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Posts Tagged ‘courage’

Last week I wrote about this gem of an article on differences between amateurs and professionals. But I left my favorite item on Bob Lefsetz’s list for today. If I were compiling a list of things about life I wish I’d known as soon as freaking possible, this would go near the top.

Amateurs, he says, believe what people say. Professionals believe what people do.

Which is to say, talking about something is all fine and good, but if subsequent actions don’t line up with the words, it’s generally the actions that point to the deeper truth about what’s going on. This is true not just in professional life, but across the board.

I suffer from a vein of serious gullibility, crossed with a strong desire to believe the best of people, so I still need to remind myself of this lesson. Noble intentions are wonderful to possess, but until we follow through on them, they remain intangible. Similarly, words matter, but if they aren’t backed up with fact, action, or experience, they remain hollow. And words can create false expectations about what will happen in the future.

I do think it takes a certain self awareness and ability to adjust to line up words with actions. And words by their nature sometimes lack the required precision. Which is why the actions themselves are so important. They cut through the potential for misunderstanding. They also help us better understand ourselves and what we care about.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my priorities and then developing plans around them because I don’t want to be a person who regularly expresses desires but then does nothing to make any of them happen. And it is so easy to be that person. It’s not as interesting to be that person, but it does, in my experience, take a lot less effort.

It also takes less courage. Because acting on words makes them real, and it also makes the possibility of failure or success real. And both failure and success can be terrifying because they cause change and require adjustment. As long as we don’t act, we can hold on to our fantasies about what could be true.

In writing, this manifests as the person who professes to want to write or want to build a career as a writer, but who doesn’t write or pursue this seriously. I’m not talking about people going through rough patches–times when life ruthlessly intervenes or we have to take some time to work out how to deal with a particular demon. But ultimately a writer needs to figure out a process that works, a way to actually write and produce, and ideally a way to write that doesn’t solely depend on the occasional burst of inspiration.

Saying we want to be writers or we wish we could be writers is certainly not uncommon, but it is the actions we take in pursuit of this goal that demonstrate how committed and serious we are. And professionals can tell the difference a mile away. This is, I believe, one reason why going to Clarion and other such workshops can be such a door-opener; spending the time and resources on a residential workshop shows a certain level of commitment that professionals respect.

What we do–the actions we take-becomes a large part of who we are.

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On Tuesday night Jonathan Carroll had a quotation on his Facebook that resonated with me:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

There are different kinds of events that call for courage. There is the desire to make change, of course, which I’ve talked about a fair amount in the past. There is the question of how we face and handle adversity. There is the desire to try something new. And there is the willingness to go back and do the same scary thing again and again, even if it doesn’t get all that much easier.

I think when we choose to be artists–whatever that means to you–we are, in a sense, choosing to face fear again and again. There might be times when we aren’t seeking change, when we’ve got the adversity of life under control, when we’re living in a comfortable groove of existence. But if we’re actively working as artists, we’re constantly pushing, striving, experimenting, and revealing ourselves to others.

I can see it getting easier with time and practice, but I can’t imagine it ever being easy.

I have three main projects I’m working on right now: I’m querying my completed novel to agents, I’m in the middle of writing a novel rough draft, and I’m planning a future project that involves experimental elements. Each of these projects involve artistic courage.

-Querying puts me straight in the path of the rejection of my work, and while most of the time I shrug it off fairly easily, occasionally a rejection will sting.

-The rough draft is not coming together like I’d hoped it would, so writing it has become quite the struggle. I also deliberately chose to work on a concept that I knew depended on a writing ability in which I lack confidence and feel fairly weak.

-The new project is something new and experimental, and I’m not sure if I’m going to do it yet. But if I do, I’ll be trying all kinds of new things, and because of this, the entire project has a higher likelihood than many of tanking. It takes courage even to consider doing it.

reaching for origami cranes

Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

And then there’s the drive as an artist to go deeper, to explore dark corners, to shine a light on truths that are hard and uncomfortable and scary. There is the call to show vulnerability in our work. All of this requires so much courage.

So I would say not only do our own lives expand or contract in relation to the courage we can bring to bear, but our artistic work does the same.

