101TIWIK #81: Three Paths Through Writing

In the last post, Why Do You Write, I introduced the idea of three categories for why we write; Art, Community, and Business. Today I’m going to show you how to use these categories to shape the path through your writing journey with a brief introduction to each category. I’ll elaborate more on each category in the coming weeks.

Why am I narrowing down the various reasons for writing into just three categories? Because I think every writer out there can probably quickly identify with one of the categories as their strongest leaning. Understanding which category you identify with can reveal the strengths which will support your writing journey, and the weaknesses you will need to overcome or compensate in order to succeed.

In order to succeed as a career writer, you’re going to need some facility with the art of writing, community engagement, and business skills. If you examine your reasons for wanting to write and find that you only want to dwell in the internal artistic realm of writing, never sharing your work with others, that’s great. Or if you decide that financial security is more important to you than developing craft and audience, and you’d better achieve that by becoming, say, a distributor, great. But it’s most likely you have things that you want writing to fulfill for you in all three categories. You probably want internal fulfillment, social contact and connection, and a healthy, balanced financial situation.

Still, understanding your main category reveals what you ultimately want from writing. When you write, and especially when you start trying to bring your writing into the world, there are myriad obstacles that can push you off your path and leave you lost in the woods. Knowing what you ultimately want from writing will help you find your path again.

Art

I’m going to refer to those writers who lean more toward writing as art, as artists. Please understand throughout this and future posts that when I say artist, I mean a writer for whom the art of writing is the most important aspect. I don’t mean a visual artist, although there are many similarities.

For an artist, writing is a personal act of fulfillment. An artist does not write to please people, to change the world, or to eat. An artist writes only for their personal relationship with the words on the page. An artist usually wants to master their craft, but not as a means toward outward success and recognition; rather as a way to be able to better interact with the medium.

Consider the medium

If you identify as an artist, I ask you to take a moment and consider why you use the medium of writing to express your art. Is writing truly the best or only way forward to achieve what you want to achieve as an artist? Are there other mediums you might explore? I don’t ask these questions to discourage an artist away from writing, but simply because it’s possible you have chosen writing somewhat arbitrarily. Close your eyes and imagine you could never write again. Would that be ok? What would you do instead? Would you, could you, sing or paint or sculpt? Do any of those ideas resonate more than the idea of sitting down right now and writing?

If you did this exercise and you came back committed to writing as your medium, excellent, please continue reading. If not, stop reading this right now and go do what you really need to do as an artist.

An Artist’s Strengths

  • Dedicated to craft and highly self-critical
  • Some are able to produce prolifically
  • Some produce sporadically but when they do, it’s brilliant
  • Everything produced tends to be, if not brilliant, genuine and compelling
  • Artists usually have great taste–able to find the best books out there

An Artist’s Weaknesses

  • Tend to be introverted and introspective
  • Attempts at forming connections can come across as awkwardly self-promoting
  • Possibility of mild manic depression that can make progress difficult
  • Hard to be productive on a schedule
  • Difficulty completing projects
  • Expectation of success based solely on quality of the work produced (i.e. thinks the world owes them success)

The Artist’s Path

I’ll talk much more about this in the coming blogs, but here’s a brief overview:

The artist will need to be very careful not to be diverted from her ultimate goal, which is inner processing. Some artists might be able to write very satisfactorily as a hobby, with no drive for publication, visibility, and financial success. Those artists who do seek to become career authors will need to educate themselves in all of the possible paths to success, not just accept that “this is how it’s done and I need to force myself to do it this way.” There is a way to achieve fulfillment as an artist and also outward success (if there wasn’t, think of how many brilliant writers would never get discovered) but the artist has to be able to learn how to do it without compromising their art.

Community

At the risk of being heckled, I’m going to call those writers whose focus is community: mavens. A maven is actually a person who is very knowledgeable and usually outspoken about something, so this is a slightly inaccurate use, but it’s way snappier than “social person” or “organizer” so it will have to work. Think of a maven, in this context, as someone who is very knowledgeable and outspoken about writing.

For the maven, writing is an act of connection and socialization. Unlike the artist, the maven cannot write forever in obscurity. For the maven, the writing almost doesn’t exist until it has been read. Writing for the maven may be more about broadcasting ideas than about exploring deep inner truths (although self expression can also be a goal for a maven).

Consider the Medium

If you identify as a maven, take a moment and consider why you use the medium of writing to make connections. Is writing truly the best or only way forward to achieve what you want to achieve as a maven? Are there other mediums you might explore? I don’t ask these questions to discourage a maven away from writing, but simply because it’s possible you have chosen writing as your basis for community arbitrarily. Close your eyes and imagine you could never write again. Would that be ok? What would you do instead? Would you, could you, be a political organizer, or vlogger, or an english teacher? Do any of those ideas resonate more than the idea of sitting down right now and writing?

If you did this exercise and you came back committed to writing as your medium, excellent, please continue reading. If not, stop reading this right now and go do what you really need to do as a maven.

A Maven’s Strengths

  • Excellent at forming the social connections necessary for self-promotion
  • Often have a strong platform/ fan base long before publication
  • Often great at understanding other people
  • If they don’t know the answer, they’ll find out who does know it
  • Great at forming alliances in order to compensate for weaknesses

A Maven’s Weaknesses

  • Mavens can be all talk and no action
  • Mavens can have a hard time doing the “alone-time” work necessary to develop craft and produce prolifically
  • Mavens tend to want to please people, and so can end up not taking artistic risks that result in authentic works of art.

The Maven’s Path

I’ll talk much more about this in the coming blogs, but here’s a brief overview:

The maven has an excellent start in establishing visibility because they probably have an avid audience before they’ve written a word. The problem for a maven will be to sit down and write that first word. A maven might find the best success writing publicly, by blogging installments or drafting on a platform like Wattpad. The biggest issue a maven might face is not being able to make their own judgement about whether a work is satisfactory, because at their most extreme, the maven will always be looking to their audience for approval. Bad reviews cut a maven like knives. The maven will want to work to form a thick skin and an inner compass for judging their own writing.

Another issue the maven may face is that even if they can mobilize a large platform, they might not have the business acuity to capitalize on it. Mavens might find that it’s more important to them to spread their ideas than it is to make money. And that can work–as long as it’s done effectively. At its most ineffective, this can lead to the trap of undervaluing their work, and thus devaluing it in the eyes of the audience.

Business

I’ll be referring to those writers for whom business is their focal point as entrepreneurs (by the end of this blog, I vow I will not have to use spell check in order to spell entrepreneur correctly).

For the entrepreneur, writing is a means to an end. While you may have passion for the medium, the bottom line is the most important consideration. Unlike the artist, who begins with an inner truth and molds that into a product, or the maven, who begins with an idea and seeks to communicate it, the entrepreneur is most likely to begin with the reader. What does the reader want, what gap is there in the market, and how can I fulfill that? An entrepreneur is likely to approach the question of writing from the stance of what will lead to ultimate success. For example, while an artist might be organically drawn to the mystery genre, or a maven might start writing science fiction because they are part of a sci fi community, the entrepreneur is more likely to look at the market data and see that the romance genre is the biggest selling genre by far, and target their efforts in that direction.

The entrepreneur I think gets a lot of disdain from the artist and the maven on the grounds that they aren’t “real writers” because they write to a formula or write in a less-than-artistic genre. Probably some of this disdain is born of jealousy, because the entrepreneur is succeeding in a way that the artist and the maven are striving to succeed but haven’t. While the focus of the artist and the maven shouldn’t change, I think both can learn a great deal from observing the methods of the entrepreneur.

Consider the Medium

If you identify as an entrepreneur, take a moment and consider why you want to use the medium of writing to build a business. Is writing truly the best or only way forward to achieve what you want to achieve as an entrepreneur? Are there other mediums you might explore? I don’t ask these questions to discourage an entrepreneur away from writing, but simply because it’s possible you have chosen writing as your basis for business arbitrarily. Close your eyes and imagine you could never write again. Would that be ok? What would you do instead? Would you, could you, be a publisher, a software developer, or a stockbroker? Do any of those ideas resonate more than the idea of sitting down right now and writing?

If you did this exercise and you came back committed to writing as your medium, excellent, please continue reading. If not, stop reading this right now and go do what you really need to do as an entrepreneur.

An Entrepreneur’s Strengths

  • Ability to analyze the market and make really clear business decisions
  • Ability to produce prolifically and on a schedule
  • Penchant for taking risks and making connections that lead to success
  • Willingness to learn necessary skills to succeed at goals
  • Ability to hire and delegate effectively to compensate for weaknesses

An Entrepreneur’s Weaknesses

  • Not enough time put into development of craft, results in inferior product
  • Possibility of wanting results that can only be achieved by being an entrepreneur, but not willing to learn how to achieve them
  • Rapidly changing industry can lead to poor decisions. eg, vampire is fiction is hot, so they write vampire fiction, but by the time it is published, vampire fiction is unpopular
  • Relationships made solely for the purpose of making sales can feel phony and insincere to the reader

The Entrepreneur’s Path

I’ll talk much more about this in the coming blogs, but here’s a brief overview:

The first thing the writing entrepreneur will do is gather information. They might start with a topic, like tropical fishes, or a popular genre, like romance or thriller, or a gap in the market (there are no books about how to successfully sell teddy bears on ebay, for example, and a lot of teddy bears sitting on ebay not selling) but then they will start gathering information–not only on the topic itself, but on the market for the topic or genre. There is a time-tested format for this–the business plan. This is where an entrepreneur writer will state the data they have gathered and make an argument for their project.

