August last year was a big month for me. I left behind eleven years of teaching English in Japan and came back to New Zealand. I had limited savings, no job lined up, and was entirely dependant on public transport/the generosity of my family for getting myself places. I gave myself one year to write full time, and then I would look for a real job. The one year limit was my way of dealing with my fear of the unknown, and of failing. A year was a really long time, and it made me sound as if I had a plan. And if it didn’t work out, well, it was only an experiment. A year’s sabbatical.
A year later, I can say that returning to New Zealand was the right decision. Only when I was away from did I realise just how much the stressful situation at my base school was affecting at me. I’ve got my full driver’s licence and my own car. I’ve made a ton of new writing friends and attended two incredible RWNZ conferences. But the biggest most important change has been how I live with fear.
This is the journal entry I wrote when leaving Japan last year:
August 9th, 2016.
On flight to Auckland, leaving Japan after eight years with [company], six years in [town]. I am writing this not so much to mark the occasion as I am because I need to document my emotions. It has been an interesting week and as I keep going between sadness at saying goodbyes/wrapping up a big part of my life, and excitement for what is ahead, I have noticed that I keep hitting terror, especially when I try to sleep. Last night on the train, I realised I was scared and shying away from the why. I made myself look at what I was afraid of—not knowing what is going to happen when I get back to New Zealand—and felt better, but waiting for the plane to board this evening and talking to Mum via Skype, I realise the fear had snuck back. I need to acknowledge the fear and document it because I suspect this is not the first time I will be making a life choice that scares me and being able to put things in perspective will help.
Fear was on my mind then, and that’s really interesting because I kept running into fear a lot, those first months in New Zealand especially. My biggest problem was sleeping. I was lying awake, night after night, while my mind cycled through an endless series of worries. My health and energy levels tanked. My usual coping methods weren’t working, so I consulted a professional counsellor about ways I could reduce my stress.
Big surprise! A lot of his recommendations were things I was already doing–goal setting, keeping a journal, making a list of things that I could do to address the things that were worrying me. But he introduced me to progressive muscle relaxation. Turns out that despite no longer being at my school in Japan, just the thought of a certain colleague was enough to make my entire body tense and trigger an angry reaction. By purposefully relaxing my muscles before going to bed I was able to go to sleep—and stay asleep.
I took steps to regain my independence. I started house-sitting and, when I realised that I was afraid of learning to drive, took lessons with a professional driving instructor whose car had a dual brake system (another really, really good decision. I’m sure that gave me the confidence I needed so I could concentrate on the driving). Driving itself was really good for me. It did not come easily at all, and after the first few lessons I felt like I was no longer improving and became frustrated. I’m the sort of person who takes failure personally and quits when things don’t come easily-but I needed that licence. This is where my teaching career came in handy! Having encouraged students to persist learning a foreign language with often contradictory rules, I knew it’s not how easily you pick it up that measures learning. I knew that if I persisted I would get there. And I did. In November I got my restricted licence, in March my full.
But fear is insidious. It found new ground in legitimate worries. The biggest one was money. Learning to drive was expensive, as was paying for fuel and insurance and servicing on my car. The royalties I was earning for my stories were just enough to cover my phone bill, but they wouldn’t stretch to groceries and fuel. Things like replacing tyres and repairs came out of my very depleted savings. I had started working as a freelancer, but my income fluctuated wildly month to month. I wanted to build myself a safety net but my emergency money disappeared as quickly as I could save it. I started stressing over finances and spent a lot of time seeking out new clients. My editing/proof-reading/ghost-writing work took priority over my writing time and left me too tired to write on my own projects, while I struggled to set prices low enough to compete with other freelancers that would still allow me to get by.
