How NOT to write a book: facing fear & inadequacy in the woods

The setting for two weeks in the Canadian wilderness.

The setting for two weeks in the Canadian wilderness.

I turned 50 two weeks ago. I’ve never been someone who had challenges with birthdays; more often I’ve seen them as opportunities to reflect, be grateful and celebrate. Fifty has felt totally different — big, heavy, expectant; asking me what I am doing with this one short, precious life.

In anticipation of my fiftieth year I wrote a blog about the things I was going to do over the course of the year — #3 on that list was to write a book. I’ve told countless people in my life that I’m going to write that book this year. Its not pride or ego, instead it’s a desperate attempt to hold myself accountable to accomplishing this task that feels truly ginormous and fills me with fear.

I don’t know what makes your knees shake, but for me it is showing up fully as myself and being fully seen. That brings the risk of being judged and found lacking that comes with showing up and being seen. Writing this book is not a project for me, instead it feels like an unfolding.

In service to kick starting the writing of my book, I carved out two weeks in my schedule and booked a friend’s cottage in the woods. I came up to spend some days by myself to get things going, and then a week with the family (where I would continue to write for a few hours every day).

The path to the lake. Where I went when I needed to escape from my own thoughts. Which turned out to be pretty often.

The path to the lake. Where I went when I needed to escape from my own thoughts. Which turned out to be pretty often.

Like most things in life, things did not go exactly to plan. Here is how it went:

Day one:

This is going to be so great! I’m so excited to have this space and time to myself. I can write, paddle, read and get some space in my heart and head.

Day two:

This day starts really well. I meditate, do yoga and journal to start my day.

I feel nervous and anxious — what if I don’t accomplish anything while I’m up here? I’ve got my fear engine running in low gear in the background and I’m full of nervous energy searching for something to hold my attention.

I don’t know where to start.

It’s lonely up here by myself.

I have no cell service — I can’t call anyone, do research (or watch Netflix). I also can’t distract myself mindlessly online instead of writing my book.

Mild panic sets in. I spend an hour creating poems with magnetic poetry on the fridge, then go sit on the dock and read a novel. Finally I get bored enough that I can’t avoid working on the book.

I go back to the cottage and brainstorm all the different ways / areas of focus I could take with my book and write them on sticky notes. I post them on the wall and think about that for a bit.

I pull out a puzzle and start it. I tell myself I’m letting my thoughts percolate, but really I’m avoiding big thinking. That eventually gets boring so I go back to the book project.

One of many puzzles I used to distract myself and avoid writing the book.

One of many puzzles I used to distract myself and avoid writing the book.

I write all the things I know for sure about brave, honest conversations and put them on sticky notes and post them on the cottage windows. It turns out this is really interesting and captures my attention! These ideas reveal themes and suddenly I’ve got an outline with twelve chapters and topics and sub topics! I reconfirm my commitment to creating a call to action and a “how to guide” full of stories and lessons, so more people can have brave, honest conversations. This is why I came up here!

That was hard work — time for some chocolate to celebrate. And maybe a glass of wine.

Now I’ve got this outline but its suddenly overwhelming to think about how I go from 3 pages to 300 pages.

I have a sad little moment where I cry and feel really sorry for myself. Then it starts to rain so I feel even worse. I question my ability to do this. It’s a pretty ugly scene.

I realize its possible I might be sabotaging myself because if I write this book it might mean I will be fully seen — and judged — in the world.

I mull that over while I finish the puzzle. I go to bed early, but am awake for four hours in the middle of the night reading a novel. When I do sleep I have nightmares of zombies chasing me. You don’t need Freud to know those zombies are my fears.

Day three

Today is going to be different. I’m going to feel what I feel and do this anyway. I’m determined and committed. I meditate, do yoga but don’t journal because I’m not going to get sucked into a pity party this morning.

Its pouring rain so I can’t go distract myself on the dock.

The power goes out. I’m in a cottage in the woods alone, in the rain, and now I’m in the dark too. Freud would have a party with the symbolism of all of this.

I feel pissed off, sad and lonely. I didn’t journal about it but here I am anyway. A little scared too. This totally sucks.

I decide to open my computer and just see what happens. Next thing I know three hours have gone by and I’ve got notes, ideas, quotes, resources listed in all the chapters. It’s definitely not like chapters are written yet but what might fill each section out is starting to take shape. I can suddenly “feel” how this thing might come alive, like that first kick of a baby in my belly.