If the project idea holds up against their market research, then they will do some product testing. They might write a short article about tropical fishes and see how that resounds with readers. A business writer might do something like movie makers used to do with movie posters, create the book cover first and see how readers respond.

Even if they get a good response here, the entrepreneur will not rush off to write the book. They will probably have an outline and some sample chapters, but the next thing to do will be to create a marketing plan. While the book is being written and produced, the entrepreneur is ticking items off the marketing plan, preparing to launch the book into rocketing success. Book production is almost an afterthought for the entrepreneur.

Obviously, this can be a problem, as the final product will often fall short of the hype. Sometimes this won’t matter; we’ve all seen how hype can mask an inferior product. But the entrepreneur can do well to take a page from artists and mavens and develop their craft to match their hype.

Well, that’s a plenty long enough post on this topic. More to come in the next post: 101 TIWIK #82: Permission to be an Artist.

 

101 TIWIK #80: Why Do You Write?

cash-cat-9

Welcome back to 101 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Wrote My First Book! Today is post #80, isn’t that exciting! Only 21 more posts to go.

As you probably know if you’ve been following my blog, I took a little break from 101 TIWIK to bring you Dreadless, a true story about how I learned to drive when I was over thirty. If you haven’t read it, check it out, it’s a fun story that also presents a method for overcoming deep emotional challenges.

I needed some time to organize how I was going to present the last 20ish posts of 101 TIWIK. I’ve finished talking about the craft involved in producing a book, and had intended to spend the next posts talking about how to then market your book. However, I wasn’t sure how to approach this subject. While I feel extremely comfortable instructing other writers on craft, I don’t feel qualified to instruct them on marketing.

After some thinking, I decided that I do have something to offer on this topic; if not specific expertise, then the ability to pull back and look more broadly at the question of what to do with your book after you’ve written it. So in the next twenty posts I’m going to talk about some different options and approaches, and how you might plan for them during the actual writing process (after all, these are things I wish I’d known before I wrote my first book). While I had intended for this section to be very nuts and boltsy, instead it’s going to be a bit more philosophical, but I think that will be more useful. The nuts and bolts of the post-publication process are everywhere on the web. What I will do is try to include some references to good sites with the posts where more detail might be useful.

In today’s post, I’m going to present a question whose answer might completely change the way you plan to write. Without further ado:

Why do you write?

I’ve read a lot of writing craft and marketing books that begin with this question. However, the possible answers they posit are often unsatisfactory. Usually it comes down to three options: one: that you are writing for money and recognition, and isn’t that stupid of you, you might as well put your resources into buying a lottery ticket; two: that you are writing to express the deep humanity of your soul and that’s all very well but you want to get paid for the damn stuff eventually, don’t you. I mean, you might as well just keep a journal if you aren’t getting paid. The third–and in most of these books, only acceptable–answer is some vague place between the first two, that you want recognition–but not too much recognition, because that would be fame and that isn’t for humble writers like us–and you want to get paid but not too much because if you want to do something for money, writing really isn’t it–and you want to express deep parts of yourself but only if those parts are what’s going to be popular when you finally publish your book.

I’m going to try to elegantly sidestep the resulting tangle of such advice by posing a different answer to this question: Perhaps there are actually many reasons why we write, all of them valid, and the reasons which you identify with the most strongly are the guides you can use to shape the path not only of your writing process, but how you intend for your writing to interact with the world outside of your head. If you do at all.

Here are a few different reasons why you might be writing. This list is in no way comprehensive; there are probably many more reasons. But it will give us a starting point. In no particular order:

  • Money part 1: Riches–while as a rule writing is not the highest paid profession out there, some writers have done really well for themselves. It’s not inconceivable.
  • Money part 2: Support of your craft–this is where you don’t care about being rich, you just want to make enough money from your writing to quit your day job.
  • Fame–See Money Part 1. You know who J. R. R. Tolkien is, even if you’ve never read fantasy in your life.
  • Recognition–a little different from fame, this less of wide public visibility and more being recognized by your peers for your achievements. This would be like winning a Hugo award.
  • Connection–to other readers, other writers; you write to share the deep truths of humanity with other humans. You write to be less alone in the universe.
  • Interaction–writing is an excuse to socialize; you love meeting other writers, attending functions, organizing writing groups and clubs.
  • Inner Processing–Writing is how you organize the events and emotions of your life.
  • Social Change–Maybe your writing has an agenda; for example, you want to use storytelling to show the horrors of dolphin fishing as a way to campaign against it.
  • Self-expression–Writing is how you express your deep inner pain. Or maybe you have a burning story that just needs to come out.
  • Self-Entertainment–you’re bored, and writing is funner than video games or Netflix.
  • Flow-state achievement–writing is like a sport to you. When you write you lose all sense of time and place, and you come away feeling invigorated. You just want to keep experiencing this state over and over again.
  • Challenge and mental growth–This is similar to fame and recognition but more personal. You want to be the best mystery writer out there, and you vigorously pursue your craft to achieve this. You hold yourself to a high standard, perhaps higher than you might need to in order to be successful in the eyes of the world.

I’m sure there are many more reasons to write than this. Fortunately, this is not a “circle the one that applies” situation. You might write for several or even all of these reasons. I write for most of them. But as you examine the list and add your own reasons to it, you might start to notice that certain ones pull you more than others. In order to get a sense of which reasons are more important than others, I recommend taking this list, or one of your own making, and putting it in order from most important to least important. In order to prioritize them, it helps to pretend they are exclusive. If you had to choose between self-expression and fame, which would you choose? There is no right or wrong answer here. Just be completely honest, because your prioritization should reveal why you write, and where to go from here.

As an example, here is my list in order of priority:

  1. Flow-state achievement
  2. Connection
  3. Self-expression
  4. Challenge and mental growth
  5. Money part 2: Support of your craft
  6. Inner Processing
  7. Social Change
  8. Recognition
  9. Self-Entertainment
  10. Interaction
  11. Fame

In order to better analyze my list, I’m going to break the many different reasons into three basic categories: Art, Community, and Business. I’ll talk more in depth about those categories and their implications in the next post; for now, I just want you to see how it simplifies the reasons list and makes it somewhat quantifiable. Here is the list with those categories attached:

  1. Flow-state achievement: Art
  2. Connection: Community
  3. Self-expression: Art
  4. Challenge and mental growth: Art
  5. Money part 2: Support of your craft: Business
  6. Inner Processing: Art
  7. Social Change: Community
  8. Recognition: Community
  9. Self-Entertainment: Art
  10. Interaction: Community
  11. Fame: Business

As you can see, two out of the top three reasons on my list entail art, and only two reasons on the entire list entail business. As I will discuss at more length in the next post, this doesn’t mean that I’m only going to produce writing as art and completely neglect the business side of writing. What it does is to reveal to me what is most important about writing, so that I can know if I’ve veered from the original drive that brought me into contact with it. Your list might look completely different, and that’s ok. Maybe writing is more of a social endeavor for you than an artistic pursuit. Or maybe you see writing more as a business venture. That’s ok too.

The last twenty posts of 101 TIWIK are going to go into the details of these three different paths through writing. In the next post, 101 TIWIK: Three Paths, I’ll explain a little more what each category entails, and how you might use the knowledge of your personal reasons for writing to actually achieve those goals.

Dreadless: In Conclusion

If you are new to this series, please start here: Dreadless: An Introduction.

It’s a stormy Friday afternoon in February, 2016. I’m working on my blog when my brother calls. He needs a ride to a small town about a half-hour south of here, where his car broke down last weekend. It’s been fixed and he needs a ride to go pick it up.

I consider it a measure of how accustomed I had become to being able to drive that I even hesitated. A number of thoughts flashed through my mind . . . I was in the middle of something, I didn’t really want to spend my afternoon driving, I didn’t want to go out into the stormy weather . . . then it dawned on me. A year ago, I didn’t even have my license. Just six months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to drive the hour round-trip on the freeway there and back. What a miracle it was that I could make this choice.

My thoughts went from that to how many times in my life he had given me rides, then to how many times so many people had helped me in so many ways. Of course I could take time out of my day to repay the world a bit of the kindness that has been heaped on me all my life.

“I can do that,” I answered. I felt incredibly and, I think justifiably, proud.