It wasn’t until June when I looked back at the first six months of 2017 that I realised how much my financial stress was holding me back. I had plans to write eight stories in 2017. Half the year was gone and I’d written two stories. I made the decision that from now on freelancing would fit in around my writing, not the other way round. Using the journalling methods outlined in The Journal Writing Superpower Secret I’ve kept myself focused and reminded of why my writing needs to be a priority. I’ve also used mindfulness techniques to combat stress, and between the two methods it seems to be working. I wrote a novella in July and a novel in August, and am planning one story a month until the end of the year. I’ve also started applying for jobs. I’m hoping that removing finances from the list of things I need to worry about while make up for time lost with mental energy reserved for writing.
Then there were old worries in new shapes. In Japan, I was very conscious of needing to conduct myself well even outside of school hours, knowing I was viewed as a representative of my company/New Zealanders in a town where everyone knew who I was. I still care a lot about making people happy/not disappointing expectations people have of me. Once I was back home, I spent a lot of time worrying that my relatives looked down on me because I wasn’t earning a big salary, that I had disappointed them. I discovered how deep this fear when when I signed up for the Shave for a Cure fundraising challenge. I was terrified my family would disapprove. Instead, they blew me away with their generous support. I still miss my hair, but knowing that I don’t need to conform to have the support of my family means so, so much more.
The final fear is tied up with writing. Last year at the RWNZ conference, Michael Hauge who led seminar’s on story structure and the hero’s journey challenged us to take our own journey by identifying the thing which we were most afraid of–and doing it. For me this was really easy. Just the thought of pitching to an agent or hearing my work read aloud and critiqued gave me an immediate fear reaction. Which was odd. I had a few stories published and they were getting positive and negative views, both of which I was handling. I couldn’t be afraid of critique, could I?
Actually, yes! I felt safe writing about my fail!vampires and Morgen train wrecks for an audience that felt more like friends…and the idea of putting my work before a larger audience scared the heck out of me. I was afraid that once my work was put in front of people who didn’t know me from the DRitC events or Facebook or wherever, that they’d see me for what I was: a clueless wannabe author with literary pretensions and clumsy prose, no idea of what she was doing and over complicated plots. That if I wrote something more mainstream, I’d find out I wasn’t ready for leaving my safety zone. I’d fail–and this time I wouldn’t have the comforting excuse of a really niche genre to hide behind. So I decided in August last year that this year I was going to conference and I was going to pitch a story that would appeal to a bigger audience.
The murder mystery (first draft finished yesterday) is that story. And it’s really funny. Before conference, I really had to fight the story to write it. I was constantly second guessing myself as I wrote. I eventually abandoned it in January. But then we had a family event and for reasons I don’t want to go into, it became really important to have the murder mystery finished as quickly as possible. In the lead up to conference, I wrote 23000 words over eighteen days. After conference, I wrote 49,000 words in six days. What made the difference? I went to conference. I pitched the murder mystery to agents. I heard it read aloud and critiqued in front of a group of writers who I respect myself. And instead of devastating me, it made me wonder what on earth I’d been afraid of.
Disclaimer: I’m sure that there will be all the panic when Gentlemen Don’t Murder comes out. But something really interesting happened to me when I decided that in 2017 I was going to pitch.
I had a year of knowing I was going to introduce myself to agents and pitch a story to them. And somewhere in that year, I stopped introducing myself as ‘a writer, but you don’t want to read what I write.’ When I met people at conference this year, I said ‘Hi, I’m Gillian. I write gay paranormal romance.’ This wasn’t a conscious decision either. It just happened–but it would not have happened if I hadn’t already decided that I was no longer afraid of being a small writer in a big pond. All the fears that I faced were stepping stones to growth.
Was my growth because of the fear or despite the fear? I don’t know, but I do know that acknowledging and addressing my fears then coming up with a strategy is the biggest reason I’m not on a plane heading back to Japan right now. Managing my fear is the best thing I could have done for myself–and I hope you’re encouraged to look at your fear in a different way.
Books that helped me address my fear (links go directly to Amazon):
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert