Sewing the Perfect Safety Net

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Leaps of faith into the great unknown are necessary. But that doesn’t mean we don’t anticipate the leap or prepare for that moment in advance. It sounds good, in theory, to proceed with reckless abandon. Like the lead in a Hollywood blockbuster who tosses a grenade into their old life and then steps out of the wreckage shiny and new.

Unfortunately, real life is different. And if you suffer from anxiety like I do, real life isn’t just different, it’s also much more terrifying.

When Twitter exploded with commentary on this topic a few weeks ago, I felt incredibly validated by all of the working writers who basically said, “you don’t have to leap without a parachute to be brave.”

I’d been grappling with this notion for a few months. While I want to be stronger in my convictions and braver in the pursuit of my dreams, I also don’t want to put myself in emotional or psychological danger.

So, here’s what I’ve decided–I will leap. When my 18 months are up on this invisible contract I have made with the Universe, I will leap. I will trust. I will try at this thing in earnest and I won’t give up when things get hard. But in the meantime, I will do whatever I can to create a safety net for this proverbial leap. I will pay off my debt. I will save up a 6-month emergency fund. I will finish several books. I will take care of my physical and mental health.

In other words, I will work to mitigate as much risk as possible, not because I think all risk is bad. But because I know how too much risk affects my body. It makes me worry, which makes me sick, and when I’m in that state of mind I can’t create. Which totally negates the goal of being a full-time creative.

Mitigating as much risk as possible does not make me any less committed or any less brave. It doesn’t lessen my chances of success. In fact, it bolsters them. Because when you have a plan, a map, a step-by-step guide leading to your destination, you’re much more likely to actually get there.

Sure, we may take a few detours, get lost a few times along the way. But the path doesn’t disappear just because we wander off of it. Especially, if we’re the ones who laid the track in the first place. When we lay the track it becomes ingrained in us and when a thing is ingrained in us we can always find our way back to it.

 

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Get on the Dang Bus

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I rewrite the first chapter of everything a million times. It is inevitable.

Because it comes first, it is usually garbage. I don’t know the characters well enough yet to know their thoughts and how those thoughts will affect their actions. I usually know what the character wants but I don’t know enough about the obstacles in their way in order to start planting them from the beginning.

At this point I have more questions than answers, which means everything is full of holes. I patch as I go, moving forward and backward, answering questions that lead to answers, which usually lead to more questions.

A few times in the initial drafting process I go back to the beginning and rewrite certain scenes with this knew information. The more things are illuminated, the more I have to go back and weave in those bits of light, which usually illuminates other things I hadn’t realized or thought of and basically the process is never ending.

With my latest WIP, the main character wants to be a musician. More immediately, he wants to audition for a prestigious music school. I have started this scene with him on the bus, anxious as he thinks about what he’s about to do, how he’s about to expose himself, how he might fail. But it didn’t feel urgent enough.

After I got to know him a little better I went back and rewrote the scene so that it starts with him waiting at the bus stop. He’s thinking about the sounds of his neighborhood, how those sounds live inside him. He’s worried what the judges at this fancy music school will think of those sounds. But again, there was no immediacy. The conflict was all in his head. Not out where the reader could see it, taste it, smell it, feel it.

I spent some more time figuring him out. This week I rewrote the first chapter for the third time and I started it in a completely different setting. In the first two versions my main character is just sitting there. I needed him to move. I needed this desire to literally drive him out of his comfort zone. Instead of meeting him in a passive state we find him DJing an eight-year-old’s birthday party, which is running long and possibly keeping him from getting to his audition on time.

We watch him squirm and sweat and try to balance the expectations of his real world with his desire to leave it. To become someone different. To escape his circumstances and change his life. He’s not just thinking about his fears and the possibility of failure. He’s wearing them like a second skin.

It hurts to watch and as he runs six city blocks we ache with hope for him. When he realizes that the bus has left without him, we ache with something else.

This is what matters in a first chapter: How do I make this person’s pain or hope or fear transferrable to the reader? How do I make these feelings leap off the page and hijack the heart of a complete stranger? How do I weave lies so well they are truth? The kind of truth that pricks and stings and reminds us in the best and worst ways that we are alive.