It was a very long road from “I’ll never learn how to drive” to “I can do that.” As I’ve been writing this blog series, I’ve been presenting the steps I took to overcome my emotional challenges around driving in an order based upon the telling of my story. Now I’m going to recap them, but I will reorganize them here into what might be a more useful order. Without really intending to, I’ve structured my discoveries in the form of twelve steps.

The twelve steps are presented with the intent to help anyone overcome emotional obstacles by drawing on the strength of their own personal power.

  1. Visualize success. What is your end goal?
  2. Identify potential support systems, both real and imagined. For the real supporters, make sure to communicate clearly the nature of your challenge.
  3. Give yourself Permission to Be: It’s ok if you don’t do this. Your value as a person does not rely on succeeding at this task.
  4. Identify your stressors and where the challenge fits in with them–does adding the challenge create too much stress? What can you do to reduce your current stressors?
  5. Identify your current methods for coping with stress and overwhelming emotions.
  6. Carefully replace your unhealthy coping methods with healthy coping methods, until you no longer need the unhealthy methods.
  7. Identify your voice of self hatred and create a personal statement that replaces it with positive language.
  8. Identify and disprove the False Story: What are you telling yourself about your relationship to your challenge that simply isn’t true?
  9. Identify and clarify the True Story. Now that you’ve proven there is nothing intrinsically wrong with you, what is the cycle of emotions blocking you from proceeding?
  10. Find the weakest point in the cycle and break it. Where can you start to disassociate the negative emotions from the task at hand?
  11. Start with the least difficult task related to the challenge and do it until it is no longer so difficult that it presents a negative association. Don’t worry if it seems painfully small or simple. Think of me sitting in a parked car, freaking out.
  12. Continue moving forward through the challenge while staying within your comfort zone, pushing the edge of your emotional obstacles, moving at the pace that works best for you.
  13. Ok, I lied, this is a thirteen step program: Recognize and celebrate your successes, however small!

As I’m sure you’ve gathered from my story, the road to success is not always straight and swift. These steps need not necessarily be taken in the presented order. Some of them will necessarily need to be repeated or taken in tandem, such as replacing unhealthy coping methods while riding the edge of your comfort zone. Some may be repeated over and over again, like giving yourself permission to be. Use the steps as a guide, not an absolute.

So, I’ve learned to drive. I have my license. I’ve learned to drive on the freeway. I’ve gone on my first solo interstate road-trip. What’s next, you ask?

Well, other than learning to drive a stick, and then forgetting how to drive completely in a few years when robotic cars take over the roads . . .

Use it or lose it

One thing I’ve noticed in the time since I succeeded in getting my license is that even after you reach ultimate success, the process requires maintenance. If I go for a long period of time without driving, I still get a twinge of anxiety when I start up the car again. It’s a shadow of what I once felt, but it reminds me not to take the comfort I now have with driving for granted. So, one of the things I will be doing for the foreseeable future is continuing to drive when the opportunity arises. This is especially important with the things that are still more of a challenge, like freeway driving or driving under hazardous conditions.

On to the next Challenge

I want to try this method on something else that presents an emotional barrier for me. There are many things to choose from. I’m still not inclined to try out for team sports, for example, or ride my bicycle in traffic. There are many other things that I know I have the ability to do, and want to do, but have build up negative associations around, such as marketing my books, for example.

I haven’t quite decided which challenge to rise to next, but when I do, I plan to blog about it. I have an idea in mind to write a sort of journal-style blog with my next challenge, mirroring this series but following the story as it happens. So, stay tuned for the next saga!

Passing it on

I will continue passing on my story and all that I have learned from the process of overcoming these obstacles. Eventually, I intend to compile this series into a short book in order to make the material more accessible. 

It is my sincere hope that even a portion of my story will resonate with someone facing a similar challenge and help them find a way through. If you’re reading this, maybe that’s you, since you’ve continued this far! I appreciate that you have read my story through, and I would love to hear your story, if you feel inclined to share it. Whether you’ve been inspired by the material here, or whether you have your own story of trying to get past emotional barriers using your own methods, please comment below or email staffchronicles@gmail.com.

That’s it for Dreadless. I’ll be taking a short break from blogging for the next couple of weeks while I pay a long overdue visit to Central America. When I get back, it’s back to 101 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Wrote My First Book! In the meanwhile, please peruse my site, take a look at my fictional books, or check out 101 TIWIK if you haven’t yet.

 

 

Dreadless: Permission to Be

If you are new to this blog series, please start here: Dreadless: An Introduction.

Oregon, somewhere south of Portland, May 2015. I’ve had my license for less than a month. I’m lying in a hammock under two fir trees at the far end of an enormous rest area. It’s so big that I can barely hear the freeway from where I lie.

My head is pounding, I’m alternating between chills and sweats, and my stomach hums with barely contained nausea. Even the dim light of the cloudy day seems too bright. A squirrel scolds me from the tree above, and the noise sends shards of pain through my brain. I’m caught in the clutches of a migraine, trying hard to calm myself down and nap my way through it.

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, I tell myself over and over. Every time I have that thought, the pain subsides. Every time the anxiety builds and spurs the pain again, I think that thought.

Ace is making some food by the car, checking on me now and then while I take care of myself. We are on our way to California. When we left Bellingham this morning, I told myself that I had to drive on the freeway today for the first time. I know how to drive now, I have my license, I can’t let Ace shoulder the burden of driving the entire way to California himself. But I’ve never driven on the freeway before, and the idea of it still terrifies me.

By insisting to myself that I had to do it on this particular day, I worked myself up into a massive state of anxiety that culminated in a migraine. The only way to talk myself back down was to give myself permission to be. To simply be, and not “have” to do anything.

This incident brings to light the final point I’d like to make in this blog series: Sometimes in order to accomplish something, you have to give yourself permission not to do it. Six months after I lay in that hammock and gave myself permission not to drive on the freeway, to never drive on the freeway if I didn’t want to, I learned how to drive on the freeway and drove by myself to California and back. I stopped at the same rest area, headache free this time, and took a picture of the grove of trees that sheltered me through the migraine.

It’s a fine line between permission to be and avoidance. Here’s the distinction: Avoidance is a step in a cycle. When you are avoiding something, the pressure builds on you to do it and in order to avoid the pressure you avoid the thing, or maybe you try, fail, and keep avoiding it. With permission to be, you step out of the cycle by stating clearly your intention not to do the thing, or at least not to do it now. You can say, “I’m not ready for this yet. I’ll try this again at such and such specific time or under these specific conditions.”

This kind of permission takes the pressure off, which frees you from the cycle of destructive emotions. It also raises several important questions about the task in front of you:

  • What are your reasons for doing it?
  • What are some valid reasons not to do it?
  • What would happen if you never did it?

When you ponder these questions, they can give you a clearer perspective on the role of that thing in your life. Often when we have a lot of emotion built up around something, we attribute unrealistic expectations to that thing. We expect it to solve all of our problems, not just the main problem that it will actually solve. Learning how to drive opened a lot of doors for me, changed my identity from a dependent to an independent adult, and gave me a huge boost of self-confidence. It did not make me richer, more beautiful, or a better person. As Ace loves to say, “Aren’t you glad you learned how to drive? Now you get to sit in traffic like the rest of us.”

And while I’ll never regret learning how to drive, I dislike in some ways how it has changed me as a person. One of my struggles against learning how to drive was the ethics of burning fossil fuels and the negative ways in which cars impact our infrastructure and lifestyles. Now I often drive somewhere I would have walked or carpooled out of necessity before. If I hadn’t learned how to drive, I would be much nicer to our planet.

I digress, but my point is that it can be helpful to examine the reality of the thing you are trying to do, and understand that if you don’t do it, you will still have value and validity as a person. It’s ok to give yourself permission to be exactly who and what you are right now. It’s not ok to avoid changing things you’d like to change, and beat yourself up for avoiding them. And it’s important to be able to distinguish the two. If you continue to feel shame and guilt about not doing the thing, you are avoiding. If you negotiate to do the thing under specific conditions and then break that deal to yourself, you are still avoiding.

Once you give yourself permission to be, you may actually find it easier to approach the thing you are struggling with. With the emotional pressure eased, and the shame of failure gone, you’ve stepped outside of the cycle of negative emotions that leads to avoidance. You may find yourself saying, “I don’t have to do this thing, but I do want to do it.” And you might find it easier to negotiate an approach to the thing in the future. I gave myself permission not to drive on the freeway on that road trip, which then made it easier to approach the matter of driving on the freeway at home, under familiar conditions, in a comfortable time frame.

Permission to be is also in line with the concept I mentioned in an earlier post, staying within the comfort zone. When you give yourself permission to be, you accept your starting place, which might be as elementary as sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car, and you accept the pace at which you need to move, which is your own pace, not determined by anyone else’s standards.

