THERE ARE PEOPLE who keep their writing “pure” by doing it only when they feel inspired. We call these people “independently wealthy.”
For the rest of us, there’s the daily terror of the blank page. Come anywhere near it and it sneers, “You suck. You’re not interesting. You have nothing to say to anyone. But hey, go ahead and type something.”
Truth be told, the fear this provokes can be motivating. For me, it typically leads to a burning desire to clean my refrigerator—a task I usually reserve for when some long-abandoned bowl of leftovers starts growling at me as I open the door.
Unfortunately, my lack of inherited wealth is accompanied by a lack of practical job skills, such as the ability to do more with tools than hold them while smiling flirtatiously. So, I really, really do need to write. Luckily, I’ve found the perfect way to make myself do that, and it’s by refusing to let my feelings be in charge of my behavior.
I do this by writing with a timer—fifty-two minutes on and seventeen minutes off. So there’s no stalling to the tune of “Whoa . . . I don’t think I can pull this piece together”; there’s only that bitch, the clock. I turn it on, and no matter how horrified I am by what I’ve put down on the page, I keep at it until there’s that “ding!” of the time running out.
Just to be clear, this clock—a digital timer in the upper left corner of my computer screen—doesn’t change my feelings an iota. It simply tells them to fuck the hell off.
This is a beautiful thing—allowing me to earn a living as a writer, and not just of cardboard signs to hold up at the freeway exit asking for spare change. It does have its downsides, but mainly in the housekeeping department. My refrigerator is often a hostel for developing life-forms, and with all the books and research papers piled on any remotely flat surface in my home, my Venice, California, shack is best described as a “walk-in fire hazard with a bed and an oven.”
Sure, this can sometimes make finding the dog difficult, but there is a simple (post-book deadline) solution—timed tidying jags! Yes, by bypassing my hatred of the housekeeping arts with that ticktocking Stalin, the clock, I will eventually open my home to visitors who don’t come to the door with a search warrant.
FIGHT THE COWER
What I’m saying is that you may have a feeling—like the urge to dodge some scary, ego-filleting challenge—but that doesn’t mean you have to go all “Yes, your lordship!” in response.
And sure, I did explain in previous chapters that feelings are “motivational tools,” but they aren’t necessarily motivating you in the right direction, right now. Say there’s some person you should talk to—some Hottie McBody or somebody who’d be really good for your career. But—whoops!—up come your feelings, singing their usual tune: “Quick! Find somebody portly to hide behind!”
Your feelings are trying to act in your best interest by protecting you from rejection. Unfortunately, it’s your evolutionary best interest. Yes, it’s that annoying mismatch between our evolved psychology and our environment popping up again.
It would have been important for you to “know your place” (and stay in it) back in an ancestral environment, where not showing a sufficient level of deference to the Stone Age quarterback and cheerleaders could have led to your lonely death by starvation on some rocky outcropping. But these days, the crushing fear driving your social submissiveness no longer makes sense. The worst thing that’s likely to happen to you from overstepping is getting humiliated; and “died of embarrassment” is only a figure of speech, not something they write on the forms at the coroner’s.
This fear keeping you from going after what you want has a co-conspirator—your “automatic” behavior, i.e., your habits. Because “neurons that fire together wire together,” creating behavioral grooves, all of your ducking instead of doing has turned ducking into your thing. You have become predisposed to duck.
Earlier in your life, your nasty ducking habit may have served you—maybe even keeping you from getting your kiddie ass kicked by playground bullies (back before children were monitored like prisoners who’ve tried to garrote themselves with dental floss). However, being preprogrammed to take cover is not helping you now. In fact, it’s doing just the opposite—keeping you from getting up on your hind legs and having the biggest life you can.
The solution is to do what I did: Tell your feelings to beat it, and then get on with doing whatever needs to be done. (Which isn’t to say you won’t be scared, terrified, nearly shitting your pants, or otherwise ill at ease about it.)
To give you an example, a friend of mine—a fellow author—was chatting with me in the green room at a book festival, when she spotted Mr. Famous Agent strolling in, followed by a small entourage. She got excited—and then bummed. She explained that she was afraid to just go up and talk to people—unlike me.
She thinks that way because we write at the same café and she sees, well, the me that I’ve become—always talking to strangers—so she assumed that I was all cool and comfortable with that. Hah. Au fucking contraire, I told her. I’m often at least a little afraid to strike up a conversation; it just doesn’t seem a good enough reason to avoid doing it.
Excerpt from Amy Alkon’s science-based book, “Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence” (St. Martin’s Griffin, January 23, 2018).
Follow Amy on Twitter: @amyalkon