“You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone; change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” –Roy T. Bennett
Although on the surface my life has looked pretty boring for the last several months, inside I have been completely on fire. Circuits have been popping, fireworks have been exploding, and something magical has been coursing through my veins. I have felt thoroughly ALIVE. It’s why I haven’t written to you in so long, despite my best intentions to do so. I just couldn’t take a chance on letting that electric feeling in my soul fade away. I couldn’t risk it. So I just kept at it until at last I was sure I had a hold of it. And now here I am, dying for you to get some of what I got. It is the best drug I know of. The best part: it starts and ends inside of you.
I wrote a book. And not just any kind of book. I wrote a novel. A work of fiction.
Never in my life have I ever believed I could write a novel. Never. Oh sure, I fancied the idea of being a famous novelist in the same way I fancied being a singer-songwriter-guitarist touring successfully or a renowned painter or sculptor. These are skills I have never trained for and talent that I fantasize about but simply do not possess. It is a sturdy characteristic of my long existence that I wish I was so much more artistic than I actually am. I truly adore the Arts and the artists that create them. I just don’t have the gifts.
The closest I have ever come is writing these letters to you. I like to think there is some element of the artistic in finding the right combination of words to convey my ideas. It is not purely robotic. So I flatter myself and motivate myself by regularly reminding myself, “I am a writer.” It appears over and over again in the pages of my daily journal entries. “I am a writer.” I use these letters as proof and the repetition of the mantra to convince myself of its truth.
But I know the deal: a writer of true words and opinions, even if anguished over and painstakingly executed, is no novelist and no poet. Those are the true artists under the writing umbrella. I suppose I have always felt like more of a journalist or a columnist for a magazine or newspaper, occupying the rungs on the writing ladder that are “of this world.” A regular person who writes, not an artist (like a house painter compared to a Renoir or Monet). The artists are the storytellers and the poets, the songwriters. You know them. Stephen King. Amanda Gorman. Bob Dylan. All touched by The Muse in a way regular schmucks with a keyboard like me have never been. I have known my limitations and been humble enough to stay on my side of the line.
But then I got an idea.
It came to me this Spring. It wasn’t a story so much as it was a character: a confused kid who needed to sort out his life. I could see him, but that’s about it. The protagonist, if you will. The narrator. I thought he was worthy of a story, even if I didn’t know what that story was. Mostly I thought, “Too bad you landed in my brain instead of a real writer’s.” I figured he would languish there and die, fading away like other moments of inspiration that I have felt along the way. I’m guessing we all have them: little signs from the Universe that we choose to either notice or ignore. I bet the real artists notice them better and latch on for dear life, fully aware that how they handle inspiration is the only true currency of their oh-so-short lives. Well guess what? All of our lives are oh-so-short.
Maybe I realized that when this narrator kid showed up in my brain. Maybe I knew deep down that I had been coasting too long, enjoying my life but knowing it lacked the thrill of a genuine challenge. I admit that I had become aware that I had been taking it easy in the prior months, that I had uneasily given myself permission to be less ambitious. My tolerance for ease has never been great. Maybe my soul couldn’t stand it anymore. Whatever it was, something about this kid in my head struck me differently. He wasn’t leaving. He needed a voice, an outlet. He had something to say. Though I felt bad for him for landing in my unimaginative brain, I offered him my best attempt. He accepted.
Not long after, I wrote his first words. I just thought of it as a writing exercise. Like, “Okay, here’s this kid. What would he say? Go!” So I went, awkwardly but excitedly. I wrote this in my journal the next day:
“Big news: I started the middle grade novel last night….it was so fun…It is so exciting—a rush is an accurate term—to create again, and especially in this fiction way. It is new and thrilling. I feel the hormones popping. No matter what comes of this, I am glad I started.”
And that’s how it went. Early on, I had so little time that every chance I got to work on it, my journal the next day was bubbling with the joy and inspiration I was feeling alongside the tension of venturing into the unknown and feeling unequipped.
“This is going to be hard and fun.”
“I am eager to get back into the story tonight, as last night I felt the story begin to take shape. I am in the middle of introducing the villain, and that makes me feel like my teeth are finally getting into it. It’s exhilarating. I am a writer! For that, I am grateful and so happy.”
“I have lots to flesh out. I wish I had a couple of months obligation-free so I could grind it all out. I am so curious to see what The Muse will draw out of me. It is exciting. I am so glad I dared to start.”
“It really is fun to work on it. It opens something in me. I love being a writer.”
