The Artist’s Pose: Ready For The Risk

kimhoseymantisphoto: Kimberly Hosey. copyright 2013.

11:53 p.m., October 31, 2013: I am sitting at my desk surrounded by the chosen books I have pulled from my shelves for this 30-day journey. I have filled my backpack with some Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson; accompanying them are the contemporaries Goldberg, Lamott, and King. Throw in some dictionaries, thesauri, and other word reference books, and I feel pretty confident about this leap of faith that I am about to take. Oh– and my emergency ‘chute? That would be seven books about a boy named Harry, who spent most of his childhood under the cupboard at 4 Privet Drive. I am ready to jump. I am ready to leap. I am ready to — 12:00 a.m.

I read a lot of original writing created by writers of all ages, and I have come to the conclusion that skim-the-surface stories are the result of one of the most basic obstacles we all face: the fear of taking risks.

The stories all look the same. In a fiction work, a general setting is established, and nondescript characters enter the scene. A general problem is introduced, and a rather uncomfortable deus ex machina is contrived to wrap everything up.

He entered the diner and looked around at all of the people sitting in the booths. There wasn’t a place to sit, and he was feeling impatient. he looked at his watch and figured he had about 10 minutes to wait for a seat. Fifteen minutes later, he was finally seated, but his table was still filled with dirty dishes. “Just my luck,” he thought, as he waited for his waitress.

In nonfiction, a basic and over-discussed topic is danced around with emotional statements, weak comparisons, and sweeping conclusions.

The topic of gun control is out of control! Both sides of the argument really have lost touch with reality concerning the use of guns in America. One side argues that it is our right to shoot guns. Another side says guns kill people. Both sides have it wrong! It really frustrates me when people can’t learn a little about what they are talking about and make a good argument for or against something. It seems like everybody wants to have an opinion, but what they don’t have are the facts to back it up. This really frustrates me, and it is exactly why I don’t talk about gun control with anybody.

Both examples, Flat. They lack the details that come with taking risks.

The Five Reasons Why Writers Don’t Take Risks

  1. They are too lazy to take risks. Too often, writers just don’t want to invest the time needed to write well. They procrastinate until they are up against a deadline to submit their work, and then they are happy that they made the deadline. Period. The focus shifts from quality of writing to crossing a finish line. The work suffers, but there’s too much elation from making the deadline to even notice.
  2. They don’t understand the power of process. One of the dangers of being too lazy is that writers don’t understand the magical process of crafting drafts, writing revisions, and putting the final touches on a polished manuscript. I believe that most writers, if they actually experienced the process of writing and reworking a manuscript, would take more risks with their writing.
  3. They don’t know how to take risks. It’s heartbreaking to even think this is true, but many writers have long forgotten how to write uninhibitedly. Writing has become an academic endeavor of grades and evaluations. Their imaginations are mined — absolutely robbed — of a creative thought, all for the sake of theses, controls, and a fixed number of paragraphs. And, in the most tragic of scenarios, all deeper writing that requires a strong, authoritative voice that understands the target audience is missing completely from any curriculum. Young writers are denied the opportunity to experience the beautiful process of unbridled and imaginative creativity free of judgment.
  4. They are afraid of failure. This is a biggie. The “safe” writing that writers often do is nothing more than playing to the largest population possible, without the fear of really upsetting or offending anyone. The reason why it is called a “risk” is because there is a pretty high chance that you could fail. And what are we taught in schools? Failure is unacceptable. It warrants a big red F, a call home to the parents, and remedial classes on the weekends and the summers. We play it safe. We stand in the middle of the field. Nobody wants to fail. Ever. The problem is, we have to fail to succeed, which leads us to the fifth and final reason why writers don’t take risks.
  5. They are afraid of success. They are afraid of what comes next if they are successful. They fear that the world will see them for the fraud they believe they are. They are fearful of accountability, responsibility, follow-ups, and getting on a train that is moving faster than they have ever imagined possible. They are scared to death of losing control. They are terrified of showing up, day after day, ready to play at this level.

Like the Praying Mantis in the picture above, we need to strike the Writer’s Pose and be ready to take that big leap, that big risk, and let go of any worries of consequence, judgment, or failure. For my fellow writers participating in NanoWriMo this November, they are doing just that: Taking risk after risk after risk. They have kicked judgment’s ass and left him on the curb, completely done with him.

Let’s try this again with a little risk-taking.

