Walking Through the Fear
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
I love writing. Love, love, love writing.
But I hate networking for writing. I loathe it.
It’s not that I hate people. On the contrary, I find a lot of satisfaction in connecting with others.
What I hate about networking in the field of writing is that it forces me to move beyond my moments of paralyzing insecurity. It pushes me into the uncertainty of interacting in an arena where I am still relatively inexperienced and unknown.
I can network with teachers and mothers all day long. I slip as easily into those roles as I do my favorite pair of Ryka running shoes.
But networking with writers challenges me to fly a flag of a country where I’m not sure I’ve earned citizenship.
I don’t have a degree that attests to my skills as a writer.
I don’t have a traditionally published book that agents and publishers have agreed is worthy of publication.
But at this year’s Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, I decided that I was going to take the next step in my journey to own the identity of writer.
The first night. A Thursday night. Sitting in my car, taking deep breaths. One. Two. Three.
It’s fear, I told myself. You’re afraid, but you shouldn’t be. No one is going to throw you out because you self-published your book. No one is going to laugh at you. Hell, you might even sell a book!
I walked toward the hotel lobby where the roar of several hundred people filled the room. Laughing. Hugging. Squealing.
I stopped at the registration table and picked up my badge. It was a nothing but a thin piece of paper and plastic, but when I hung it around my neck, it became my own magic feather. I looked at my name and reminded myself:
Own this identity.
You belong. You can do this.
Owning the identity of writer is different than owning my other identities.
As a teacher, I could fall back on the magic feather of my two degrees. I deserve to be called teacher. I’ve earned it. And two universities agree that I am one.
As a mother, I could fall back on the magic feather of my own body. I deserve to be called mother. I’ve earned it. And everyone is calling me one.
But if I’m really being honest, I know that the degrees didn’t make me a teacher. I didn’t truly know how to be a teacher until I started teaching. And although I navigated the new and murky waters of pregnancy and childbirth, I didn’t really know how to be a mother until I started mothering.
But calling myself a writer forces me to acknowledge the truth that I have no degrees in writing. I have no university saying that I’m qualified to do this. And, most of all, not many people know me as a writer. I’m more likely to be seen as the teacher who also writes on the side. Or the mom who has a writing hobby.
Owning the identity of writer requires me to truly believe in my own worth.
Without the magic feathers.
During the first dinner at the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, they played this video.
In this video, Erma confesses her own disbelief in her identity as a writer. It wasn’t until her literature professor acknowledges her gift that she truly starts to see herself differently.
What did her professor say?
“You can write.”
I take comfort in this video. That even Erma Bombeck, a truly great writer, needed someone else to call her a writer before she was willing to believe it. She needed someone already in the community to invite her to the other side.
The journey of self-publishing Becoming Mother has forced me to wrestle with a lot of my own demons of worthiness. Not only did I have to believe that I had a message to tell and the talent to bring it to the world, I had to also believe that I had the right to do so.
Without the degree.
Without the title.
I had to believe that I had the right.
But as I move into this unfamiliar space of networking with writers, I realize that I’m still wrestling with these same demons–only now, I’m doing it in public. My private battles of worthiness are now being reenacted in real time with real consequences that cannot be rehearsed and tamed from all sides. If I succumb to crippling self-doubt and turn into an incoherent mess as I try to talk about my writing, that encounter cannot be undone. And I have to learn how to just live with it.
And move the hell on.
With my drink in hand, a knot forming in my throat, I looked around for a group to join in the sea of networking writers.
Maybe I’ll hang my coat up first, I thought.
“Excuse me,” I smiled at three women as I placed my drink on their table for a moment. I crawled out of my coat and readjusted my bag over my shoulder. When I turned back around, I realized that I now had a place at the table.
They made room for me.
They made room for me.
I met columnists Betsy Bitner, from Albany, New York and Christy Heitger-Ewing, from Bloomington, Indiana along with aspiring writer, Mary Hennigan from Cincinnati. We talked about our jobs and I put on my comfortable hat of ESL teacher, which can procure about twenty minutes of material if my audience is interested.
But then it was time to bridge into why I was really there.
“Well,” I said, “I actually wrote a book last year and I’m here to get some inspiration to push forward to my next book.”
“What was your book about?” Christy asked.
I gave my pitch.
“Do you have copies?” she asked.
My hand slipped into my bag, but I knew there was nothing but a padfolio and a folder. I was hoping to fish out at least a business card with my name on it, anything for this willing audience to not forget me as soon as I walked away.
I had one card.
I could talk easily about being a mother, so I did. I wore that comfortable hat to get my bearings and my confidence back.
And no one criticized me.
No one questioned me.
They just said, “Good for you.”
On the final day of the workshop, Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, authors of Queen of Your Own Life, shared a keynote address in which they touched on the topic of fear. Kathy shared these words (my paraphrase as I took notes):
I had to make the decision to walk through my fear. Yeah, I was afraid, but that was also okay. I mean, so what? We’re all afraid. But if you can learn to walk through that fear, you can free yourself.
Someday, I hope to fully embrace the freedom to call myself a writer, as I have with the name teacher and mother.
But like everything else, becoming a writer is a process. A lot of it is done in the dark, without cheering or even polite acknowledgement. It will take time for me to grow into this role. I still have much to learn about the craft of writing, especially if I want to grow as a fiction writer. (And thank you to Anna Lefler, Susan Pohlman, and Katrina Kittle for giving me some much-needed guidance on the craft of writing fiction!)
But I must also acknowledge that cultivating an identity as a writer requires that I build relationships with others who see me in that light. I can’t just skip this hard part.
I need to walk through my own anxiety and self-doubt because it’s my only path into this new country of writers.
The good news is… They love immigrants.
And three of them even bought my book.