyday_goddess/2013/01/friending-the-fear-demon.html

    Like

    January 24, 2013
  10. maggie #

    Two of my favorite quotes:

    “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
    ― Winston Churchill

    “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
    ― Robert F. Kennedy

    Like

    January 24, 2013
  11. Just small, small steps. And let it evolve. That is the hardest part of my dissertation right now. I have to give myself permission to “think” as I write. Although I definitely could have written my dissertation in a much shorter period of time — I had a clear outline before my son was born — but having the time to mull it over in my head (because I physically could not write since I was rocking and holding a baby all day) allowed me to write a much better, deeper dissertation, I think. So outlines and organization are great, but mostly just have fun and explore!

    Like

    January 25, 2013
    • Oh wow, you’re so right. Thank you for this. I have been really focused on making progress, and I think I’ve forgotten this part of it. Permission and willingness to really think deeply about the subject, even if that means no words down for the day. It’s a fine balance – the need to get words on paper, even if they suck, and the need to think about the big picture. All of this in 1-2 hour increments:)

      Like

      January 26, 2013
  12. And did you see that the psychologist Susan Newman (who writes about only children) retweeted my guest post on your site about preschools?

    Like

    January 25, 2013
    • Yes! She actually wrote a guest post on my blog last year about only children.

      Like

      January 26, 2013
  13. I really needed to read this. I find myself so overcome with responsibilities (and fear) that I don’t give myself a chance to start. But when I reflect on what I have done before or am doing now, I remember that it is just about that first step.
    And just so you know, I find your blog to be a source of inspiration. I started reading early in the beginning and really enjoy the evolution of it. And I’m really looking forward to the book, I have no doubt out will be phenomenal!

    Like

    January 25, 2013
  14. I relate to what you’re saying. It is too easy to put writing at the bottom of the to-do list.

    Just remember, the first draft of the novel is SUPPOSED to be bad. Then you edit it until it is what you want. But first it has to be on paper.

    Best of luck, Theresa

    Like

    January 26, 2013
  15. You’re spot on. Gotta push through the fear and just do it! Good luck to you! Hope you are accomplishing your goals and moving forward a little bit each day!
    Visit me at: http://www.champimom.wordpress.com

    Like

    February 1, 2013
  16. You know something, women are marvelous creatures! Somehow, we just seem to remember our ‘to do’ list by heart, and execute more than half of them perfectly. The only things we forget are those that are related to our personal developments… like popping in a calcium pill, brushing hair on time, looking for the perfect dress to wear, eating half a bar of chocolate everyday… and of course, writing a book.. I understand this very well because I had started writing 2 books and left both of them not even halfway! Ridiculous yet, m not married! M just struggling to a happy single, with enough money to live happily! LOL!!! I love you for your strength and capacity!

    Like

    February 9, 2013
  17. Nominated you for the Versatile Blogger’s Award! 🙂 Loved your posts!!

    Like

    February 9, 2013

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