When I learn to drive on the freeway, I started on an onramp that remained a separate lane from the freeway all the way to the next exit. In this way, I could practice getting to speed and checking to see when to merge, without actually merging with traffic. I drove a loop over and over until I was comfortable enough to actually join freeway traffic. It took me more time and caution than it might take another driver before I was comfortably driving on the freeway, but I was ok with that, because I had given myself permission to be.

In the next post, I’ll wrap things up with a recap and a look ahead. Stay tuned for Dreadless: In Conclusion.

In case you want to take something away from these posts other than just my story and some advice, here are a couple of activities you can use to apply the strategies I learned while overcoming my fear of driving. Please refer to the disclaimer in Dreadless: An Introduction.

Storytelling: Unfortunately, we can’t usually give our characters permission to be, as that would make for a pretty boring dramatic arc. Ask yourself what would happen if the character didn’t achieve his or her goal. You don’t need to actually have the character not achieve the goal, but by imagining what will happen if they don’t, you reveal to yourself what is at stake in the story. Chances are that the consequences of failure will be much more dire for your hero than they would be in a real life situation. If you can, find a way to show the consequences of failure to the reader, so that the reader can clearly imagine what is at stake, to keep them rooting for your character all the way through.

Personal Growth: For whatever challenge you are facing, answer these questions:

  • What are your reasons for doing it?
  • What are some valid reasons not to do it?
  • What would happen if you never did it?

Now, write a statement giving yourself permission to be exactly who and what you are right now, not having done this thing. Next, expand the statement into a negotiation, clearly stating under what circumstances you might best be able to do the thing. Here’s an example from my situation with driving, specifically on the freeway:

Reasons for doing it: independence, self-confidence, convenience, good skill to have for emergencies.

Reasons not to do it: environmental, it’s dangerous, time and effort could be spent elsewhere.

If I never did it: I would have to rely on plane, bus, train or friends in order to travel long distances.

I give myself permission never to learn how to drive on the freeway. I can not drive and still be the person I need to be. If I do learn how to drive on the freeway, I will do it in an area I am familiar with, and practice for a short period of time every day, during light traffic.

Dreadless: Support Systems

If you are new to this blog series, please start here: Dreadless: An Introduction.

On April 17th, 2015, I drove my sister to the bank. She was going from there to lunch nearby with some friends, so I dropped her off and returned home on my own. My heart was pounding as I pulled out of the bank parking lot and into traffic, as it hadn’t in weeks of practice leading up to getting my license the day before. However, today it wasn’t only anxiety I was feeling but also anticipation and genuine excitement.

For the first time in my life, I was driving on a city street with no one else in the car.

I drove somewhat badly, pulling into the middle lane of a oneway street and then realizing I needed to be in the near lane, switching, then realizing there was a car waiting to turn in the near lane, so I should have stayed in the middle lane.

It didn’t matter. Once I would have scolded myself for these mistakes, but today I was too elated. I honestly almost cried while I was driving home. The emotion I felt that day was indescribable. It wasn’t just joy or pride in my accomplishment, but also a sort of surreality, like I couldn’t quite accept the new reality of my life. Over the next few weeks, it slowly dawned on me that I could drive independently. I think the first time it really hit home was when I drove to the store and realized I could put my purse on the passenger seat, not in the back.

At the age of 32, I now had what most American adults take for granted: transportation independence. But to get to the point where the passenger’s seat was empty beside me, it had taken an amazing man to sit in that seat day after day.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that Ace had been by my side, helping me overcome my emotional obstacles from close to the beginning. I am incredibly lucky to have had such a supportive partner, someone who believed in me and my ability to succeed. Although I’ve mostly touched on the positive points in this blog series, as you can imagine, not every day in the car was perfect. Getting to this point took a lot of patience and understanding on the part of Ace, and a lot of struggling to communicate on my part.

In the process, I learned what is necessary in a good supporter. As with coping, there are a few essential criteria:

  1. Believing: From the very beginning, Ace knew the false story for what it was. In fact, he was the one who clued me into how very false it was. Your supporter might not be quite as illuminated as Ace was, but they should at least be willing to believe and support the true story. They should understand that the problem is the emotional obstacles, not something inherently wrong with you. They must believe that you can succeed in order to support you all the way to success.
  2. Perspective: There were so many times that I would have a strong emotional reaction, and I would not even be aware of it until I started behaving strangely, making errors I didn’t usually make. It’s really helpful if your supporter can see when the emotions are effecting you before you start freaking out. The person who is supporting you might have this kind of sensitivity, but even if they don’t, they can help by asking “where are you on a scale of 1-10?” at key moments. This can remind you to take stock of your emotional state.
  3. Calming: Your supporter should be able to help you get back to a state of equilibrium. This might be by reminding you of your healthy coping methods, or simply by reaching out with a hug or kind words. For this reason, your supporter can’t be someone who is triggered by the same circumstances you are. If Ace had been unreasonably afraid of driving, he wouldn’t have had the state of mind to help me calm down.
  4. Celebrating: Remember back in the beginning of this series when we talked about how your version of success might be tiny compared to someone else? Your supporter should be ready and willing to recognize and celebrate any success, no matter how small.
  5. Committed: Your supporter needs to be willing to stay with you and help you get to whatever your final vision of success is. They can’t stop early in the process and say, “well, that’s good enough.” They have to be willing to stay with you even when things get weird and difficult.

That last criteria brings me to the subject of detractors. Detractors are the opposite of supporters. They might be detractors because they have a stake in believing your false story, either because it also applies to them, or because they feel better about their own false stories if you have a similar false story, or because they have a stake in you remaining unchanged. Forgive them; they are human, and be kind; they are probably facing the same struggle as you. But don’t rely on them for support, because even though they may want to support you, they won’t be able to, because your change will force them to see something they aren’t ready to see, or change a part of their life they aren’t ready to change.

Here’s an example of what I mean: part of my identity before I learned how to drive was one of dependence. I was dependent on Ace if I wanted a ride to the store or across town to spend time with my family. In order to support me through the process of learning how to drive, Ace had to be ready to let go of my dependence on him. If he hadn’t been, he could have easily (and perhaps even subconsciously) sabotaged my driving success. Fortunately, Ace wanted things to change as much as I did, and he wasn’t attached to the status quo.

Who might you look to as a supporter in the fight against the emotional obstacles you face? Start with the people closest to you who know you the best, like significant others, friends, and family. It is essential that you trust the person who offers you support, and that it is someone you can clearly communicate with.

Having more than one supporter is even better, although you will likely find you rely on one person more than anyone else. I was fortunate to be able to turn to several family members for support during my driving saga. My sister rode with me to the DMV many times, and she and my mom both offered some relief for Ace when I needed driving practice, after I’d gotten some of the basics down. It was important, as it had been with Ace, that they knew what I was facing, that I wasn’t just learning driving skills but that I was fighting an emotional battle while I was driving. No matter who you choose to offer you support, make sure they know specifically what you are trying to do and why it is difficult for you.

If you don’t know anyone personally who fits the criteria and whom you trust enough, consider getting help from a professional. However, keep in mind that they will be coming to the table with their own methods and strategies, which may be different from what you need to do.

Years ago I saw a therapist and told her about my difficulty with driving. She directed me to the Anxiety and Phobia workbook, which did have a lot of good information and might have been helpful. However, it was huge and kind of overwhelming. I tried a couple of times to get through it, but never made it very far. In my second session with her, she asked me if I had done the first exercise in the book. I hadn’t. “I guess you’re not really ready to do this,” she wrote me off. Actually, the problem was that I didn’t have ownership of the method, and it was overwhelming me. So, if you get help from a therapist, make sure to keep ownership of your process.

Another place to look for, or rather create support is your imagination. When I was a child, afraid of the dark, I was terrified to walk to the bathroom from my bedroom at night. I created a golden-winged pegasus-unicorn in my mind to shelter me through the shadowy rooms in-between. He sat patiently on the bathroom floor, waiting to walk me back. Nothing could hurt me when I had my pegasus-unicorn protector, not even the monsters of the dark.

The exercise I discussed in the last post, using language and methods from Buck Brannaman to calm myself down, was a similar kind of imagining. I internalized the character of Buck and made him an imaginary part of myself. I think it’s possible that anyone could do the same thing. Even if you don’t have a supporter in your life, there may be a character you can internalize as a support, a public figure or a fictional person. You could even make up an entirely fictional person of your own, based on the criteria of an ideal supporter.

The final thing to remember about supporters is that they are human, just like you. You are going to go to deep, dark places together. Don’t be surprised if your supporter occasionally loses his or her patience or has a bad day and has to call it quits. It’s important to be able to distinguish a bad day for them from an overall disbelief in your ability to succeed, and keep the former in perspective. There may be times when it is necessary to stop the process and support your supporter. Remember that they may need a hug and kind words too.

Never take your supporter for granted. Always thank them for their time and for believing in you. Remind them of how important they are to your process. Don’t approach them as if they owe you support. If you can, reciprocate their support by helping them with something they have difficulty with, or simply by doing something nice for them.

In case you’re reading this, thanks for teaching me how to drive, Ace. What a guy!