What do you have the courage to see? What do you have the courage to feel? What do you have the courage to communicate?

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This summer I went to a workshop about dealing with fear, and I left it feeling disappointed. The teachers didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already known. They kept using examples that either weren’t really about fear or that were about being afraid of public speaking. So it wasn’t a talk geared for me.

Apparently fear of public speaking is the second most common fear in the United States. But to me, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I get nervous ahead of time, and I over-prepare, and I don’t always do a good job with it. But it’s so much better than having to sing operatic arias in a foreign language I don’t actually speak that contain high notes I can’t actually hit from memory and then have my performance critiqued in front of a group of fellow singers. That’s what I spent my college years doing. Which was still better than actual auditions.

So one way to manage fear is to do something a lot harder, and then easier things might not seem so bad. Another way is to do whatever you’re afraid to do A LOT. So basically you’re practicing your way out of fear.

But really I was disappointed in the talk because there is no easy answer. Whether you’re afraid of speaking in public or dying, uncertainty or being treated poorly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And I wish there was. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion. It can both hold us back and make things a lot more miserable even as we trudge forward. It can warp the nature of reality itself, making things that might be true seem like they are actually true. And it can make us physically ill in a variety of ways.

I have spent a lot of time being afraid. And ultimately it’s always the same thing that pushes me through.

Belief.

I remember once as a student, I was walking towards the music building where I had an audition. I think I was sick (I was almost always sick), and I already knew I wasn’t going to get the part. I thought to myself, Why are you even bothering? Why don’t you just go home? Why are you doing this to yourself?

But the answer was clear. I had decided to do this. I believed this was what I should be doing, even though I felt awful and I was really nervous and I knew I wouldn’t get the part. I had a vision of what I wanted my life to be, and this crappy audition experience was a part of that. So I went, and I did the audition, and I didn’t get the part, and I moved on.

Belief is still what gets me through fear. I fix my eyes on my idea of the future, and I clench my jaw, and I do what needs to be done to give myself a chance of getting there. The fear is still there, making things harder, making me pause and ask myself why I am putting myself through such difficulty. But I believe in my vision, and I hold onto that belief as if my life depends on it.

So I guess if I were to give a workshop on overcoming fear, I’d explore how to create a vision strong enough to withstand whatever fear can throw at us. I’d look for some exercises to promote self esteem, because in order to believe in a vision, I think we also have to believe in ourselves. And I’d talk about how to take care of ourselves and handle rejection and disappointment and failure and other obstacles in a resilient way that allows us to keep moving forward.

How do you overcome fear?

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I really like the metaphor of the phoenix for transformation.

I remember learning about metamorphosis in grade school, and being excited I could remember how to spell it. (I had a happy gift for spelling.) The caterpillar stuffs its little self as full as can be, and then it spins a warm, comfy cocoon. I imagined it sleeping inside, engaged in curious caterpillar dreams, until one day it would wake up and break free, transformed. It sounded so easy.

That’s why I like the phoenix. The phoenix doesn’t have it easy at all. When it’s time for the phoenix to change, it literally bursts into flames. Being burnt to ash has to be excruciating. And there might very well be some uncertainty involved as well, because what if it doesn’t work this time? What if the phoenix does not become reborn? And even if it does, what if it’s different in some critical and upsetting way? What if it is no longer its self? What if it’s lost something valuable in the process of being reborn?

Photo Credit: Ryan McCurdy via Compfight cc

So often, that’s the reality of transformation. We don’t always know exactly what the end result will be. When I sit down to revise a manuscript, I often have the troubling thought, “What if I end up making it worse instead of better?” When I set out to change myself, I can only guess at the ripples that are going to spread out from that change. And those ripples, once they start moving, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control. Who knows where they’ll travel or how fast they’ll spread?

What we can know is the process will hurt. It will be uncomfortable. Bursting into flames, even if it’s only metaphorical, is clearly not the easiest path available to us. Excising large portions of a manuscript that represent hours upon hours of effort can be nausea-inducing even while it’s liberating. Any large change is going to require an adjustment period when nothing feels quite as it should. When you rip off the band aid, you take some skin and hair along with it. When you fling yourself into the world newly altered, you flail and whack one or more of your limbs against obstructions that you hoped to avoid or didn’t even know were there.

