Sometimes we do not move forward because we don’t know what to do next. And sometimes we don’t move forward because we know exactly what to do next, and we’re terrified. (I am raising my hand. It’s ok. You’re not alone. Don’t be terrified of the alone-ness too.)
I felt deeply called out when Helen Macdonald wrote in her book H is for Hawk that falconer and writer James White began to self-sabotage because he was afraid of his own success. I am terrified when I start to do well, to succeed. I think I am terrified of trying to go beyond that marker of success and failing utterly. It’s not a rare fear, you know? It’s not as if nobody has been afraid of failure before. Afraid of success before. I’m still not sure I understand this fear myself, but it’s very real and I’ve let it hold me back from moving in the right direction.
I don’t have any profound things to say to you about this. I can’t conquer that fear for you. Most of the time I haven’t even conquered it myself. But I want us to take the next step anyway. What is that step? Break it down, love. Don’t tell me it’s getting published or writing a book or something. No, I want to hear the next step. Maybe that means finding one place to submit a story. Maybe it means finding out how much going back to school would cost or even just sending that same magazine another essay. Choose a step, and if it’s too big, break it down until it’s manageable. Don’t try to write your bestseller if you’ve only ever written essays. Maybe instead choose a time and place you’ll commit to writing each day. Don’t put down grad school if you’ve never taken a college class – start with learning what you’ll need, or signing up for History 101.
I don’t want you to play small. That’s not what I’m telling you to do. Dream big, girl. Dream big and take time to lay on your back in the park making shapes out of the clouds while you let your mind roam over all the bright, beautiful possibilities there are for you. But don’t come home and think “Well if I want to graduate college with honors, then I’ve got to pick a great college and sign up for all the hardest classes right now, this afternoon, day-job be damned.” Let the dreams take their time in coming true while you work on the little steps that are within your grasp. I want you to dream big and play reasonable – there’s almost always a simple, reasonable step you can take right now. And when we come back next week I want us to have taken it. Yeah, both of us. I’ve got some small steps in mind already. I could submit this work to that site, or pick a theme and develop an outline for an essay I hope to submit. There are actions each of us can take. I’m looking at you hard right through this screen: are you with me? I’ll be back here next week. I’ll have taken a step in courage, without waiting for all the fear of success or fear of failure to stop me. Meet me here in seven days. Let’s do this, darling.