Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Just jump" (October theme) by Claudia Mills

Let me get this out of the way first: I hate all scary things. I close my eyes during the last inning of closely contested baseball games, I leave the room when ominous music plays in a movie, I prefer the comfortable and predictable in storytelling - I love best when I know where a story is inevitably going to end up, and the only uncertainty concerns how.

Needless to say, this feature of my psychological makeup has not been a plus for me as a fiction writer.

So here I want to focus on dealing with fear, not in our writing, but in our lives as writers. We fear the blank page or screen; we fear the boring beginning, the sagging middle, the unsatisfying ending; we fear walking into a huge "cafetorium" crammed full of several hundred students ranging in age from kindergarten to grade five (who sometimes have never heard of us or our work).

Somehow we have to push past fear. Here are some of my strategies.

1. I start writing every morning several minutes after I force myself out of bed at 5 a.m. (actually, after my cat, Snickers, forces me out of bed by meowing for breakfast). I stumble down the stairs, feed her, make myself a cup of Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and settle in on the couch to write my daily quota of one pathetic, pitiful page. Before I'm fully awake, before my fear can be fully triggered, I'm already writing, engrossed in the scene. The worst is already behind me.

2. I say yes to things before I'm ready actually to do them, relying on the truth that, at least in my own life, things always turn out to be less awful than I dread. I commit myself blithely ("Five hundred kids? Sure! No problem!"), and then leave it to my future self to somehow follow through. Then that terrified future self gives the self of the even further future the confidence that comes with experience. I love the line from Emerson: "A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before." These days I still walk petrified into the cafetorium, but now when they hand me the mike and I look out at the kids, I say to myself, "Oh, right! School talks! You've done these before."

3. Finally, I read and re-read the wonderful lines from Arnold Bennett, from his 1910 gem, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day. In response to the question about how to force oneself to begin a frightening task, Bennett replies: "Dear sir, you simply begin. There is no magic method of beginning. If a man standing on the edge of a swimming-bath and wanting to jump into the cold water should ask you, 'How do I begin to jump?' you would merely reply, 'Just jump. Take hold of your nerves, and jump.'" Bennett goes on to say (and these might be my favorite lines ever written), "No object is served in waiting till next week, or even until tomorrow. You may fancy that the water will be warmer next week. It won't. It will be colder."

So my darling fellow fearful ones: jump into that cold water before you're even fully awake.You'll warm up as you go. At some point along the way, with any luck, you may even learn how to swim. And the scariest of scary things will be less scary every day.


  1. All true. Thanks for the much needed "pep talk" for writers.

  2. I've gotten out of the habit of writing in those first moments out of bed, but that was always a rich, creative time — thanks for the "wake up call."

  3. I'm going to give those first moments a try! Also, I think my future self might hate me! Haha!

  4. Thanks, everybody. Today I didn't do my early morning writing, and the WHOLE DAY HAS BEEN RUINED. I could do it now, of course, but I just . . . can't. Or won't. Maybe I could trick myself into pretending that it's early morning? At least have the hot chocolate....

  5. Man, this is true. Just jump. I might have to put that on my computer desk...

  6. I do the yes-before-I'm-ready thing too, and it almost always provides for such growth for me as a person and writer! Love the Arnold Bennett excerpt -- great reminder!

  7. Holly, I like to think that Arnold Bennett, in 1910, was beating Nike to the "Just do it" slogan by about 90 years. Mrs. P, now I have to live up to the advice I just gave myself. :)

  8. This was fantastic, Claudia! It was just what I needed to start my writing this morning!