As a writer, that is my job. My only job. Make people feel because when we feel we are aware of our own consciousness, the miracle of our existence. We are reminded that feeling is the point of all of this. That it’s not enough to sit and think and dream and wonder. We have to make moves. We have to wade into the muck for those jewels. We have to put ourselves in situations that make us feel things. Hard things. Hopeful things.

Most importantly, it reminds us that we must be actors in our own lives. We have to stop sitting and waiting for life to arrive. We have to get on the dang bus even if we have to chase it down six city blocks. With every breath and every step, we have to chase this life. Even if we’re wearing our fears like a second skin, the weight slowing us down, we have to chase this life.

Micro Leaps

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Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and notice my hands are clenched. I exhale, uncurling my fingers, feeling the muscles loosen. I splay them flat, mashed under the pillow until the ache is gone.

Even in my sleep I can’t let go.

Even in my sleep I am scared and clinging to what little control I have of this world.

I want to stop clenching my fists in my sleep. I want to stop holding those anxieties in my muscles and nerves and bones.

But I can’t just make a decision to be more trusting and faithful. Because faith is a muscle. A muscle I must exercise even on days when I am tired and sore and unmotivated. When I have made mistakes and am afraid of starting back at one. When I am doubting. When I want to give up. When those parts of me are weary and broken.

That is how you build muscle. By ripping yourself apart so you can be stitched back stronger.

Those muscles don’t appear overnight and I won’t be able to move mountains on my first try. I must work myself up to these things. With practice. With patience.

So I’m trying.

Every time I’m faced with a choice, I ask myself if I’m making a decision out of my desire to be in control or out of my desire to relinquish it. What can I say no to? What should I say yes to?

When I choose to do something kind for myself or when I choose to let go of something I am taking these micro leaps toward freedom. They are small and might seem insignificant but they are a snowball rolling down a hill. They are building on each other, coaxing me towards the light, and making me strong.

This week I started experiencing some unexpected nerve pain, possibly left over from the time I had the shingles. It started in my right leg then moved up to my shoulder blade and then down to the bottoms of my feet. Instead of agonizing over my bank account and letting my fear of lack decide that going to the doctor was out of the question I made an appointment to see a doctor and a masseuse.

When my pain worsened at work, I didn’t let my fear of letting people in stop me from being honest with coworkers. I didn’t let my fear of not living up to people’s expectations stop me from leaving early. I gave myself permission to stop fighting against the pain and rest.

Maybe that’s the lesson I’m supposed to learn, that we’re all supposed to learn. Stop fighting. That means no more digging your heels in when you think you’re right or when you feel scared. Don’t keep the illusion of control in a death grip because it is just an illusion. We can plan, we can prepare, but we can’t create perfection.

Letting go doesn’t have to mean jumping out of an airplane with no parachute. It can be tiny, almost imperceptible changes to the way you breathe, the way you sleep, the way you dream, the way you listen, the way you ask, the way you answer. Say no to making decisions out of fear and say yes to making decisions out of faith and you will build that muscle one micro leap at a time. Until it is strong enough to move mountains. Until it is strong enough for you to let go when you know you can’t.

When Art imitates Strife

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75,000 words in and this book is finally taking shape. Themes are beginning to emerge and the characters’ thoughts and actions are creating the conflict instead of me just dropping them into unfortunate circumstances. Things are starting to make sense.

A little too much sense.

See, I thought I was writing a story about two teenagers bonding over their love of Antonia La Singla and Diego Vargas; their dead parents and the ghosts they left behind. But it turns out I’m telling a story about what happens when those ghosts get under our skin, when we hold onto them so tightly that they become a part of us in ways we don’t even realize.

It’s a story about overcoming stage fright but it’s also about all of the other fears that hold us back–the fear of loving and being loved, the fear of letting go, the fear of leaping into the unknown.

This book has been such an agonizing slog through time and space and twisted metaphors because how can I get these characters to the other side of fear if I’m still stuck at the starting line myself? Every word is a step we are both taking towards freedom. Sometimes we get lost, we backtrack, we go in a direction that doesn’t make sense.

But the only way out is through.

