How to Cultivate Courage for the Writing Adventure
No. 118 | By Christine Carron
About five pages in to my first first-draft ever, I had a somewhat obvious realization: “Whoa, if I want to write a book, I actually have to write a book.” The whole endeavor felt suddenly so real and daunting. Doubt flooded in: Will I really be able to do this? Do I even know what I am doing? Do I have what it takes?
Ever notice how dreaming of a thing is always safer than doing the thing?
Of course, it did take courage for me to set off on the adventure in the first place. To step into the arena. I definitely had worked through some (massive) fear of failure simply by starting my first writing project. But I must have also been thinking that I would have at least a few more pages (and days) of doubt-free, I-can-do-this! momentum. Otherwise, that realization about actually having to write an entire book wouldn’t have been so jolting.
I can’t help but shake my head and smile at the magical thinking of that former (and adorably naive) me. I mean, seriously, in no sword-and-sandal epic in the history of time have things gotten easier after the gladiator steps into the arena.
That’s when the lions are loosed.
So we need to be prepared. Know how to take action even when the lions are bearing down. We have to get good at courage. Luckily courage is a craft (a skill) that we can practice, just like we practice the craft of writing.
Practice #1: Get Reminiscent
The first practice is about bolstering your courage by using your past. In a experiment shared in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Amanda Kramer and Richard Zinbarg explored if journaling could activate courage.* Previous research indicated that remembering positive events has both emotional and biological benefits. Kramer and Zinbarg wanted to see if it had behavioral benefits as well.
They instructed one set of students to journal about past instances in their lives where fear conquered them. They told the other set of students to journal about times where they were courageous and conquered their fears. Then both groups were asked questions about if they would/could engage in activities related to their fears.
The students who had journaled about past courage were more likely to respond that they could and would take action, despite their very real fears. The students who had recalled the times that fear had conquered them, not so much. In addition, the courage-condition students answered the questions with less hesitancy and more certainty. Basically, they had induced an I can do this! mindset.
Of course, Kramer and Zinbarg's results do come from an initial and highly structured study. Even so, focused journaling on past courage is a pretty low-effort intervention to experiment with on your own. If it works for you, add it to your mindset toolkit. Who knows? It could help you get through a critique, network at a conference, or get yourself back on track after a rejection. Sweet!
Practice #2: Get Real
The second practice is about the power of small actions. Often we experience doubt and uncertainty because a challenge feels overwhelming. But in reality, we never have to handle any whole thing all at once. Never. And that’s true whether we’re tackling an unwieldy revision; navigating conflict in a critique group; or preparing for a book tour.
The actual doing of the thing is always one small step at a time, and small actions require less courage.
The moment you recognize that fear of the whole is short-circuiting your forward momentum, get real with yourself. You do not have to muster massive courage immediately to conquer the whole thing from beginning to end. Nope. All you have to do is identify what small action you can do next and gather the courage for that task only.
Get real, make it easy, and get one step done at a time. Soon the monster challenge at hand will be transformed into totally conquerable, pipsqueak sized actions.
Practice #3: Get Rebellious
The third and final practice is about the future envisioned in your writing dreams. All dreams, if we’re being particular, are delusions. They have no factual truth in our present circumstances. But believing in our dreams, delusional or not, gives purpose to our courage. One of my favorite lines in high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s Creativity: The Perfect Crime is: "Rebel against doom by refusing to accept reality."
I know. In the second practice I said to get real. Now, I’m saying refuse reality; be delusional.
Paradox for the win!
Reality serves your courage. So does delusion: holding a pure, wild, and wonderful belief that you can and will make your writing dreams come true.
Getting rebellious is a concept tool for your toolkit. A perspective to call up when fear and doubt clog your forward momentum: I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never make it. My writing dreams will never come true.
Such thoughts are as much of a delusion as your most glorious writing dreams. So lean into the thoughts that support courage. Doom and despair are not exactly pep inducers. Your dreams are. They are your Why, reminding you what you are working toward with each courageous action you take.
Into the Arena, Gladiator!
Courage is a resource that you will draw upon again and again on the writing adventure. Start building your courage reserves today with the practices of Get Reminiscent, Get Real, and Get Rebellious.
Soon you will have ready access to a steady supply of courage, and you’ll know—no matter the challenge—that you’ve truly got this!
* Amanda Kramer & Richard Zinbarg (2019) Recalling courage: An initial test of a brief writing intervention to activate a ‘courageous mindset’ and courageous behavior, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14:4, 528-537, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1484943