Sunday, November 27, 2011

Embracing the Scary Project--Why Bravery on Demand Can Help Your Writing

Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, "Every time I start on a new book, I am a beginner again. I doubt myself, I grow discouraged, all the work accomplished in the past is as though it never was, my first drafts are so shapeless that it seems impossible to go on with the attempt at all, right up until the moment . . .when it has become impossible not to finish it."

This comes from her1965  book Force of Circumstance, which is one of many published works during her long literary career. New book writers might read this in astonishment. How come such a prolific and experienced writer had such beginner's emotions?

Does it never get easier? Do we ever feel like we know what we're doing?

We're at the end of the annual extravaganza of National Novel Writers' Month.  The whole point of nanowrimo is to allow writers a window to try something they wouldn't ordinarily attempt.  Sheer volume of words each day keep the perfectionism at bay.  The point is to explore new ideas, without worrying about knowing what we're doing.

I love nanowrimo for this absolute freedom.  But once it ends, what's going to keep you exploring?  Keep you on the edge of learning?

This need for bravery in our art is not limited to writers, of course.  I once asked a professional speaker about this. I wanted to know if he ever got stage fright, felt that beginner's nervousness. This man has delivered hundreds of talks to audiences of thousands. He said he always feels jittery before he goes on stage. Every time. He has come to expect tense shoulders, butterfly stomach.  He likes the opportunity to be brave on demand.

I asked why he still gave speeches if he didn't feel he'd conquered fear in his art. "I'm glad for the fear," he told me. "It keeps me from falling asleep creatively."  If he starts taking his creative expertise for granted, he loses any freshness and edge--the elements that makes his performances memorable.

Nanowrimo works because it promotes beginner's mind and heart.  It is all about embracing new things in our writing.

So this week, as my daily nano word count wraps up, I thought about what next step in my writing life would require bravery.  I thought about a new software program I've been stalled out on but longing to try. Learning new software demands time and brain power, two things I haven't had much of this fall.  But I took a step:  I called a writing buddy who loves this software and she talked me through first baby steps to try it.

Not only did I feel instant glee at my own bravery--the simple act of trying something new--but as I practiced the new software, new ideas came through for my book.

So many writers, even published writers, hold themselves back.  They stick with what they know, be it a favorite template for stories, a certain plot idea, or even similar characters, because it is safer.  They don't want to be a beginner again.  It could be quite humiliating!  Especially if The Book has become a huge haunting presence, with so much still unknown--like how to finally finish it!

One reason Nanowrimo works for so many writers is that it is all about courage and not knowing.  For an entire month, hundreds of thousands of us have been daily explorers.  It's intense, scary, and a great way to avoid writer's block and ongoing discouragement about a writing project.

What's a scary project you might embrace this week?  Or, if not embrace, just consider?  I will be neck-deep in learning my new software program, Scrivener.  It promises to let me see my book draft in a completely new way via its electronic storyboarding system, and already I'm both excited and cranky about the bravery it is demanding of me. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  List three scary and exciting new things you could try that would take you new places in your writing.

2.  Pick one.  Take a small first step toward trying it.

3.  Post your results here!

PS  If your exploration into bravery includes getting an overview of your memoir, novel, or nonfiction book-in-progress--and trying storyboarding yourself--join me for my popular two-day workshop "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book."  Offered this month in two locations:  The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, December 2-3, or Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, December 10-11.  I'd love to see you there!


  1. I think the scariest thing for me right now would have to be to actually read my NaNoWriMo story that I just finished. ACK!

  2. Lynn,

    Totally get that. I usually let it rest at least a couple of weeks. By then, I can see the gems in the muck. Courage!


  3. Writing a compelling query and synopsis is a scary (and exciting) next step.

    I love, love, love Scrivener. It is a dream to be able to click between scenes, move them around, etc. Have fun, Mary!

  4. Cindy,

    These are indeed scary projects!

    A great book for samples that sold: Jeff Hermann's book on writing book proposals is very helpful. You can see what the writers included, wording used, etc.

    Should be at the library or used online. It's geared toward nonfiction writers but I find the examples are excellent no matter the genre.

    Thanks for the positive feedback on Scrivener. So far, I'm loving it.


  5. I hope you love Scrivener as much as I do! It does help you see things in a whole new way.
    My scary thing happened this fall when my writing buddy kept saying my new effort just wasn't working for her. I changed the tense and put it in first person and I heard a stronger voice. That's my challenge, to maintain a strong voice as I go forward.

  6. Hi Augusta,

    I'm hoping to love Scrivener too--so far, it's brilliant. Just a learning curve to conquer. . .

    I think your stronger voice challenge will pay off big time as you go forward.

    Thanks for visiting!

  7. Hi Mary,
    Right now fear is my biggest fear. It's the question: what if, after all of this work and becoming so vulnerable in the process, my voice just isn't good enough?
    I'm not sure how to face that fear . . .

  8. Julie,
    What a good question, and one we all have as writers. We just have to trust that what we're doing will have a good result, I guess. Nobody ever knows for sure, even people like Simone de Beauvoir. Yet look at the impact she's had on the world!

  9. Mary,
    I swear you read my mind sometimes! Simone de Beauvoir has been a huge influence on my life as a woman and as a writer. I have this quote in my writing room: "The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels."
    It reminds me to not shy away from the truth, which she also valued so much, and just write the book that needs to be told (whether others approve of the content or not).
    That's where the fear for me comes in . . . I want so badly to do my book justice.
    I didn't know that she shared this fear though. It helps to know that.