I just love looking back and seeing those words over and over: FUN, EAGER, EXHILARATING, CURIOUS, EXCITING. And that was only the beginning. About a month into it, I hit the 5,000-word mark, which felt like a ton to me (it would eventually get close to 50,000). The next day’s journal entry kind of summed up what it had become for me:
“I am in the midst of the biggest ‘story chapter’ yet, with some relationship development and scene-setting and other things that seem like a real novel. That is a bit surreal, but it is fun and invigorating. This project has really ignited something in my soul. It is a huge challenge, but it stirs a part of my brain that has been dormant for far too long. It reminds me of Jay Shetty talking about ‘flow state’ being when your challenge perfectly matches your abilities. It is totally a challenge for me—and honestly, I am not 100% sure I can pull it off—but for now I am pretending that I am plucky enough to give it a whirl. When I work on it, I am fully engrossed. I can feel my hormones being stimulated like crazy. I can’t wait to get back into it. I am incredibly grateful for its arrival in my world.”
As exciting as it was, though, I still felt way past my comfort zone and wildly anxious about it. It was a constant dance with my self-esteem to keep soldiering the project forward. My joy would push forward, and my insecurity about my talent and competence would pull back. There was a real element of torture to it. A couple of weeks after that last entry, I wrote this:
“I am up to 8,400 words, which is pretty decent. Another 1,600 and I will feel fully entrenched in it. I am fully engaged now, but I think that numerical milepost will give me permission to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m writing a novel,’ maybe even out loud. I have to keep convincing myself to trust that I have a real story to tell, that I have enough words to fill the pages, that I can land it in the appropriate length range. I get a little panicked about all that sometimes, I fully admit. I just have to keep showing up and putting down the next word, knowing that there are many rounds of editing to go. I have to believe in myself, or at least suspend my disbelief so I can keep working. I press on. It is so engaging, though. I love how I can feel all of these neurons firing all over my brain. It’s like fireworks in there. It’s fantastic.”
I inched forward, battling with my fears and insecurities every step of the way.
“I just love what comes out each time I sit down to the keyboard. When I try to plot it out ahead of time, I only seem to get disheartened. But when I sit down to work, something always comes out. I have to remember that so I can keep the faith in the inevitably challenging times ahead. It is in me. The Alpha and the Omega. I love being a writer.”
“I am getting good exercise squashing down all these fears and anxieties about it. The best antidote is just to keep sitting down to write.”
As I worked through that first half of the book and came to accept that it was going to always be difficult and always a test of my self-belief, I began to appreciate both the process and the greater significance of this undertaking in my life. I could feel the supreme importance of facing my fear and embracing the challenge with both hands. I started to see little nuggets like these more often in my daily entries:
“Oh, how I love this the deeper I dive.”
“I am so, so grateful that I took the chance to begin.”
When I reached the last page of that volume of my journal (that is sixty-something now, I believe), I was close to the halfway point in the novel and wrote this to myself:
“This book, in the long run, is going to be remembered for the start of the novel. That is going to be a big thing in my history, or at least I hope so. I don’t know if it will lead to more books or just more courage, but either would be a win. I am proud of myself.”
Even now reading back those words, it feels a bit surreal and pretty darn awesome. For one, I love that I recognized that what I was doing was going to make me more courageous going forward in my life. That is absolutely one of the things I am always wishing I was more of: brave. So, hooray for that. And second, I am finding it so cool that I wrote that I was proud of myself. That is not something I think about or claim very often as I pass through this world, so I am glad I had that moment at least once in my lifetime. I with that upon everyone.
That is way more of my journal entries than you probably ever wanted to see, so I will spare you the many things I said as I pushed through the second half of the novel. I will just say that there was undoubtedly a lot of glowing about how much fun it was to create mixed with a lot of anxiety about whether I was up to the task.
The brilliant relief is that I was up to it. That is not to say the draft that I produced is any good. Chances are good that it is quite awful, in fact. Of course, I hope it isn’t. I hope some publisher wants to pay me a million dollars for it and then some movie producer wants to pay me another million to adapt it for the big screen. I hope it becomes a sensation with readers and that they demand a sequel. I want all that. But let’s be real: it is probably terrible. I will probably find no interested publishers when I get to looking. It will likely never be read by more than a few people who are either doing me a favor or are bound by blood. It will almost certainly go down publicly as a failure.
