Stepping out of the comfort zone puts you squarely in the combat zone.
It’s that classic scene in just about every war movie you’ve ever seen, to the point of cliche. You’ve got a bunch of green recruits cowering in a foxhole with all this artillery going off in the background.
To make a proper war movie this foxhole crowd is a cross section of America. Got the Italian guy. Got the Pole from Chicago, a black, a Navajo, a Southerner, maybe even a surfer dude from California. They’re all there in one crowded foxhole with the gunnery sergent/den mother.
Finally one of them speaks up. “Sarge, I’m s-s-scared.”
Picture this. The salty old Gunny, with all the gunk on his face and greenery on his helmet, speaks up without taking the unlit cigar from his mouth.
“So you’re scared?” he askes in those tones that could only come from Brooklyn (told you this was a cliche). A pause as he shifts his cigar to the other side of his mouth a la Clint Eastwood. “Kid, I’m scared too. I’m always scared.”
There it is.
My better instincts tell me he’s just dumping a lot of snow on his troops, trying to boost morale, but that’s probably not the case. Forgetting it’s a movie for a minute, the Gunny knows there’s a lot at stake. There’s a war going on, and the losers don’t live to tell about it. But in the movies, the worst that could happen is the Gunny gets panned for overacting, the movie tanks at the box office, and he plays nothing but commanding officers in war movies for the rest of his life. Or something.
Leaving the movie and going into real life, there’s a lot to be scared of when you create something. Especially because you’re going out on a limb with nothing but your judgment holding you up.
Every time I write a blog post, I get scared. What if no one reads it? What if people do read it and think it stinks? What if I tick off half my readership? What if they call BS on me in the comments section?
What if I just hear the chirruping of crickets?
Monsters in the closet and laughing manuscripts
There’s that fear of rejection. Every time I submit a piece there’s that misgiving. The editor doesn’t like it. It stinks. Or I’m just barking up the wrong tree and it will take an extensive rewrite to make it passable for my client’s purposes.
I have one of those on my terminal right now, an article I wrote that completely missed what the editor was thinking (mind reading is not one of my strengths) and I’m just staring at it now. It came back to me with a ton of annotations. When I pick at it, I know in my heart it’ll be every bit as bad as the original. It’s just a small, 500-word article for a website with a limited audience, but I can’t get rid of the feeling that my whole career hangs in the balance here. Never mind any past success, never mind the other, better-paying stories I’m pitching right now, this is the article that sits on my screen laughing at me and telling me what a hack I truly am.
Even when things go well, there are still enough fears to disturb me. What if this post you’re reading goes viral, millions read it and subscribe to this blog? What if they expect more of the same on my next post? What if that’s the absolute best I can do and any future efforts get compared to it? What if I fall flat?
I don’t have any stats to back me up, but the creative landscape is littered with the corpses of artists who were an overnight success and couldn’t sustain it. That second novel, that second album was a bunch of garbage and no one bought it. Career over.
Elizabeth Gilbert can tell you about it. In a highly-recommended TED talk a couple of years ago she spoke of the “freakish success” of her book, “Eat Pray Love.”
“People treat me like I’m doomed,” she said. “Doomed.” The success of that book forced her to recalibrate how she looks at things. What if she can’t sustain her career?
“It’s exceedingly likely my greatest success is behind me,” she said. And she wasn’t quite 40 when she wrote that monster bestseller.
Shoot, it’s enough to make a creative want to pour Jack Daniels over his Wheaties in the morning.
By the way, I highly recommend checking out Gilbert’s talk. You can grab it here. I’ve saved it on my cell phone, and when I get to questioning the course of my life and mission I’ll play it.
Out of the foxhole
When you’re creating, you’re going places where you’ve never been before. You’re stepping out of your foxhole and going someplace where you just may get your butt shot off. There’s really no neutral zone; you’re either in your comfort zone or in the combat zone.
If you tote around a lot of fear and anxiety there’s a lot of stuff to feed it.
Let me be blunt here. If you write, if you play music, if you stake a lot of pride and capital on an idea of yours, there’s nothing safe about it. If you’re honest about it, you’re scared spitless half the time.
Years ago, my shrink tried to lay a little cognitive therapy on me, urging me to change my thinking a bit. Part of it is asking myself in the face of fear, what is the worst that can happen?
Dunno. I have a lot of imagination. It’s probably the worst question to ask a person with a creative mind.
Even with all that, I try to soldier on. I try to laugh outwardly at these fears. On my writing.com bio page, I list my hobbies: Reading, music, hiking, collecting rejection slips. I’ve posted photos of my rejections pile on this blog. I tell myself it’s just a part of writing, I shouldn’t take any of this personally, that it happens to the best of ’em. Sometimes I actually believe this.
Then get back to work like a real professional and test the bounds of gravity some more.