How to be Brave by Welcoming in a New Season for Your Writing
The world is expanding again, coming out of it’s cramped quarters, unfurling, breathing deep, running just for the hell of it, clicking its heels together twice in the air and standing on top of a mountain to yell into the expanse of it: YES!!!!!
I love Spring. It’s a time when I get ideas in my head. Big ideas. Life. Changing. Ideas. For writers, spring feels like a time when the routine work of turning up every day can pay off in those moments of epiphany that make it all worthwhile.
Big Ideas, Big Courage
I’ve been thinking a lot about what gives me the courage to act on those ideas, and what could stop me in my tracks. And, because it’s our seventh wedding anniversary today (St George’s day, Shakespeare’s birthday, and our wedding anniversary), I’m thinking about an idea I had nearly nine years ago.
I was in the back seat of an old friend’s car, on the way to Green Man folk festival, in green, green Wales. The summertime harmonies of the Fleet Foxes were on the stereo. I had just passed my viva, and would soon be heading across the Atlantic to spend a year in Canada.
But Michael would be staying behind, the man I’d been with for eleven years, since we were just kids, really. He wasn’t here in the car. He was still at his desk, watching the clock until he could join us. His world was staying mundane, routine, and just a little bit lonelier without me (maybe a lot lonelier…). My world was expanding and changing and filling up with excitement. His was contracting into a time to be endured.
As I thought this, I knew that I was going to propose to him that weekend. A message that my brave new world included him, even if for a year I would be gone. I blurted it out to my two male friends in the front seat, friends who’d known us both since Mike and I had first started awkwardly flirting at age fourteen. “But don’t tell anyone else,” I said.
I knew I would ask during Bon Iver’s set…This would turn out to be a bit of a mistake.
Is Pachad or Yirah in Charge of Your Writing?
I was on the brink of something big in every single aspect of my life. That feeling of the world expanding is exciting, but it can also be scary. It feels risky. I recently learned, from Tara Mohr’s book, Playing Big, that there are two Hebrew words for fear which capture the two sides of this feeling; Pachad and Yirah.
As described by Mohr, Pachad sounds similar to that fear of raising your head above the (metaphorical) parapet by putting yourself out there. It tries to keep you small, and tells you you aren’t ready, you aren’t good enough. It hates change. You can’t. You shouldn’t.
Yirah sounds more like what the Romantics would have called the sublime. That combination of fear and beauty that is associated with inspiration. As Mohr puts it (quoting Rabbi Alan Lew, I believe):
Yirah is “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting. It is also the feeling we feel when we are on sacred ground”.
These two types of fear combined in me as I was carried along in the back of the car. But the music, the relief at finishing my doctorate, the company of friends, and the promise of a weekend of festivity, forced me to lean in to yirah, and ignore pachad. There’s a lesson there.
(There was also a third fear, the one when your life really is under threat, as my friend overtook on the wrong side of the road on a bend…but that’s not really relevant here.)
I’ve been thinking about yirah and pachad in the context of writing a book, be it a novel, a memoir or a work of non-fiction. Writing a book demands the everyday, routine work of turning up. It requires faith that the thing you’re creating will emerge, will become something, even when you can’t see the big picture. Daily stubborn acts of triumph over pachad, which would prefer you to binge on Netflix.
But then there are the moments of huge and rapid change. Suddenly you can see the way forward, you can see the puzzle pieces moving into place.
You know you’re going to propose.
You can see the excess fall away to bring what is important into relief.
For the book writer, this might be the realisation that you’re writing a romance, not a mystery; that all of that world building you put your heart and soul into? That has to go. It might be an opportunity to share your work or to put it out there.
These are moments where you need to lean in to yirah.
These insights cause and are caused by breaks from mundane routine. Everything seems to suddenly open up. Springtime. Festivals. Holidays. Adventures. Spontaneous walks in the woods. Picking up a musical instrument after a long absence. Writing by hand. Bold changes of direction. Moves to Canada. Marriage proposals.
Change can feel like destroying something you’ve put incredibly persistent effort into. Something that feels like home. Something you cherish. A knot you’re afraid you won’t be able to untie without breaking the string. It can be hard to know if the book (or the relationship) will survive the changes.
But think of change, editing, revision as a new season for your book, the start of something bigger. A discovery, not a destruction.
Lean in (or Pile On) to Yirah
We returned to the main stage for the evening’s music. Sun-burnt cheeks, and wellies covered in mud. Layers added for the cooler evening as the sun slipped behind the Suger Loaf mountain.
Bon Iver started their set. Bitter-sweet music held the crowd. I led Mike away from our group of old friends, deep into the dark of the audience. As “Skinny Love” began, I knew this was the moment. I reached up to kiss him and said “Mike”.
He can’t hear me over the music.
I shout “MIKE!!!” and pull on his shoulder.
I have his attention. “WILL YOU MARRY ME?”
“WILL. YOU. MARRY ME?”
He looks confused. I hold up my right hand in front of him. I slowly take off the ring he gave me when we first got together, eleven years ago, and move it to the tip of my left index finger…
“NO!!!” he says, and takes the ring.
Hmmmm. That is not good.
I can’t believe this is happening. Should have listened to my pachad. He sees I’m about to cry and says “I have to ask your dad!”
I shake my head, smiling.
“Is this your perfect moment?” he says.
“Yes!” I say, wet with tears.
He takes the ring, and puts it on my finger.
I’m sure you can imagine the emotions as we enjoyed the rest of Bon Iver’s beautiful set.
Finally, we make our way back over to our friends. They are looking at us expectantly. Apparently everyone knows what just happened. They look at me, see I’m smiling, crying and nodding.
“PILE ON!!!” someone shouts, as only someone who’s known you since the playground would. They all race at us, knocking us to the floor and burying us in their bodies.
There are times for steady, routine, dependable, work. Then there are the times for uninhibited, reckless pile-ons. Use music, art, friendship, adventure, being outdoors, and festivity to support you as you seek yirah and ignore pachad as a writer. Who knows where it will lead?
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