Courage, Take the Wheel

Starting Out

I didn’t choose to be a writer. I think it’s that way with most writers; we emerge from the womb spinning stories and stringing together sentences. It’s something encoded in our DNA.

When I was four years old, I wrote my first book, scribbled illegibly in dull pencil and bound with a stapler, about a food-snob cow who lived on a farm in France. As I grew up, I filled notebook after notebook with angst-ridden diary entries and composed poems for the avant-garde-but-not-really zines that circulated the halls of my high school. I served on the newspaper, the lit mag, wrote a play that my fellow students produced. All signs pointed to a career in the literary arts.

But then, as they say, life got in the way. During my senior year, my mom – single parent, second-career artist, and greatest champion of my writing – died rather suddenly, leaving mountains of debt behind her. As a grief-stricken sixteen-year-old with a burgeoning anxiety disorder, I thought, “If this is what happens when you pursue a creative life, count me out.”

So I began to suppress all those visceral urges to write, told my inner four-year-old to sit down and shut up.

Quieting the Voices

In college, I searched for a major and career path that would be stable, somewhat lucrative. Something that would allow me to pay off all those mountains of debt I was accruing myself – because what could be worse than dying broke?

I settled on Computer Science, which at the turn of the millennium was the best possible option. Don’t get me wrong, I liked my work just fine. I certainly had a lot of fun learning how to code; it had its creative moments. (Also, the low female-to-male ratio in my CS classes meant my dating pool was tremendous!)

But my whole undergraduate career was spent drowning out the voices in my head telling me to, “Study abroad! Minor in French! Drop out of Databases and take that Intro to Women’s Studies class you’ve been ogling in the course catalog!” Those were impractical academic choices. All I could think was: What would be the ROI on a semester spent in Paris? None of the big software companies would care if I could quote Gloria Steinem or recite Camus. So I sat down at my computer and got back to coding.

Ignoring the Obvious

Self Help BooksWhat followed was a good internship, an even better job, and some fat paychecks. I paid off my student loans, I had money to travel the world. In many ways, I felt like I was winning at life. I wasn’t a struggling artist! I wouldn’t die broke! The fear of ending up like my mother was gone.

All along, though, I could never shake the niggling feeling inside me that something was missing. Over the years, I bought a succession of self-help books with titles like What Should I Do With My Life? and I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know It’s Not This. I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and defined my core values; I read What Color is Your Parachute? and drew my Flower Diagram. These exercises in self-analysis always came back to the same thing: I was a writer. I wanted – no, needed – to write.

But I would never allow myself to choose that path. Fear was in the driver’s seat; I was merely an anxious passenger.

Making the Change

Over the years, I indulged my passion in fits and starts. A blog post here, a diary entry there. But I was never committed to it, too afraid of how I might feel, where it might lead, if I immersed myself too fully in the glorious act of writing.

Then I had a child.

Oh man.

After a difficult childbirth, an even more difficult newborn phase, and a crippling case of postpartum depression, I was finding it hard to keep lying to myself about who I really was and what really made me happy. In the course of my recovery, I finally figured out what was worse than dying broke: Dying miserable. Dying unfulfilled. Dying without even trying to pursue my dreams.

I didn’t want my son to worry about ending up like his mom, the repressed coward ruled by perpetual, irrational fear. Is that really any better than being afraid of ending up like your mom, the broke artist?

So before my son learned to crawl, I enrolled in my first serious writing class. Every evening, I’d nurse him in the dark, plotting out short stories and essays in my head while I swayed in the rocking chair. Then, after I set him down in the crib, I’d get to work. I wrote short stories, I wrote essays. I started a novel, and I committed to finishing it.

My inner four-year-old was doing cartwheels and singing songs.

Staying the Course

Since I made the decision to stay devoted to my writing practice, I’ve been supremely lucky. I found a fantastic tribe of writer friends, I signed with an agent, I landed a book deal. But even the tough stuff has brought me joy. Experiencing bad critiques, losses, and rejections reminds me that I’m working toward something meaningful and true, and to me, that’s success.

After years of saying no, I’m finally saying yes. Fear is no longer making decisions for me.

If you have a dream inside of you, but have been letting fear stop you from pursuing it – fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of dying broke – I implore you to take the plunge. Enroll in that class. Book that plane ticket. Finish (or start!) that novel. Let courage take the wheel.

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