stuck/unstuck: Alisa Bowman: writers: focus on fear and awareness of fear are two different things (and only one helps)

by Meredith Resnick

This issue of stuck/unstuck was inspired by my re-listening to a book by Eckhart Tolle. This is the email I sent to Alisa Bowman, asking if she might reflect:

I was I was recently listening to Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth for the second time, and heard him say (paraphrasing) not to try to get rid of the ego, or fear, etc. That the key is to notice it, to be aware of it. That the awareness in and of itself has the effect of transmuting the fear. It makes me wonder about our focus on fear and how awareness of it is somehow different than focusing on fixing it. In writing, what does awareness look like, or might it look like? Let’s ponder aloud here.

Continuing our stuck/unstuck series is author Alisa Bowman. Alisa is the author of the memoir Project: Happily Ever After, and author or co-author of more than 30 books—7 of which have become New York Times best sellers. Her most recent project is Be Fearless, co-written with Jonathan Alpert. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Better Homes & Gardens, American Baby and others. She teaches Buddhist meditation in Bethlehem, PA, and is working on a memoir about karma.

by Alisa Bowman

This is similar to the Buddha’s teaching on suffering. The Buddha taught that we cause and intensify suffering by trying to avoid that which we find unpleasurable (pain, separation, overstimulation, noise, aging, illness, bad weather, parting with the people and possessions we love) and trying to hold onto that which we find dear (sexual bliss, infatuation, material possessions, moments of bliss, beautiful experiences, and so on).

In reality, we have little control over most of what we find pleasurable or unpleasurable. As much as we try to manipulate and control our outer world, we still catch colds, unexpectedly find that our refrigerators no longer work, develop back pain, and find long stray hairs growing out of our chins. As the saying goes, suffering happens, and it happens to everyone.

Fear is the same. It’s a built-in survival mechanism designed to keep us safe from threats. The problem is that our brains cause us to fear many things that truly are not all that threatening. For writers, these fears come in the form of criticism, rejection, obscurity, typos, and mistakes. We are terrified of missing deadlines, of our mothers falling asleep while they read our work, or of book singings attended only by the local homeless person who showed up for the free coffee. Yet I don’t know of any writer who ever died or even got a nose bleed from a typo or any of these other outcomes. More important, many incredibly gifted writers had to face all of these dreaded problems at one time or another in order to become successful. A writer who attempts to get through a career without facing a single unpleasurable outcome is a writer who courts anxiety and ultimately creates the very outcome he or she fears. Fear follows such a writer everywhere, leading to writer’s block, procrastination, self-sabotage, missed opportunities, and, ultimately, failure.

I learned this first hand while trying to promote my memoir Project: Happily Ever After. I didn’t allow myself to see failure as an option—that’s how much I feared it. I bet my happiness on that book becoming a wild success. As a result, I was an emotional wreck. The evening of the book’s release, I was prone on my couch, with intermittent pain in my chest. Talk about anxiety!

Well, you know what? The book didn’t become a wild success. It sold fewer than 10,000 copies, and I spent more money promoting it than I made from my advance. I showed up to give a speech and faced a nearly empty room. The only two attendees were the organizers who set up the event. Reviewers criticized me of being selfish, self-centered, kooky, arrogant, overly dramatic, and out-of-touch. The final blow? My publisher decided not to bother publishing the book in paperback.

In the end, everything that I tried to avoid ended up happening anyway, but that was all quite fortunate. I learned a wonderful lesson: failure, ridicule and rejection are not big deals. They really aren’t. We fear these things because we’re conditioned to fear them. They are harmless, but our minds make them scary, just as a child’s mind turns a bedroom shadow into a monster.

Eventually I was able to, much like that fearful child, flip on a light and see that the monsters that I feared were merely creations of my own mind. It was then that I was finally able to see and cherish the beauty that was all around me but, until then, had been hidden by my own emotional darkness. There was the mother who whispered to me as we waited for our children after school, “I read your book. I loved your book.” There were the emails from people all over the world who thanked me for making them laugh, for normalizing their situation, for helping them to save their marriages, and for giving them hope. There was the well-known author who didn’t blurb the book because she was too busy, but eventually read it two years after the fact and then wrote a glowing review on Amazon and then befriended me because she was so moved by what she had read.