I have to fight through the mess to make it something new. I have to dig through the muck of my own mind. I have to pull out the weeds. This book might not be a cure or even a sense of closure. But if I keep tilling the soil and praying for rain it might just be a safe place to plant the seeds.

Am I Doing this Right?

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A few times over the past nine years I have tried to make writing my full-time gig. Either because of a cross-country move or a change in employment I have waded into the waters of being a full-time Creative a few weeks and a few months at a time. But eventually the uncertainty of how I was going to make enough money to pay my bills became too much and I’d get a “normal” day job with a “normal” paycheck.

The fear and stress would subside. I’d create a routine that made me feel safe, yet unfulfilled. Then that feeling of being unfulfilled would become too much and I’d start the cycle all over again, deciding to give writing full-time another shot or changing jobs to try to free up more time to write.

When I made the commitment to create an 18-month escape plan from my current iteration of reality, as well as the commitment to blog every day of this journey, I had no idea that I was starting this cycle all over again. That is how short my memory is. When the excitement of this journey finally wore off this past week and all I was left with was the anxiety of and pressure to make it happen, I instantly felt trapped. Then I reflected on other times in my life when I’ve felt trapped. Then I reflected on the fact that it’s usually me who is setting these traps.

Shortly after we moved to Dallas I didn’t look for employment for a couple of months because I wanted to finish my third novel. Back then I was still invisible and no one was buying my books. I took on a full-time job working from home so I could still write but it only paid $9 an hour. That wasn’t enough to make ends meet (or so I thought; I’m starting to learn I have a problem thinking I’m living in scarcity when I’m really not) so I found a job working nights and weekends to make up the difference. I was writing about 5k-10k a day, working from 8AM-4PM, and then shelving books at a library from 4:30PM-9PM.

I got sick. Pain from my shingles flared up again. I started getting regular migraines and suffered from vertigo that made it impossible to drive some days. I gained weight, lost weight, and gained it back again. I suffered from terrible insomnia. I saw an Internist and after running a bunch of tests he said my stress levels were off the charts.

Eventually, I found a full-time job that paid enough to cover the sixty hours I’d been working previously. My quality of life improved drastically. But once I settled into this routine it didn’t take long for me to start longing for something else. This is when I decided to become a teacher and to pay for graduate school with the money I was miraculously making from my books.

I keep going back to that decision and thinking about what would have happened if I’d made a different one. If I’d chosen to leap, if I’d chosen writing, where would I be now? Would I have built up an even bigger backlist and made even more money? Enough money to quell my fears and anxiety? Or would I have found myself broke again and worrying myself sick?

Maybe the choice I made was the right decision. Maybe a person like me with terrible anxiety needs more safety nets in place before I leap. Let’s face it, anything in the direction of my fears is a leap.

It’s okay if I have to fight for every inch. As long as I’m fighting.

That’s the difference between who I was then and who I am now. I am still anxious and afraid of the unknown. But I am no longer trying to control every aspect of my life. I am no longer going to put all of that weight and pressure on myself. I have a deadline, a goal in mind. But I’m also giving myself the time to get there at my own pace.

I keep reading about all of these brave and desperate people taking these giant leaps of faith. Quitting their jobs, travelling the world, and making big bold decisions with no idea of the how. It sounds so romantic. Something worth fighting for.

I want to be a fighter. I want to be brave. But if it takes me longer to escape my comfort zone, I’m okay with that. Progress is progress. I’m fighting for forward motion not a free fall into nothing. If I leap now and it doesn’t work out, I will use every mistake and bout of bad luck as an excuse to turn and run. If I plan for this leap, if I give myself  a finite amount of time to mentally and financially prepare, I won’t be able to give up at the slightest derailment. Because the slightest derailment will not ruin me.

I don’t know if I’m doing this right or wrong. Maybe the bigger the leap into the unknown, the greater the reward. Or maybe thinking that my journey has to look like it does in movies or the latest self-help New York Time’s bestseller is its own pitfall. The pitfall of pursuing perfection rather than truth. But perfection does not exist and truth is whatever I say it is.

This is my truth: I am trying. I am learning. I am moving in the direction of my dreams. I will stumble but I will not stop. I may be moving slow but I will not stop. I will not stop.