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.

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9 Responses to Courage

  1. rushmc says:

    I enjoyed this post and think it is very affirming, but I couldn’t disagree more with your contention that “I think those things are absolutely necessary.” The skillset required to write well and the skillset required for public speaking, or being gregarious, or aggressively marketing one’s work, are entirely separate, and there is no reason to expect, much less to insist, that they must necessarily coexist in the same person. Some fortunate folks can do both well, and it is likely that their star will shine particularly brightly. But that’s a bonus. All that should be required of a writer is that they write.

    It is often a good thing to stretch oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, to acquire new skills by confronting that which is initially difficult, which I think is what you are basically arguing in favor of here. But to force oneself to act out of character is to invite misery when one repeatedly fails, and it takes valuable time and effort away from the things that may be most rewarding. So I definitely think that these things have to be judged on a case-by-case basis.

  2. I do agree with you, and I wouldn’t argue that anyone should act out of character. For example, there are things I genuinely don’t enjoy doing, and so I don’t do them. Small group discussions at cons, for some reason, I always find difficult. I would much rather speak in front of 100 people than try to direct a conversation with 5. I think it’s important to do what you genuinely like.

    But you’re right, what I’m suggesting is that it’s good to do not just what is difficult, but what one fears. It’s good to confront the fear, to know that one can feel it and perform anyway. At least, it’s given me a lot more confidence.

    I do want to comment on one of your sentences: “All that should be required of a writer is that they write.” Wouldn’t this be lovely if it were the case? There’s a lot more required of a writer nowadays, but even then, I think a writer can determine how much to do, and of course what sort of career he or she wants to have. I will say that I think it’s more difficult to have a career if you aren’t out there interacting with the world. But again, every writer needs to make this choice individually.

  3. rushmc says:

    >>I will say that I think it’s more difficult to have a career if you aren’t out there interacting with the world.

    Absolutely! But let’s just remember that the publishing industry is but a small fragment of “the world.” And probably one of the less interesting fragments. I agree that many writers benefit from close and frequent interaction with their “market” (probably more the reader segment of it than the publisher/sales segment), but I also think that writers can also be harmed by it in excess. I have seen some fantastic, original writers become so concerned with “what the market wants” that they have turned themselves into hacks trying to serve it.

    I don’t think we really disagree much on this–it’s a question of emphasis. As a writer who has chosen to retreat from the world to a great degree, I have to speak up for those of us who skew more toward the Salinger/Pynchon end of the spectrum!

  4. Vivienne Grainger says:

    When I was beginning to know myself as a writer, about ten years ago, I caught myself thinking, “No, I can’t write that.” Doing it anyway was on a par, fright-wise, with realizing in counseling that no, a parent never really loved any of us.

    It was also just that rewarding.

    As for marketing oneself as a writer, it is more difficult for some of us than for others. For some it’s as soul-searchingly difficult as the writing itself. Writing, like any number of unsuspected Other Things, can be a direct and demanding way to grow one’s self.

  5. I really like the phrase “soul-searchingly difficult.” That’s exactly what it is: in confronting our fears, we’re confronting something in ourselves. What I had to confront was my fear that I wasn’t good enough, that I was somehow kidding myself thinking that anyone should pay attention to me. I had to confront a lot of things about myself, including my fear of my own ambition, and failing to reach the goals that ambition set for me.

    I still confront those things every day.

    I do think confronting your fears, whatever they are, makes confronting fears in general easier. You get into the habit. (Maybe courage is a habit, really.) And that really is rewarding, as Vivienne said.

  6. Bob Devney says:

    Speaking of publicity, I look in vain on this otherwise wonderful blog for a heading such as “Appearances.”

    You ARE going to be at Boskone next month, aren’t you?

  7. Yes, I will be at Boskone Saturday and Sunday! That’s a good point, Bob. I should add that section explicitly . . .

  8. Bob Devney says:

    Ah, excellent! Will look forward to seeing you. And hearing the Gossian point of view: knowledgeable, wry, sometimes a little spooky.

    Have suggested several Boskone panel topics spun off (well, stolen) from ideas you’ve put forth here in the past several months. Although one never knows what will end up in the final program.

    “Appearances.” That strikes me as a word you especially could get an entire essay out of …

  9. I probably could get an essay out of it! 🙂

    I just got my progress report and saw myself on the guest list. I’m looking forward to seeing the panel topics!

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