But the idea of the phoenix also encompasses hope. The phoenix is reborn. It returns renewed and refreshed, brighter and fiercer. It is a thing of beauty and fascination. Through the pain of the fire, the old is burned away, leaving space for something new and wonderful.

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“There’s always been a bit of the Princess archetype in you,” she said. (And she’s totally right; there always has.) “And I thought you had manifested that for yourself, that your life was settled and you had gotten your happily ever after. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t see you.”

In her talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown says that the word courage comes from the word coeur, French for heart. What is courage? She says it is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart: in other words, allowing yourself to be seen, choosing the authentic. It takes courage to tell our stories. It takes courage to be honest and open. And it takes courage to infuse our artistic work with truth.

Coeur.
Photo Credit: Miriam Cardoso de Souza via Compfight cc

She also mentions the importance of having the courage to be imperfect. And let me tell you something about the Princess archetype. It’s not all bad: it includes a healthy dose of positivity, some chirping birds, romance and adventure. But it also contains no space for imperfection. The Princess in the fairy tales is perfection in essence: she is beautiful and charming, she is talented, she can sing and play music and dance and speak twenty languages, she always knows what to say, she has a sweet disposition, and she never ever feels angry or tired or upset. She can only feel fear when she is in danger as a plot device to allow the prince/knight/fool to rescue her, self-actualize, and win her as a prize. And she is always brave and smiling.

Being the Princess means not being seen for yourself.

I have been the Princess. I have tried to be perfect in every possible way. I have worked to be attractive and charming and to always set people at ease and know the right thing to say.  Whenever I have made a mistake, it has meant falling short of impossible standards. I have tried to please everyone and hate admitting that I need anything at all.

And yet, it has only been through surrendering the Princess archetype that I could begin creating the life that I want. It has only been through searching for people who don’t need me to be that Princess that I could finally be me, with everything that encompasses. It has only been through finding my coeur to begin to tell my story that I could create authentic connections with other people. Being able to see other people and being seen yourself, as it turns out, go hand in hand.

When I think of all those years I was trapped in the tower of Princess-hood, I feel very sad. Now that I’ve rescued myself, I try not to be perfect with appropriate imperfection. I don’t always smile. I am not always brave. I sometimes put my own needs first, and I am allowed to ask for things. There is space for me to have emotions. The world doesn’t end when I can’t always be strong.

It feels very strange to not be a Princess. But also very right.

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I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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We don’t always live in a way that’s consistent with the things we know to be true.

I wrote this sentence on Monday when I was writing Tuesday’s blog post about making yourself a priority. It was the best sentence I wrote that day, but it didn’t fit the post, so I set it aside to use today instead. Take a minute and think about it.

We don’t always live in a way that’s consistent with the things we know to be true.

There are all kinds of reasons for this, of course. Maybe we’re being socially pressured to conform or live in a certain way. Maybe the truth is too painful to deal with. Maybe the truth calls into question our core beliefs, values, and what we hold dear. Maybe it has become so obscured we’re not even sure what it is. Maybe we’ve decided to bury the truth because it seemed necessary or because we were trying to be kind or because that was the only way we could see to move forward.

Life is messy, and sometimes truth and reality become misaligned.

I offer no judgments here. We’ve all done this, we’ll all probably do it again, and perhaps we’re doing it right now. We do it because we receive some kind of value in return. Something that we might really need.

But such a disconnect can also become malignant. It can worm its way inside of you, insatiable and bold, and it can hollow you out into an echoing emptiness. It can silence your voice. It can dull your vision. It can leave you in a dizzying state of confusion.

There is power to be found in the place where truth and reality intersect. The kind of power that creatives tap into to create the art that grabs you by the shoulders, kicks you in the gut, and never lets go. The kind of power for you as an individual to use to create a life story filled with meaning. It is not always a comfortable place, this intersection, but it is healing and challenging and ultimately uplifting.

This meeting place, where you live your truth, is where you can be the most authentic you. That you may not always be perfect or nice or happy or popular or responsible.

But that you is so blindingly beautiful all the same.

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