So often in a creative career, the magic that is required is quite simply the courage to go on.~Julia Cameron
She scampered into my office unannounced. River, my colleague's new dog, that she had adopted from the SPCA. "She doesn't like tile in the hallway, so we ducked into your office, because it's carpeted." River wore a bright red harness that highlighted her black coat. She didn't know what to make of me, a stranger. We made eye contact, but she didn't rush to greet me. First, she sniffed around the perimeter of my office, edging closer and closer to my desk. She glanced at my colleague as if to say, "Is it safe to investigate this new person?" I reached out to her, waiting. No sudden movements. River sniffed my hand. I felt the cold wetness of her nose. She backed away, still not certain of me--ambivalent--then walked back over to my colleague who sat in a nearby chair. River's body quivered. She couldn't sit still. My colleague and I spoke of our holidays and I congratulated her on adopting River, as her older dog had passed away. Then, in a burst of courage, River came over to me and placed her paws on my knees. I laid my hands on River's head, feeling the softness of her ears, then ran my fingers down her smooth coat. She licked my cheek.
River's tentative behavior reminded me of my own cautious ways at times as I tread a creative pathway. Sometimes I can't face connecting with the big things, like writing another two thousand words on my book project, or asking someone if they'd be willing to read the rough draft, or beginning the re-write process, or believing that my project is worthy of publication. Like River, I camp out around the periphery, hanging back. But, like this brave creature, as long as I keep edging toward the scary things, eventually I accomplish what I need to do.
One of my favorite ways to keep my courage, is using a coping tool I've written about before. The practice is worth mentioning again, as I find practicing "increments" to be simple and effective. When I'm feeling overwhelmed about approaching someone to ask a favor, or writing another chunk of material, or believing in my project, I make a list of ten things I can do that day. The list must be realistic--no items on the agenda that can't be accomplised in a day. For example, my list could look something like this:
1. Pay one bill.
2. Walk for at least fifteen minutes.
3. Remove nail polish.
4. Take my books back to the library.
5. Call dentist and make appointment.
6. Make grocery list.
7. Listen to podcast while I prepare the soup.
8. Text daughter.
9. Write email to friend while burning scented candle.
10. One load of laundry.
After making the list, an interesting phenomenon typically takes place. I think, "Why I could pay that bill now, and while I'm online, I'll light a candle and email my friend. And while I'm cutting vegetables for the stew, I'll not only listen to the podcast, but I'll get the load of laundry on." Before I know it, I'm halfway through the list, and my walk turned into thirty minutes instead of fifteen. I called the dentist. My daughter has texted me back, and made me laugh with her response. I made the grocery list then decided to stop at Publix after I returned the library books. I may not have accomplished the entire list, but psychologically, I'm rejuvenated, I've been productive. But the day's not over. I'll sit down and remove the chipped polish, then write a paragraph or two on the book. I don't have to write two thousand words or even a thousand. Like River, I find courage to face the harder tasks by first sniffing around the perimeter.
This week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth book. As I thought about the process, I initially scolded myself. "It took you two years to get this done. Some people write 55,000 words in a few months." I chose to discard the negativity. I thought of River. In her own timing, she found a way off the tile, entered the carpeted room and made her way, sniff by sniff, increment by increment, to the harder thing. Then she laid down and enjoyed the fruit of her courage. May you, dear reader, keep taking steps toward that big thing, whatever it is. Increment by increment. Make your list. Courage. Take courage.