I was successful in learning how to drive. But what if I hadn’t succeeded? Could I have lived with failure? Find out in the next post: Dreadless: Permission to Be.

In case you want to take something away from these posts other than just my story and some advice, here are a couple of activities you can use to apply the strategies I learned while overcoming my fear of driving. Please refer to the disclaimer in Dreadless: An Introduction.

Storytelling: One thing you’ll notice about many of the best adventure stories is that the hero always has important allies. Think about The Wizard of Oz–Dorothy’s companions are just as crucial to the plot as she herself is, their characters just as vivid. For your current work in progress, make a list of your main character’s allies and even potential allies who aren’t really active allies. Check secondary characters against the criteria above–do they believe in the main character’s goal? Offer perspective when the main character gets lost? Celebrate successes, and commit to seeing the main character through to the end? 

If any of your main character’s allies are weak, consider strengthening them, both in terms of their support of the main character and the dimension of their own character. Establish their motives for supporting the protagonist. What do they get out of your main character’s success? The stronger their own motives and personality, the clearer their support of your main character will be. And if, in this process, you uncover a detractor, that can have strong dramatic implications of its own.

Personal Growth: Perhaps you already have a supporter on board or someone in mind. Check them against the criteria listed in this post. If they are close to what you need but not fitting all of the criteria perfectly, determine what you can do to bring them more fully on board. Do you need to communicate your needs more clearly? For example, you might need to explain to them what success looks like to you at each stage. Or ask them to help you gauge your anxiety on a scale of 1-10 in certain situations.

If you don’t yet have a supporter, list the people in your life who might be willing to act as your supporter. Pick a few who you think could fit the criteria most closely and approach them. If it feels awkward, consider planning a statement of what to say to them. Remember that if someone doesn’t want to support you, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it or even that they don’t believe in you, it just means they don’t want to take on this kind of commitment. It could be that they are aware that they are a detractor, unable to face themselves enough to offer this kind of support. Move on to the next person on your list. 

Consider too that you may need several supporters to work with you in different ways. Maybe your spouse is really good at offering perspective and helping you calm down, but your mother is always celebrating your successes, no matter how tiny. That’s ok–you can knit together a full support system from several different people.

Finally, whether you have real-life support or not, consider creating imaginary supporters. You might come up with something from scratch, or you might mine your favorite fictional or public-figure characters for support. Maybe you need Mr. Rogers to talk to you until you calm down and can continue facing your challenge. Or maybe you want dragons riding on your shoulders, breathing fire at your foes and making you less afraid. 

Dreadless: Everything Is a Dance

If you are new to this blog series, please begin here: Dreadless: An Introduction.

A man rides a black horse out in the middle of a verdant field. The horse dances, crossing her feet, gliding gracefully backward, then forward again, moving as if gravity cannot touch her. The man’s seat atop her is elegant and effortless. His touch on the reins is light. He is in control yet not controlling. His body moves with hers as if they are one animal.

A haunting country melody that brings to mind stand-offs at sunset on dusty small town streets rises above the image, prelude to the voice-over.

“Everything you do with a horse . . . is a dance.” It is the voice of a cowboy, strong and kind.

This is from the documentary Buck, about Buck Brannaman, Horse Whisperer. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch it. Be warned–you will probably cry multiple times. But for all that it’s a tear-jerker, this movie is uplifting and hopeful. Buck was severely abused as a child, but he overcame his past to become one of the most gentle and effective horse trainers of this century.

When I first watched this movie, I almost but didn’t quite make the connection it had to my own life and experiences. To be clear, I have never been abused, nor have I ever trained horses. But in the process of trying to train my own body to drive, I was making the same mistake made by a lot of the trainers who Buck re-trained. I was pushing my “animal” into a fearful situation without any compassion, and when I reacted in fear, I was punishing myself for that fear with the voice of self-hatred.

When I made the final push before getting my license, I knew I would need to change my approach in order to finally succeed. I thought about Buck and the parallels between his methods and what I needed to change in myself. I decided to re-watch the movie and take notes. Buck had a very specific way of talking to his horses, and my goal was to come up with a set of language that could replace the voice of self-hatred, as well as reminders for me of how to treat my “frightened animal” with compassion.

After the tears had dried, I looked over my notes and re-worked them into twelve guiding principles, a sort of personal statement.

Here is the text of the statement I came up with. Some of this is paraphrased and some may still be the direct wording Buck used in the film, so credit is due to Buck Brannaman for anything that resembles a quote. That being said, much of this is my interpretation of his meanings. In several places I have replaced the word “horse” with the word “body.”

Everything is a Dance

I will develop a seamless connection between my mind and my body using the principles laid out below. The body is the horse; the mind is the trainer. The body includes physical actions and emotional reactions. The mind is the purpose driving the body (the mental construct we are asking the body to conform to, eg. driving, sitting, juggling, etc).

1. Be gentle in what you do and firm in how you do it.

2. Patience, trust, respect, kindness, leadership, compassion, firmness, and commitment form the basis of the relationship between mind and body.

3. Trust: What seems normal to the mind is not normal to the body. You’re asking a lot of the body, and in order for it to be able to do what you want it to do, you have to establish trust. The body must trust and believe in the mind, and vice versa.

4. Compassion: Don’t have contempt for the body. When the body resists or acts out, it is only afraid and trying to protect itself. Why make the body live in fear?

5. Kindness: When pain and inhumane pressure are used on the body to get results, the body learns to contort itself to avoid the pain. If violence is used rather than slow, gentle pressure, the body braces itself against the violence, creating resistance.

Instead, let the body relax into a position of balance—not pushing against you, not dragging you. When the body gives, give back. When the body softens, soften your grip.

6. Use positive language to help relax the body and reinforce relaxation.

When the body is afraid: “Nobody’s here to hurt you.”

When the body relaxes: “There was a nice change.” “Attaboy.” “Good job.”

7. Respect: Don’t be overly critical. If the body feels you are angry, it will shut down. Respect isn’t fear, it is acceptance.

8. Firmness: Be strict but not unfair. Don’t take the resistance of the body personally. Allow the body to make mistakes in order to learn from the mistakes. Don’t let the body dread making mistakes for fear of what will happen.

9. Patience: Don’t rush the body or you will build a fear unnecessarily. Give the body a chance. Don’t discourage, rather encourage when the body reacts well. Build on the body’s pride and make it feel good about itself.

10. Leadership: Give the body a job. When the action has meaning to the body there is greater joy in the exercise. Make the purpose of the action clear to the body.

11. Commitment: Don’t blame anyone else for your actions. No matter where you are coming from, you still make your own choices.

12. Quit on a good note.

I read this personal statement before I started each driving practice in the weeks before I went to take the test. The effect was almost magical. It took awhile, but slowly the cascade of negative thoughts became replaced or overwhelmed by this positive language. Even when I didn’t feel like I was doing great, I would say to myself, “You’re doing great! Keep trying.” That was so different from the barrage of “You suck, you’re a loser, you’ll never do this.”

Even though it felt unnatural to tell myself “good job!” it became an automatic reaction. To this day, when I get stressed out while I’m driving, the first thought that pops into my head is a gentle, “it’s ok, you’ve been doing a great job of driving and you can handle this.”

In a way, I think this was the key to my final success at learning how to drive and getting my license. Everything else I’ve mentioned in this blog was important, but this personal statement was the clincher. Because finally, after fighting it for so long, I had language on my side.

Changing my internal dialog was the final piece in the driving puzzle. But there was one more element that had been there all along, that I couldn’t have done without. I’m going to talk about it in the next post: Dreadless: Support Systems.

In case you want to take something away from these posts other than just my story and some advice, here are a couple of activities you can use to apply the strategies I learned while overcoming my fear of driving. Please refer to the disclaimer in Dreadless: An Introduction.

Storytelling: One of the things that the documentary Buck revealed to me was how clearly someone’s language, their way of speaking, can convey their character. To this end, dialog in a piece of writing becomes crucial, not just in showing communication between characters but in showing how each of the characters is different. Also, characters might use different language in different situations and with different people. For example, the way a person speaks to their boss might be different from the way they speak to their kids. 

Take a moment to assess the dialog in the story you are currently working on. Does it reflect and bring to life your character’s personality? Close your eyes and imagine your character speaking, as if the scene is a movie. What does their voice sound like? Make some notes and then revise the scene with more life to the dialog.

Personal Growth: The power of stories to reflect our own lives and struggles back to us is incredible. When I heard Buck’s story, I immediately related to it, even though his life was much different than mine. The story still connected on an emotional level and gave me the language I needed to overcome my issues. For this exercise, I want you to find a story that has the same connection for you as Buck’s story had for me. It could be Buck the documentary, or it could be something entirely different. It might be a book, or a blog post, or a radio interview, or even a reality TV show. Whatever it is, take notes and create a personal statement from your notes, with an emphasis on positivity and replacing the negative or abusing parts of your own language with positive language.