He entered the diner and looked around at all of the people sitting in the booths. He didn’t recognize a single face, but he saw in each of them the stereotypes that he never wanted to be — hometown losers stuck in a whirlwind lifestyle that went nowhere, all the time. There wasn’t a place to sit, and he was feeling impatient. He looked at his watch, tried to remember what time the train was leaving Penn Station, and figured he had about 10 minutes to wait for a seat before he would be cutting it too close. This was his last supper here in Boring Town, and he didn’t want to miss a single drop of the local grease if he didn’t have to. His father always told him it was what kept the pipes clean inside of him and everyone else in Boring Town. It didn’t matter that the old man died when he was just 42. He still believed it was true. And fifteen minutes later, when he was finally seated, he couldn’t resist sticking his fingers in the greasy fries left on the table. He picked one up, and as it drooped in his hand, he placed it in his mouth. Oversalted, overgreased, and just exactly perfect. “Just my luck,” he thought, as he waited for his waitress. “I got me some seconds before I got me my firsts!”



Life Was Never Meant To Be Experienced Risk-Free!

For the last 90 days, I have been on a new and challenging path training for the Baltimore Half-Marathon on October 13 (you can follow my progress at my fitness blog here). One of the most common questions I get when I share this journey with others is about my motivation, and what happens after I run the race.

The answer to the first part of that question, on the surface, is very simple. In the beginning of this journey, that was my focus: What do I have to do in the next six months that will make me conditioned to run 13.1 miles? Everything was about “The Plan.” I studied books by Jeff Galloway, read all of the special features on marathon training in the running magazines, and talked to my friends and family members who have been there, done that.

But that was in the beginning. Now, I see far beyond the half-marathon finish line. What happens after the race is over is, really, just the beginning.

This is not about a race; this is about living in the greatest, most extreme definition of the term.

In the summer of 1991, I took a real risk and failed miserably. I decided earlier that year that I was going to hike a northern section of the Appalachian Trail. The plan was to start with friends at Bear Mountain Park in New York, and then head north toward Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I would spend two weeks with my hiking friends, and then they would leave the trail and I would resume my trek north going solo for another four weeks.

The journey began horribly. Within one mile of the trip, I was bent over on the side of the trail, vomiting. I let that set the pace for the rest of the day, and the negative self-speak and feelings of failure permeated every cell in my body.

The next day, one of my friends got word that he was needed back home a week earlier than expected, and so they decided to cut their hike short by seven days. I pondered this for another day or so. What would I do? How would I let their change in plans affect my original goal of staying on the trail for six full weeks?

On the third day of our hike, the rains were heavy, and I convinced the others that I did not want to hike another 9 miles in bad weather. We stayed all day in a shelter, reading left-behind westerns and repacking our sacks over and over again. It was then that I made the decision that I, too, would be going home with them.

When I had first started training for the hike, I heard a lot of negativity from others about heading out into the woods by myself. And when I found myself weakened by the trail on that first day, I allowed all of that negativity to flow in and convince me that, indeed, everyone was right. I was crazy, and people shouldn’t take risks like that. Plain and simple. This is the kind of thing that happens when you leave your comfort zone.

On the bus ride home from New York’s Port Authority terminal, I was silent the entire way. I was feeding the negativity, the self-doubt, and it continued to work its way in me and in my actions years afterward.

If I failed at anything before the hike even started, it was simply not training for it in a smart way. I didn’t educate myself enough about hiking long distances, and just wasn’t prepared to handle such a challenge. I thought that it was enough to just throw myself into the situation and then just figure it out once I got going.

Since that self-deprecating ride home, I have managed to return to the trail a few times, and one particular 13-mile hike four years later, in 1995, was especially redeeming. Still, these have been isolated redemptions and not the transformation that I have been after all these years.

So as I have been training for the half-marathon, I have received similar comments about being crazy; while many have cheered me on, others have been very negative about my decision, or judgmental about how a guy starting out at weighing over 300 pounds can think that he is going to run a half-marathon later in the year.

This time, though, I am educating myself, and I am listening to the shouts of support and silencing the naysayers. For this journey is so much more than running that race.

To answer the second part of their question — What happens after the race (will you run more marathons? Other races?), I am already shouting it from the rooftops that, yes, 5K races will be a part of my monthly plan. But so will monthly hikes, too, along the Appalachian Trail. I have never been a born runner, but I have been a born hiker. With the same education, energy, and confidence that I have put into this training, I will do the same for my hikes along the Trail from Georgia to Maine. It has been my lifelong goal to section-hike the entire 2,178-mile journey.

And now, as I continue to train for this race and get my body in the best shape it has ever been in, I will be able to take that risk and see just how far I can really go.