More important than all of that, though, was what I learned from failing. Now when other authors tell me about their anxiety over book release, I know exactly how they feel. As a result, I know how to comfort them. I can flip on that light and help them make their own monsters disappear.

Now that I know that the monsters aren’t real, I’m a different writer. When I feel myself avoiding an outcome, I can now laugh at myself, sit with the emotion, study it, and make peace with it. Then I can fixate less on the end result and enjoy the journey. So what if no one ever reads them? So what if someone calls my creation “pointless drivel”? So what if I can’t sell what I write? I don’t need recognition to be happy. I don’t need awards, praise, or crowded book signings, either.

All I need to write happily is this: the intention of benefiting others. When I write to inspire, to comfort, and to delight the reader, the fear dissipates and, in its place, there’s bliss.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Irene S. Levine

Thanks for such a beautifully-written, honest and compelling essay. Writers need to be reminded!
Best, Irene

Melanie

Very powerful! Thanks for showing us a part of your journey.

Casey@Good. Food. Stories.

Alisa, I’m printing this out so I can return to your wise words again and again. I’m already emotionally twisted up about my book being a potential failure… at least you got to print a book in hardback! But I need to remember that I help people EVERY DAY through my site, and the words and feedback I get from real readers are more valuable than any critical review could ever provide.

Sheryl

Thank you, alisa, for putting it all in the proper perspective. It’s so easy to let fear take over…but usually, to absolutely no avail whatsoever.

Living Large

My mother always used to say that it’s not what we fear most, but what we don’t even think of that will usually go “wrong” in our lives. You’re right, all of us have suffering, we cannot avoid life without it. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

Living Large

My mother always used to say that is is not the things we fear most but the things we haven’t even thought of that will jump up and bite us. You’re right, we all have suffering at some point, there’s no getting through life without it. I think it is how we deal with it though and you’ve seemed to come out on top of it. Thanks for your insights.

Brette Sember

Kudos to Alisa for talking about this. For writers, not earning out your advance or having a book that is not a giant hit is the way cancer used to be in the 70s. You couldn’t talk about it and if you did, you whispered it because just saying it could make it happen to you. Even though very few books earn out or even make it to the bestseller list, we are still afraid to acknowledge this. In the end, we write because we need to, because we’re good at it, and not because of what other people think.

Kerry Dexter

Alisa and Meredith,
as I was reading this I though of a friend of mine who is a professional singer. one of the things she teaches her students is that the way to send away all those voices that tell you you aren’t hitting the note, you can’t sing, and all that, is to remember that you are part of the story of the song. a slightly different angle but it seems to me there are parallels to your points.

Roxanne

This is such great advice. We do indeed make ourselves miserable trying to avoid the things we fear and trying to hold tight to the things we want. Both are infinitely fleeting.

Heather

What fantastic advice for any writer.

Jane Boursaw

I’m learning to detach from the outcome and be aware of things and watch them as an observer, not an active participant. It’s definitely an ongoing process.

Monica Bhide

What a fantastic essay. I always learn so much from Alisa. Thanks for sharing this.

andrea frazer

I coudln’t agree with this more. We all have fears. Mine isn’t about writing (though I likely live in Delusion Land about my upcoming “Big Seller!”) but I have other fears. I am currently so inspired by Chodron’s Buddhist teachings and will likely be learning from you, oh master, as well. You are wonderful! Andrea

Donna Hull

Alisa has written a powerful essay that I very much enjoyed reading. We writers are so cruel to ourselves and fear is one of the tools that we use. I’ll be printing out this essay as a reminder not to be afraid.

Jeanine Barone

Very insightful. And it seems in keeping with a many-day workshop I took a couple of years ago at the Omega Institute in New York state entitled Living the Full Catastrophe. Basically it’s about being mindful and simply observing, rather than judging. And that includes dealing with fear and other negative emotions.

Kristen

Interesting reflections. My husband and I were talking the other day to a friend about “enjoying the middle,” meaning that if you realize you’re in a process, not the beginning or the end of something you live, differently. It was just freeing in a way to think of life like that.

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