• On Courage and Risk

    by  • January 29, 2018 • You are probably sorry you asked • 0 Comments

    I am kind of a coward.

    I know I am, because otherwise I’d have learned to skate well by now. Yeah, I’ve made progress–I’m getting better slowly but surely–but I could be doing so much better if I were willing to risk falling or crashing into the boards or other hockey players.

    At lessons, there are always a few players who take big falls. Usually, they’re the ones who go as fast as they can, even if they’re not sure they can stop or power turn. They take big risks, because the instructors are right: stopping is easier when you’re going faster. The more momentum you have, the sharper you can put on the brakes.

    In contrast, when I’m not sure I can stop, I find myself going slow. I make it harder to for myself to trust my edges, get in the right position.

    I’ve seen those other full-throttle players improve quick. Maybe the causality goes both ways: if you’re good at athletics, you might hesitate less when trying new sporty things. But there are at least some ways that taking risks leads to faster improvement.

    I know, because you’d think I’d be better at taking risks with my writing–it’s something I consider myself at least good at, so I should have the confidence to throw myself in there. Plus, it’s not like I can get physically hurt sitting behind a keyboard, even if the manuscript winds up a mess.

    But for a long time, fear of losing what I had kept me from revising effectively. I’d look at the page, and instead of thinking, “How can I make this better?” I’d think, “But I worked so hard on this. And if I change this part that isn’t working, I’ll have to change a bunch of other parts that are working. I’ll never be able to replace those with writing I like even half as much.”

    So I’d do the half-hearted “search-and-replace a couple phrases or key words.” I’d change the superficial parts of a character without digging into how a character’s new interests or gender or background might actually affect their actions and hence the story. I couldn’t bear to let go of what I had, because what if I never had anything as good again?

    Which is practically the definition of being risk-averse. In the moment, what I have–a completed scene, being able to skate without falling, rapport with a student or colleague–seems so much more valuable than imaginary future benefits, no matter how objectively better.

    I can mitigate being risk-averse in writing. I’ve learned that copy-and-paste are my friends. My computer has plenty of hard-drive space: there’s no harm in saving version 2.1.1 because I changed a character’s eye colour. And I can make all the bits-‘n’-pieces files I want to save that couple paragraphs I’m sure I might “need later.” Those little self-hacks do the trick for me on the page.

    But writing is one things. Life’s another. What about that?

    Well, there are a few ways. I’ve taught myself to listen to people I otherwise trust when they tell me I can do something I’m not sure about. Like, when my job asks me to take on new responsibilities, my first impulse is to say, no, I don’t know anything about that, I can’t do it. But then I remember that the people offering me these tasks know way more about them than I do, and they know me. If they think I can do it, they’re probably right. So I take the risk.

    And I’m lucky that I’m in such a position of privilege that there’s very little I actually need but couldn’t get or replace if I lost it. I can throw away or donate stuff because, in the rare chance that I need something like it again, I can go buy another. I can afford to commit to a lesson or workshop of an activity I’m nervous about trying–to make skiing plans with a friend or sign up for boxing classes with a Groupon. If it doesn’t work out, I can swallow the loss.

    And maybe, I also have to accept that being scared–sometimes being too scared–is human and normal. Because some risks do have bad consequences. I’ve taken a chance on a stranger and got scammed out of money, and even remembering that is still a little painful. I’ve tried to make a play on my own at hockey and turned over the puck. I’ve torn apart a story and wound up with nothing to show for my trouble but plot confetti.

    Which gets at part of the real problem. I’m not comparing myself to other, real human beings. I’m comparing myself to their best days–the videos and anecdotes that go viral, the idealistic do-this instructions that make doing it right 100% of the time seem easy. And I’m comparing myself to the protagonists of fiction, who are always discovering that they need to take risks, because once they get over their hesitation, they invariably succeed. Fear, they learn, serves no purpose but to hold you back when it matters.

    It’s true. Fear does hold us back. If you strive for more, you have to put more on the line. But the less popular flip side of that truth is that not all those risks are going to turn out.

    To be a good writer, you need to take risks in revision. But not all those risks are going to leave you better off than you started. Some will, but others will put you in a worse place. That’s why they’re risks. You aren’t going to stop without crashing every time you skate at top speed. It’s not always going to turn out OK because you swallowed your fear and put it all on the line.

    But that’s why resilience and courage have to go hand-in-hand. That’s why writing guides emphasize not only being brave and getting your writing out there, but also developing coping strategies for the negative emotions that come with failure–sending out more manuscripts after yet another round of rejections.

    For me, personally, if I want to take more risks, instead of “working” on controlling my fear, I need to keep finding ways to make resilience work for me. Only when I’m better at coping with new kinds of failure can I find new kinds of courage.


    I write SFF, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and I've been known to knock off a play here and there. I'm represented by Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. Stick around - who knows what might happen?


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