But as much as I wish those things weren’t true, I am still going to look back at this as one of my most favorite life experiences. Sincerely, I am so grateful about everything this experience has brought me. Forget the outward stuff, the intrinsic rewards have been more than I could have ever imagined. Even from that first night in grinding out the first few words, I was surprised and impressed that I would even try something I was so patently unprepared for. And the mountains of doubts that I pushed through in the early phases of writing–mostly due to the fact that I hadn’t even thought of a story before beginning—I was pleased every time I could face those doubts and still bring myself to write down some words anyway. It was such a brilliant lesson in sacrificing things that I really wanted to do this Summer for this thing that I just wanted to do more. In the remaining years of my life, I will carry that lesson of saying no even to things I like because they are not the thing that stirs my soul. Because man, did this ever stir my soul! Those tingles and whirrings and can’t-wipe-it-off smiles are truly the stuff of a life being lived the right way. They are priceless. The fact that I could have this little period of frequent and regular tingles in my soul is something I will treasure forever.
Now I want more. That is one of my biggest lessons from this experience. I need to find more projects or adventures or whatever that will bring more of this feeling into my system. Obviously it is great to just do more cool stuff and make more memories with things like vacations or concerts and the like. But what I am talking about is not just the stuff that feels good but that also is a huge challenge for my skillset and something that puts me just past my comfort zone. What has made this book so singular and special to me is not just that I am making something that can last forever or that can potentially help people but that I never believed I could do such a thing. I never believed I could write fiction. I didn’t believe I had a story interesting enough to tell, certainly not one long enough to fill a book. It was a daily challenge both from a skill perspective and from a psychological perspective. It required all of my determination, persistence, and self-belief to keep it going from one day to the next. Thankfully, it then rewarded me for my efforts with these delightful tingles and glows. But it was a battle. From this perspective, I can see what a boon the sheer challenge of it has been to my overall life satisfaction. If it had felt easy and natural, it may have been enjoyable but not nearly as satisfying.
I was listening to a podcast last week with the brilliant documentary filmmaker Michael Moore as the guest. In his long career, he has taken on the most controversial, hot-button issues of our time, such as gun control, health care, and climate change. The host asked him how he chooses what his next subject will be. He said he chooses the topic that scares him the most, the one that will be most difficult or personally risky. I love that! He is doing it right, leaning into his growing edge by working in a medium he loves but making it a constant challenge that requires him to grow.
In the end, I suppose my very biggest takeaway from this book-writing experience is that what I want for myself is also what I want for everyone else. It is not just me that I want adopting a growth mindset and pushing my limits in the service of igniting my soul and blowing my hair back. It’s everybody. We all need that, whether we realize it or not. I want to feel again that same sense of tension between my joy of working on something I love and the fear that I don’t have what it takes. I want to claim the thrill aspect of that risk and the satisfaction of pushing through. And I want you to feel it, too. Maybe mine will come from writing more books. Or maybe it will be something totally new, like learning the guitar or starting a business. I hope I am open to the inspiration in whichever form it arrives. I am eager for my next great challenge.
How about you? What is the next thing that will stir your soul, challenge your skillset and your self-belief, and potentially be wildly delightful in the process? Open up your journal and plot to uncover your next great challenge. Consider what you have already done. What are the things in your life story that fit the description of a true soul-stirring challenge? Was it some kind of educational pursuit (getting a degree, a licensure, etc.)? Was it taking some sort of Art class or taking up an artistic endeavor on your own (e.g. photography, painting, a musical instrument, writing a novel)? Was it having a child or taking on childcare responsibilities? Was it a career change? Was it some sort of physical challenge (e.g. weight loss, marathon training, crossfit, martial arts)? In which pursuits have you grown the most as a person? Which challenges left you feeling most fulfilled? Which were the most pure fun? In which challenge did you fail at what you were trying to accomplish but still gained so much from the experience? Which of your greatest endeavors would you want to do all over again? Which would you never even consider trying again? Which would you recommend to others? Are you in the middle of a pursuit now, or are you in a coasting phase? Is coasting satisfying to you, are you like me and get antsy to achieve something if you are passive for long? So, based on your review of all of the challenging pursuits of your lifetime so far, are you generating some ideas about what might be next for you? Is it creative, physical, intellectual, or something else? Which type of challenge is most likely to pull you quickly out of your comfort zone? How badly do you need that big plunge into the deep end to jumpstart your soul? Which type of challenge pushes you just hard enough to be engaging but not so much that you feel your self-esteem questioned? What is something you have always secretly wanted to try or learn? What keeps you from taking the next step toward doing it? Is that an excuse you can live with? How many more years do you think you have left to live? Would it be okay with you if you arrive at your end and realize you haven’t pushed your limits and reached your potential? Which challenge could be your first step to finding out? I dare you to try. Leave me a message and let me know: What is your next great challenge?
Wishing you so much courage,
P.S. If today’s topic resonated with you, please share it with your community. All of us living more boldly would make for a truly wonderful world.
P.P.S. If this type of deep dive inside your beautiful mind appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.