Dreadless: Healthy Coping

If you are new to this blog series, please start here: Dreadless: An Introduction.

It was a hot tropical night in Costa Rica. I stood up in the middle of a crowded outdoor bar in sight of the beach and challenged everyone to a foosball tournament. There were cheers in Spanish and lots of drunken yelling as the whole bar crowded around the dusty foosball table. I gripped the handles as the ball was served onto the weathered green surface. Tracking the little white ball with robot-like precision, I flipped and spun my handles, clank! bang! With a clatter, the ball spun past my opponent’s defenses and into the goal.

I was eighteen years old, and I had been playing foosball at parties since I was fifteen. In spite of my firm belief then in the false story that I was physically inept at hand-eye coordination, I was a champion when it came to foosball.

Years later, Ace and I were staying at a hotel with a foosball table in the lobby. I bragged about how great I was and how I was going to beat him. Instead, to my great surprise, I lost miserably. It wasn’t just rustiness–I got a little better as we played a few more games, but I only performed with average ability. I never regained the champion status I had had as a teenager.

The difference? I wasn’t drunk. As a teenager, drinking had relaxed me enough to think I could play well or not care if I didn’t. Drinking took away my concern over the shame and embarrassment if I lost or did poorly.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was using alcohol as a coping method for my awkwardness with physical skill. In daylight hours, I would never have joined a company soccer team or stepped into a basket-ball game in the park. The very idea would have terrified me. And yet, when I was drunk, I would challenge an entire room of strangers to a foosball tournament–and I would beat most of them.

Several times over the course of my long saga with driving Ace and I joked to each other that it would be so much easier if I could just drink my way through driving practice. If there had been a way to safely learn how to drive while I was drunk, I probably would have tried it. Drinking would have replaced my anxiety with complete confidence in my abilities behind the wheel, and I would not have cared about looking like an idiot when I messed up parallel parking.

Aside from the obvious problems with this, such as getting a DUI before even getting my license, or killing myself or someone else by driving drunk, there was another good reason not to rely on drinking as my coping method. What would happen to my anxiety the first time I had to drive without a drink in me?

This question highlights one of the telltales of an unhealthy coping method: reliance. In the process of building coping methods for handling my driving anxiety, I learned that a good coping method should move you toward not needing the coping method, rather than becoming a crutch.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms reinforce the issues they are intended to protect you from. Avoidance only compounds anxiety. Drinking is, all in all, another form of avoidance. It doesn’t actually remove the anxiety, it only keeps you from feeling it while alcohol is present.

Based on my experiences with both healthy and unhealthy coping methods, I have come up with a set of ideal criteria for healthy coping methods:

  1. The method should be something you can do any time or place.
  2. The method should reduce the interfering emotions over time, not just mask them in the moment.
  3. The method should be constructive to the body and help it cope with the negative effects of emotions.
  4. The method should be self-contained, not reliant on other people or objects. (This is different from Support which I will discuss in another post).

These criteria raise the question: what can you do any time and any place with just your body and mind?

The best answer I can find to this question is: Breathe. There is no situation in which you cannot breathe. For that reason, I consider breathing to be the most optimal coping method ever. Whenever your emotions start to overwhelm, stop what you are doing and breathe. If you can’t stop what you are doing because you are, say, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway, keep doing what you must, and breathe.

Here’s another thing you can do anytime, any place with what you have onboard: Stay in the present. This one is a little harder than breathing, but really valuable. In the last post, I discovered that a huge part of anxiety is about worrying over the future. Dwelling on the past can be distracting as well–“Oh no I just cut off that car when I turned, what a terrible mistake.” Constantly bringing your focus back to the present reduces the cascade of anxious thoughts that emerge from obsessing about the past or future.

Another coping method I use (although, fortunately for Ace I didn’t start this until I was driving on my own) is to sing. I find that singing aloud, preferably along to music but even without, significantly calms my anxiety. The words and the effort take my mind off that cascade of negative thinking that is part and parcel with anxiety.

Of course, I can’t sing anytime, any place. The set of criteria above are ideal, not final. I have several other coping methods I started using during the final push to get my license that don’t completely meet the criteria above, but that are certainly healthier and more effective than drinking my way to driving success. One of these is meditation–I started meditating for three minutes before each practice. Another was to write up a personal statement (I’ll share more about this in an upcoming post) and say the statement out-loud before each practice. Another was to stop partway through a practice and take a short walk to calm myself down.

All of these coping methods have the benefit of actually reducing anxiety rather than masking it. Because of this, the need to use them in specific situations goes away. I no longer have to breathe deeply and meditate for three minutes before I start the car. However, when I’m driving in heavy freeway traffic, which is when anxiety still comes up for me the most with driving, I can calm myself down by breathing and singing. If I need to, I can pull over safely and take a walk, or meditate, or even take a nap to calm my body down again.

Unhealthy coping methods compound anxiety. In addition to being anxious about the original source of anxiety, one becomes anxious about losing the coping method. Say I have social anxiety and I drink to cope with it. What if I get to the party and there isn’t any alcohol? How am I going to cope with being at a party then? Even before I get to the party, I’m going to be worried about what I’m going to drink.

I’m referring to drinking a lot because I think it is a really common way that people cope with emotional issues, but it isn’t the only one. Most of the unhealthy coping methods are substances. I might smoke pot to cope with my anger issues, or drink heavy amounts of coffee to cope with my depression. Coping methods can be people, too. For a long time, I felt like I could only drive with Ace in the car. Practicing driving with other people was scary to me. My dependency on his support could well have become a crutch. Coping methods can also be rituals or objects–say, I can only drive after walking around the car three times, or with my grandmother’s necklace on. These aren’t usually as unhealthy as substances, but they don’t usually reduce the negative emotions in the same way that breathing, staying present, positive statements and meditation do. And, as I mentioned before, coping can be as simple as avoiding the issue altogether.

I should say that I’m not advocating against drinking or taking any specific substance in general, any more than I’m advocating that you should not have rituals or supportive people in your life. The distinction I’m making is between doing those things for the pleasure of doing them, versus using them as a coping method that becomes a crutch. Sometimes, the line isn’t very clear. Are you having a few drinks for fun with friends, or are you relying on alcohol to soothe your social anxiety? The question that reveals the answer to this is: Could I be doing this same activity without the coping method, and not be uncomfortable or overwhelmed by my emotional obstacles? If the answer is no, it’s an unhealthy coping method. If you’re unsure, test it.

If you are currently relying on unhealthy coping methods, I don’t recommend taking them away all at once. It might be just as bad to have no coping methods at all as it is to have unhealthy ones. Rather, I would suggest that in a safe, low-stakes way, you try to replace the unhealthy methods slowly with the healthy ones. Practice meditation when you are not face to face with your demons, and it will strengthen your ability to stay present when you are. Before you reach for the shot glass, take five good, deep breaths and notice how your body feels. Get more exercise and you will strengthen your body’s ability to process the physical effects of stress. Eventually, you might find yourself needing the unhealthy coping methods less and less, as the healthy coping methods allow you to approach your challenge with fewer emotional obstacles.

For me, the turning point in heathy coping was the personal statement, because it allowed me to directly counter one of the greatest obstacles–the cascade of negative thoughts that would pour through me whenever I made the tiniest mistake. In the next post, I’ll talk about how I developed this statement in Dreadless: Everything Is A Dance.

In case you want to take something away from these posts other than just my story and some advice, here are a couple of activities you can use to apply the strategies I learned while overcoming my fear of driving. Please refer to the disclaimer in Dreadless: An Introduction.

Storytelling: Flaws give your hero dimension. A great source for flaws is unhealthy coping methods. Consider building tension in your story by showing how much your character relies on a certain coping method as a crutch. During a scene of high conflict, take the crutch away and watch what happens to your character. Suddenly, they are face to face with themselves and their problems. In order to succeed, your character will have to grow, moving beyond the crutch. (Note: While it’s fun to torture our characters this way, there’s no reason to do this to yourself in real life. I recommend the opposite approach in real life–weaning yourself gently off the crutch in a safe and comfortable way. Not as dramatic, but much healthier.)

Personal Growth: In the last exercise, you will have made a list of your current coping methods. Now, examine the list and identify places where you could begin, safely and comfortably, to replace any unhealthy methods with healthy ones. For example, maybe you’re not ready to stop drinking in social situations to mask your anxiety. But when you are alone at work and start to have anxiety about your job performance, you might start using breathing, being present, and positive statements. Start there. As the healthy coping methods become a natural response to stress, you’ll find yourself less reliant on the unhealthy ones in any situation.

Be creative–the healthy coping methods I’ve listed here are what work for me, but there are surely ones that are unique to you. You might already be using methods in certain situations that you can “borrow” for other situations. The key is to make sure they come close to the criteria above and will move you towards equilibrium, rather than becoming a crutch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dreadless: What is Fear?

If you are new to this blog series, please begin here: Dreadless: An Introduction.

