I was thinking about the quality of courage today.
I suppose I was thinking about it because I’d seen some things recently that were not at all courageous. That were cowardly. I’m not thinking in terms of physical courage or cowardice. I’m thinking about how we all deal with our lives. The problem is that courage is a sort of muscle. If you don’t use it, the muscle becomes weaker, eventually atrophies. And then you can’t use it, you can’t lift what you need to, or even bend where you need to because it has become stiffer, less flexible.
Courage needs to be exercised.
I remember when I first started going to conventions. I was nervous, partly because everyone else had been going to conventions for a while, knew each other, had written books. I felt so new in that world. And I was particularly nervous being on panels. So I volunteered to moderate them. Moderating a panel is not an easy task. You have to be more aware, pay more attention than if you’re simply on the panel. And I was moderating people who were much, much better known than I am. Samuel R. Delaney, John Clute, Barry Malzberg. And not all of them were particularly easy to moderate! But moderating panels gave me a reason for being on the panel: I wasn’t just the author that no one knew. I was the moderator.
I noticed, when I was in college, that often the classes that were supposed to be harder ended up being easier than the supposedly easy classes. Often, it seems to me, when you do something that requires more courage, it ends up being easier than the thing that requires less. Like moderating rather than simply being on a panel.
Each time you put yourself out there in some way, each time you do something that takes courage, you’re exercising that muscle so the next thing becomes easier. I’ve spoken so often in public now that it’s no longer frightening, no longer something I need to be anxious about. I just do it.
On the other hand, if you routinely avoid what you fear, you start to believe that you really can’t do whatever it is. And you shrink from other things as well, thinking you can’t do them either.
You know where this is going, right? It takes an enormous amount of courage to be a writer. Perhaps not as much as to be an arctic explorer or a lion tamer. But being a writer means working in solitude, accepting rejection, and attempting to publicize your work, all of which are things that frighten people. Publicizing your work in particular is not easy. Many writers can sit at their desks, typing stories. They can open and file the rejection slips, send out the next story. But going to a convention, being on panels, doing readings – those can be more difficult for writers. We tend to be introverts anyway.
I think those things are absolutely necessary. You need to get out there, present your work to the public. Among other things, it’s a gesture of faith in your work. If you don’t believe in its importance, its relevance, its beauty, why should anyone else?
And then there’s the whole other level of having an online presence, of using a website and various social media effectively. So people know who you are, so they recognize your name. That takes a particular kind of courage as well, because again you’re putting yourself in front of an audience, and this time the audience is potentially world-wide. Twenty to fifty people might come to a reading I do, but at least two hundred people come to this blog every day. (And thank you for coming, by the way!)
All of this needs courage. And how, you may ask, do you build courage, if it really is a muscle, as I claim?
1. Find something you’re afraid of.
2. Do it.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2, as many times as necessary.
That was the thought I had today, because what I saw instead was cowardice, which led to weakness, which led to more cowardice and weakness in a feedback loop. And none of us wants to be there, dying a thousand times before our death. Among other things, it’s no way to be a writer.