It’s Okay to be Fearful

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okeefe

This meme about Georgia O’Keeffe has been making the rounds on social media over the last couple of days. Having recently learned that O’Keeffe suffered a nervous breakdown in her mid-40s and had to be hospitalized for two months makes it all the more poignant to me.

Like most people, I experience fear and anxiety on a daily basis. It’s become part of the background noise of who I am.

But I remember so very distinctly the first time it occurred to me that I could still do something even though I was afraid. That I didn’t have to avoid the thing that was causing me fear.

I was standing in the kitchenette of my efficiency apartment in Highland Park, NJ, at the end of my second year of grad school. I was in the middle of a divorce. I had no money, and no idea what to do with myself over the summer since I no longer had a home to go to. I couldn’t stay in the New Brunswick area. I knew I would die of loneliness and depression if I did that. I had an invitation to join two friends who were going to put on a show in Boston. It was no pay, no housing, no nothing. We would have to find an apartment to sublet and I would have to find a day job – all to be able to afford to do the show.

I stood there in my tiny kitchen, washing dishes, staring at the brown, particle-board doors of the cheap cabinets over the sink, thinking about how scared I was. The fear was an angry knot in my stomach. My world was falling apart and I was terrified to make it worse. I wanted to go to Boston, but I was so scared it was debilitating; I could not make a decision about it.

And then I had one of those moments, as if God himself tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention and whispered something into my ear. I realized that just because I was scared didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. I think I was waiting for the moment when the fear dissipated to make a decision about what to do next. But I finally realized that isn’t how life works. The life you build is in many cases built in spite of the fear you feel. You – I – feel fear and decide to plow forward anyway. I realized that I could be scared to go to Boston but go to Boston anyway.

I went to Boston.

Now, Boston was not a piece of cake. It was, in truth, a really stressful and sad summer. Well, everything about it except the play we did. The play was marvelous and funny and poignant and a little bit sad. I spent the summer working with some remarkable creative people. I played a character I would never otherwise play. That part was glorious. Working in the Accounts Payable division of the Cell Biology department at Harvard Medical School during the day while living in a basement apartment on The Fenway was fucking awful. Waking up to the sound of hooligans and ne’er-do-wells puking right outside my bedroom window was unpleasant. Having my car towed sucked, and getting flipped off every time I tried to drive was also not my cup of tea. Boston was not particularly warm or welcoming to me that summer. But it wasn’t Boston’s job to be. It was my job to acknowledge that I feel fear and to go ahead and do the thing anyway. For all the pain and trouble that summer, I’m still glad I went. Who knows what the alternative would have been, and I may not have made it through the summer had I chosen to do or go anywhere else.

What do you fear that you will do anyway?

 

I Popped My Alpha Reader Cherry…

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courage

I’ve been working on my novel since November. I finished the first draft at the end of that month, and put the manuscript away until after the New Year.

Come January, I read the entire thing to myself, out loud, and made notes.

I then ignored that pile of paper for the next four months. Why? Because I saw some big changes I needed/wanted to make, and the thought of actually making those changes was daunting. One big shift I wanted to incorporate was to change the time in which the story is set from present day to 1989. That’s a pretty fundamental change. Not to mention I needed to choose a different point of entry for the story that was far more active than what I had written and which required entirely rewriting the first few chapters.

So the thing sat there for awhile. I glanced at it from time to time and felt guilty. I piddled around with the first few pages but didn’t get much farther than that.

I finally got off my ass in April, thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo, and forced myself to sit down and complete the second draft by the end of the month.

I actually did it.

But then comes the scary part. It’s time for someone else to read it.

I’ve read all about beta readers and having a non-professional pair of eyes (or several pairs of eyes) look at your work and critique it before you start sending out queries. But, this being my first novel, I’m scared to death of having people read it and think it’s a total trainwreck. I’ve lost the ability to clearly ascertain whether or not what I’m writing is good or total shit.

Fortunately, I have a husband and he is a very good sport.

So, I asked him to be my alpha reader. What’s the difference, you ask? Here’s a great breakdown of the difference between an alpha reader and a beta reader. In a nutshell, I wanted someone to read it who could tell me whether or not it’s good enough to show to other people. Someone who will be honest with me but in a very loving way. Someone who can save me from the embarrassment of sending shoddy work off to people I respect and admire. Someone who has actually made a commitment to me with that ring on my finger and who has a vested interest in my success. I only had a tiny amount of courage to show this to someone, so that someone needed to be the most loving, least judgmental and smartest person I know.

Luckily, I have good taste in spouses.

I finished the second draft a couple of days before I was scheduled to go on a mindfulness retreat in Colorado with an old friend from college. I thought that would be the perfect opportunity to hand the thing off since I wouldn’t be hovering over his shoulder and my mind would be occupied with other things, like being mindful.

I ripped off the band-aid, and it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Hubs read the whole thing in the few days I was gone, and even sent me text messages now again (my favorite – “There’s SEX in this story?!). He gave me a few notes, lots of encouragement and the confidence to let other people read it.

My plan is to polish the second draft in the next 10 days, before hubs and I leave for three weeks on a 40th birthday/our-friend-is-getting-married-in-Bulgaria trip to Eastern Europe. I figure my mind will be well-occupied in those days so I don’t dwell too much on the idea that PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY READING THOSE WORDS I WROTE RIGHT NOW.

Wish me luck, friends! The adventure continues…