Six months after I started learning how to drive for the umpteenth time–and made more progress with it than ever before–I had mastered the basic skills, but I was also still making dangerous mistakes. Something strange was happening to my attention. I would be driving along ok, and then I would miss something important. For example, I once stopped behind a turning car, then thought I saw a line of cars ahead of me in the lane after that car had turned. They were actually parked cars, but my brain registered them as being in my lane. Another time, I started to turn left into oncoming traffic even though the light was clearly red.

Every time Ace (my boyfriend/driving instructor) pointed something like this out to me, the realization of what I had done ratcheted up my anxiety to an overwhelming level. The old false story gained strength–what if there is something neurologically wrong with me that I’m making these mistakes? And the voice of self-hatred berated me for these dangerous failings, further overwhelming my ability to focus on the task at hand.

As I’ve said several times in this blog, I’m not a psychologist. I’m not trying to be. I’m relating my story here and drawing strategies from my experiences that might be useful to other people facing the same struggles. While I make several factual statements here about anxiety, I don’t intend this post to be a scientific paper on the nature of anxiety. If you disagree with the information I’ve presented here, please feel free to pursue your own research into the topic.

One important distinction that I haven’t really been making in this blog is the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear, according to Wikipedia, is an appropriate response to a perceived threat. Anxiety, which is what I was suffering from when I drove, is a response to an unrealistic threat. David Barlow, director for the Center of Anxiety at Boston University, defines anxiety as “a future-oriented mood state in which one is ready or prepared to attempt to cope with upcoming negative events.”

When one is focused on the future, they don’t have much attention for what is happening in the present. Through a great deal of conversation with Ace, we unravelled the fact that often when I made one of these major oversights in driving, it was because I was upset from anticipating an upcoming part of the driving experience that would take me out of my comfort zone. For example, perhaps I was driving at 25mph in moderate traffic, but I knew we were about to approach a busy part of town where the speed limit was 35mph. I would be so focused on how I would perform that I would lose contact with what was actually happening around me in the moment. This was happening over and over again, but I didn’t understand at the time that it was a natural reaction to the overwhelming anxiety I was still facing.

Here’s a quote from Wikipedia, since I can’t really put it any better than they do: “In positive psychology, anxiety is described as the mental state that results from a difficult challenge for which the subject has insufficient coping skills.”

Coping, in psychological terms, is any strategy used to master, minimize or tolerate stress or conflict. The coping strategy I had been using all my life in regards to my driving-related anxiety was avoidance. Now that I was no longer using avoidance, I was face to face with the anxiety, but I hadn’t replaced avoidance with new coping skills. My inability to cope with the anxiety while I learned to drive was leading to an even higher level of anxiety. Even though I had escaped one cycle by ceasing to avoid my issues, I had only traded it for another cycle. This is most likely why, after six months of success, I still failed, at that time, to master driving safely and get my license.

There was another factor here as well: stress. I was under a lot of stress at that time in my line of work and in life in general. I couldn’t find a reference for this, but I recall hearing at some point that stress is cumulative–meaning that stresses pile on top of each other until they become overwhelming. In my own experience, I know that stress can complicate and exacerbate anxiety. So, for example, if I have a functional stress cap of 100%, and my job was giving me 80%, other factors in my life were giving me 19%, then practicing driving ramps my stress level up by even 5 or 10%, it’s too much. We noticed that if I did my practice after work, I would reach an non-functional level of anxiety much sooner than if we did it in the morning, or on the weekend.

I mention this only because I was fortunate enough to have a period in my life where the job stress completely went away, because my job ended and I took an extensive period of time off before seeking another job. You could say I was at below 50% stress for the first time in years. Simply put, I had the space to add enough stress from driving to my life without becoming completely overwhelmed. The practice could be the only really stressful thing I did in a day, not another stressful thing tacked onto an already stressful day. I could practice as long or as short of periods as I needed, to, in as busy or light of traffic as I wished to find.

But even having this open space wasn’t enough. I was 3/4 of the way through this period of time off before I made a final push, spent a month practicing every day, and finally got my license. What made all the difference, in the end, was finding the right coping methods.

Approaching the problem, as I covered in the first part of this blog, was only half the solution. Identifying and disproving the false story, becoming aware of the impact of negative self-talk, and noticing the cycle of emotions and stopping that cycle by ceasing to avoid the problem, those steps only got me so far. Carefully riding my comfort zone got me a little bit farther. But now I would need to replace avoidance with constructive coping skills.

Find out how I did this in the next installment of Dreadless: Healthy Coping Methods.

In case you want to take something away from these posts other than just my story and some advice, here are a couple of activities you can use to apply the strategies I learned while overcoming my fear of driving. Please refer to the disclaimer in Dreadless: An Introduction.

Storytelling: What is your main character’s relationship with fear? Does he or she tend to flee conflict or stand and fight? What kind of deep fears and anxieties might contribute to his motivations in the story? Are the things your character fears real, or imagined? Does he or she have nightmares? If your character is forced to face her fears, how does she cope with them? Most importantly, how does your main character’s relationship to fear change over the course of the story? Fear can be an important point of growth for any character. Take some time to brainstorm and free-write about your character’s relationship with fear.

Personal Growth: Make a list of the stress factors in your life. Keep in mind that some of them might be positive factors as well as negative; for example, pregnancy can be a positive life event but can still be stressful. My list might have looked something like this: Job, relationship, family, cat has asthma, home projects, writing projects, learning to drive, getting ready for the holidays. Leave some space under each item. Now, for each item on the list, note the emotions associated with the stress of each factor. For example, “job” and “learning to drive” would be associated with anxiety, while “cat has asthma” might be associated with something more mild, like concern, and “getting ready for the holidays” might actually be anticipation.

Next, focusing on the stress factors for which you have strong negative emotional reactions, make a list of the methods you use to cope with each of these stressors. For me, this might have looked like “avoidance” for “learning to drive” and “hot baths” for “job.” Be honest with yourself, even if the coping methods are not healthy or effective ones, it’s important to know what you are currently doing to cope. In the next post, we’ll work on changing unhealthy coping methods into healthy ones.

Dreadless: Riding the Edge of Fear

If you are new to this blog series, please start here: Dreadless: An Introduction

**Note: If you’ve been following this story so far, you’ll want to know that I have belatedly changed my boyfriend’s name to Ace in order to protect his identity.**

January, 2013. The summer before, I had started sitting in the driver’s seat, confronting my panic attacks. I hadn’t taken it any further. Today, that was going to change.

We were on a road trip, driving through Big Sur on the California coast. Tired and hungry, we’d gotten into a fight. Ace pulled the Subaru over onto a tiny pull out, sandwiched between the road, towering cliffs on one side, a steep drop-off to the ocean on the other side. He stalked off to cool down, and I stayed with the car, fuming.

It wasn’t just the fight that had me angry. It was the situation I found myself in. What if he didn’t come back? I wondered. I was over a thousand miles from home, with all of our gear in the car, parked in an uncomfortable spot. If it had been necessary, I couldn’t drive away from this situation. I couldn’t even pull out and drive the couple of miles back to the last campground we had passed.

I was scared and angry, and in that moment I made a decision. I was going to learn how to drive if it was the last thing I did.

I told Ace my decision the next morning, as we fried egg-in-the-baskets out of the back of the car, under a tarp in the pouring rain, in the same campground we had passed the day before. Of course, he had come back to the car, and we had made up and gone to make camp before dark.

When we were packed up and ready to leave that morning, Ace said, “Why don’t you drive around the campground once?”

The sharp jolt of fear that presaged a rising panic attack struck. I almost went back on the resolution I had just made. The idea of driving around the campground was irrationally terrifying.

I recalled how helpless I had felt waiting in the car by the side of the road, and I knew I had to do this, no matter how scared I was. So I did. It was terrifying, and embarrassing to be so scared. But I drove the loop without any of the imagined horrible things happening. I didn’t hit a car, I didn’t lose control of the vehicle.

A couple of days later, I drove another loop at another campground, this time with a little more confidence, if no less chagrin at how hesitant I was to go a few miles an hour on a deserted loop of asphalt. When we returned to Bellingham, I started practicing the very day after we got back, in empty parking lots.

I drove loops in the parking lot every day for two weeks before venturing cautiously onto a quiet side street. The trick we had discovered was to get me so calm about driving in one situation that I was almost bored with it, before moving onto a more advanced situation. In this way, we were able to ride that edge of fear, keeping me in the comfort zone until it was time to press forward.

Using this strategy, I learned to steer around orange cones in the parking lot. One of the things that had always terrified me was that I couldn’t quite tell where the boundaries of the car were. Ace solved this by having me drive between two orange cones, then gradually moving the cones closer and closer together, so that I would have to steer tighter and tighter to pass through this “gate.” To this day, when I am driving between lines on the road, I think of them as my gates, and when these gates change suddenly–for example, due to debris, someone drifting into my lane, or a narrow bridge, I tell myself, “stay in your gates,” and I am able to steer correctly in spite of the anxiety produced by the change.