I grab a quick lunch and keep going. Now I’m wading through articles and research I’ve got on my computer, searching for examples, quotes, content that supports the topics in each chapter. After two more hours I feel like my head might explode.

The sun comes out. I spend an hour in the sunshine on the dock, meditating and reading a novel. I realize I’ve got some space in my heart and my head. I have a moment of deep gratitude for being alone in the woods with time to think.

I have a glass of wine, start another puzzle and feel pretty good about my day.

I create another poem on the fridge with magnetic poetry as I reflect on how you break free of your shadow self when you step into it.

One of many poems I posted on the fridge.

One of many poems I posted on the fridge.

I have a restless night full of dreams of running and searching and never quite finding what I’m looking for, always one step behind.

Day four

I wake early and go through my morning routine. The sun is shining and the weekend is supposed to be scorching. Some of the family will arrive late this afternoon.

Suddenly I’m worried I’ve only got this one last day by myself to write, when before the days alone felt endless. My fear engine has changed gear — now I’m focused on what if I don’t get enough done instead of whether I can do this at all.

I’m glad I did research and read other’s people’s thoughts yesterday but I wonder if that was another form of distraction. I realize I was looking for validation from scholars that I’m on the right path. I decide I’m going to write from my heart today.

Hours go by. I’m writing random stories, moments and ideas in each chapter. I’m not very good at colouring in the lines and I realize this book isn’t going to come together in an orderly way starting with chapter 1. It feels more like me to swirl in the moments, ideas, words, stories and then see the patterns and connections and see where they land in the book.

Hours and hours go by. I realize I’m still in my pajamas, haven’t showered and should clean up the sticky notes and flip charts scattered around the cottage because people will be here soon. Now I’m wondering how to best create a schedule that allows me to write while the family is here, so I can focus.

I’m in it now. It is calling to me. This has been such a beautiful human lesson in going through the trench before you can get to the other side (I make a note that this should be a section in the book, and consider how brave, honest conversations can sometimes feel harder before the pathway through them emerges.)

I write a new poem on the fridge. I wish for more magnets with different words so I can write poems of gratitude and possibility.

The next week

The next week flies. There are board games, swimming, paddle boarding, lots of great food and wine, good conversations and many novels read. There are hours on the deck, writing and thinking.

Countless jumping competitions off the dock into the cool water.

Countless jumping competitions off the dock into the cool water.

My mind has the book running in the background so I wake up each morning with new ideas and thoughts. While family have been here with me, I’ve written for a couple of hours every afternoon — trading naps for writing.

This book project has shifted from a burden to a choice in my mind, and that alone has been a valuable learning experience. While I’ve only got 30 pages written, and there are few guarantees anyone is going to want to read this book one day, it’s a great start to collecting my thoughts and getting clear on the contribution I want to make to others wanting to have brave, honest conversations in their lives, organizations and communities.

If you find yourself with something you want to bring alive in the world and are getting lost, overwhelmed and confused, try this:

· Get some awareness about what is going on. What are you afraid of? Recognize how that is showing up — are you avoiding? Distracting yourself? Really dig into what is happening for you.

· Be with your own crap. Feel sad, lonely, unworthy, confused, anxious. It’s counter intuitive, but the sooner you step into those emotions, the faster you move through them. You have to be really with them before you can get to the other side. The harder you try to avoid them, the longer they will hold you prisoner.

· Open up your heart and get some space in your head. Lock your phone in another room, turn off your email, go for a walk in the woods. Breathe. Let go of busyness and doing. Colour, paint, write poetry. Get on a paddle board. Open up your heart to creativity — it’s the place where possibility lives.

A remedy for the soul — an hour on a paddle board in the wildnerness.

A remedy for the soul — an hour on a paddle board in the wildnerness.

· Make a bargain with yourself. So you feel whatever you feel — now dive in and do something anyway. If you aren’t feeling it, set a timer and bargain with yourself; do the thing you need to do for an hour and then come up for air and see where you are at. Might be you can go another hour. The longer you go, the more committed you will be and the less overwhelming your emotions will be.

I’m still months away from being done this book project, but now it feels like a real living thing in my life waiting to be born, needing care, nurturing and attention. I’m still afraid about whether I can really do this and what will happen when I put it out into the world. But I’m happy to just be with those fears for now. At the moment I’m more committed to bringing brave, honest conversations to life than I am committed to being afraid. I can be afraid any day. These days I’m writing instead.