Using the cones, I practiced staying in the gates, steering around both left and right turns, backing up, pulling into and backing into parking spaces. We found a long parking lot by the mall where I could practice accelerating. It was the drivers ed course I had always needed, coupled with emotional support from an incredibly patient partner. By the time I pushed the edge of my comfort to confront the actual streets, I had learned all of the skills I needed in order to drive safely.

When we left the parking lot, we discovered that side streets were incredibly scary to me. The closeness of the parked cars, the low visibility at stop signs, pets and children running across the street were all overwhelming. So we found a wide, slow main street with long visibility and a median separating the lanes. It was easy to turn around at each end of this street, and I drove up and down it countless times, slowly becoming accustomed to sharing the road with other cars. It was easy to pull over if a panic attack threatened to overwhelm me.

And so we continued, for several months, slowly pushing me into more and more advanced driving situations, pulling back whenever it was necessary. We used a scale for my anxiety; every time I entered a new situation, Ace asked where I was on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes my response would be beyond a ten, other times it would be four or five. If I was above five, that meant I was pretty seriously freaked out, and I would need to pull back. If I was under five, that meant we could keep pushing the boundary of my anxiety.

This process got me a long way into learning how to drive. By the end of about six months of this, I could drive safely in moderate traffic on slow city streets without completely losing my head. This was farther than I had ever come before. But the strategies I had gained to this point for handling the emotional obstacles weren’t enough to push me past the driving activities that caused me the deepest anxiety: driving in thick traffic, changing lanes, making left turns, parallel parking, backing around a corner, driving at high speeds. I reached a certain level of proficiency, and then anxiety overwhelmed me and I gave up–yet again. The things I needed to learn required larger steps outside of my comfort zone, and in order to make those steps, I would have to learn new strategies for coping with fear.

It would be two more years before I finally got my license. In the next post, Dreadless: What is Fear? I’m going to get a little technical and talk about the nature of anxiety, stress, and their effects on the body, in order to illustrate what was happening when I pushed too far beyond the comfort zone.

In case you want to take something away from these posts other than just my story and some advice, here are a couple of activities you can use to apply the strategies I learned while overcoming my fear of driving. Please refer to the disclaimer in Dreadless: An Introduction.

Storytelling: One of the biggest mistakes novice writers make is to be too nice to their characters. Consider your current project. Are you allowing your character to stay too deep inside their comfort zone? Are you pushing them far enough out to be faced with challenges that require them to change? Look at each scene in your story and ask yourself, is the character too comfortable here? Likewise, you might be pushing your character from one high-action scenario to another, without allowing them any breathing space. Characters need scenes where they are not being pushed in order to regroup, reflect on what is happening to them, and assess their next moves. Check the flow of your scenes for this kind of balance. Are high action scenes followed by reflection scenes? If not, consider evening things out a bit.

Personal Growth:

Note: At this point in the personal growth exercises, we go from theoretical to active. It is highly advisable that you have a friend available for support. If there is no one in your personal life you can trust in this role, consider contacting a professional. This is especially true if the thing you are trying to overcome involves real dangers to your person or others, as driving did for me. Even if the dangers are emotional, having another person involved can help you have perspective. When you are in a high anxiety situation, you can’t always think clearly.

In the last exercise, you pinpointed a starting place, a safe spot to start confronting the thing that you are avoiding. Pick a time and place where you can dedicate yourself to the activity. As you do it, ask the question (or better yet, have your supporter asking it) “Where am I on the emotional scale of 1 to 10?”  If you find yourself above 5, stop and do some deep breathing in order to calm down. Try again until you can successfully repeat the activity ten times (not necessarily one after the other, it can be across the span of days) without going over a 5 on the anxiety scale. Once you can do this, proceed to the next step on your list, and repeat the process.

Dreadless: Start Where You Are

If you are new to this blog series, please start here: Dreadless: An Introduction.

It was a cool June day, several months after I had realized that the only way to break the cycle was to stop avoiding the issue of learning how to drive. I had been out for a walk. I had been thinking about driving a lot lately although I hadn’t actually gotten around to not avoiding it. Mostly an avalanche of anxious thoughts like, Why don’t I know how to drive yet? Am I ever going to learn how to drive? What if I were in a situation where I really needed to know how to drive?

On the way back to the apartment, I passed our 2001 Legacy Subaru parked on the street. My boyfriend (I’m referring to him as Ace here to protect his identity) had bought it four years prior so that I could have an easy car to learn how to drive in. The VW Vanagon we owned before that had been really difficult to shift, adding just one more obstacle–or excuse. But in four years with an automatic, I still hadn’t learned how to drive.

As I stood there on the sidewalk and thought about getting into the car and sitting down in the driver seat, I had a sharp fear reaction. It was similar to the intense fear of seeing a huge spider. I had had this kind of reaction before, when I imagined myself driving in traffic. But I hadn’t realized how deep my fear truly was.

Recalling my realization about changing my behavior, I pulled out my keys and opened the driver-side door. My heart beat faster as I eased myself down into the seat and closed the door behind me. My chest constricted, and it was difficult to breathe.

I was having a panic attack, and I hadn’t even started the engine.

I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself by taking deep breaths. It sort of worked. At least, I was able to breathe normally again, but by the time I got out of the car, I was shaking.

It took about six months of occasionally sitting in the driver’s seat, doing things to calm the panic and diminishing the negative association, before I was ready to finally learn how to drive.

By that time, I actually knew how to drive. I had made the attempt enough times that I had the necessary skills. I had memorized the Washington State Driver’s Manual several times. I knew how to start the car, how to apply gas and brake, how to steer. If I had been able to start where my skill level was, I would have easily driven in light city traffic.

But instead I had to start where I actually was, and that was as elementary as being able to sit in the driver’s seat. Because if just sitting in the car gave me a panic attack, experiencing that level of fear while driving in traffic would have been dangerous. This was not an easy thing for me to accept. I wanted to start where I thought I should be, which to me was an already proficient driver.

And I think this is probably true for any endeavor blocked by similar emotional obstacles. If you try to start where you think you should be, you will fail, and your failure will reinforce the emotional obstacles. If, however, you have the patience to go all the way back to the very beginning, to the place where you actually are able to face the emotions, and succeed, then that success, no matter how tiny, is a seed from which to grow a positive association with the activity.

I think that at that point, with the emotional baggage I was carrying, even starting out in a parking lot would have been too much. I would have had a panic attack, lost control or made some minor error, and the cycle of emotions would have overwhelmed my determination to stop avoiding the issue. But the only way I could fail at sitting in the driver’s seat was to not do it. And that ensured that every time I approached my problem, I experienced success–a very minor success, true, but even a tiny success is better than any kind of failure.

However, I would never learn how to drive by simply sitting in a parked car forever. I needed to take my success and push it just a tiny bit, without going too far and encountering failure. In the next post, Dreadless: Riding the Edge of Fear, I’ll talk about how I pushed the Comfort Zone in order to make forward progress.

In case you want to take something away from these posts other than just my story and some advice, here are a couple of activities you can use to apply the strategies I learned while overcoming my fear of driving. Please refer to the disclaimer in Dreadless: An Introduction.

Storytelling: If you are writing complex characters, their goals will probably change over the course of the story. They will have an overriding goal that shapes their story (like getting my license was for me) but they will also have smaller goals that determine their behavior in each scene (like being able to sit down in the car without avoiding the issue). Sometime if you’re having trouble with a scene or with your story structure, it’s because the goals of the character are not well-defined. Make an outline of the shifting goals of your character, with a focus on scenes that are not working out well. How do the mini-goals of each scene relate and tie back to the over-arching goal? Are there any points in the story where the over-arching goal changes?

Personal Growth: Take the behavior you want to change, or the thing you want to learn or do, and write down in detail the steps it would take in order for you to do it. Make sure the steps are concrete actions. Be extremely detailed, and start at the very beginning of the process. For example, mine would have been something like this: Decide to have a driving lesson. Get in the car. Start the car. Put the car into gear. Adjust mirrors and fasten seatbelt. Put on blinker. Check for traffic. Pull into traffic. etc. 

It could also be the steps you need to take to learn the skill. For example, mine might also have been written like this: Sit in the car. Drive around an empty parking lot. Drive on quiet back streets. Drive in an occupied parking lot. Drive in light traffic. Drive in moderate traffic. Drive in heavy three-lane traffic at 35mph. Drive on a country road at 55mph. Drive on the freeway in light traffic. Drive on the freeway in city traffic.

Make as many of these kinds of lists as you want. Chances are just thinking of doing these activities will trigger a lot of unpleasant emotions. Give yourself some time and space to calm down.

Next, review your list and imagine actually doing the things on the list. For each item, rate your anxiety or emotional response from 1 to 10. Use this to determine which items on the list you can do safely without triggering your emotions so much that they distract you. From that, determine your starting place. It may be far more elementary than you think it should be.