Overwhelming Fear with Acceptance

Recently, someone steered me toward a GQ profile of golf coach George Gankas:

Gankas’s great flaw as a player, in retrospect, was fear. Now he teaches his students to overwhelm fear with acceptance. Stay present, he says. When you’re out on the golf course, don’t get too sunk into yourself; look up from the ball, at the beauty of the natural world, and get outside your own traitorous body, your own monstrous ego.

“For me, to always look up and out is huge because I can see detail in the trees,” Gankas told me. “It gets me present. It gets me out of my head.” He said that lately his eyesight, which had been excellent, had begun to fail him. “I need to get my eyes fixed so I can get back to that. Because if I’m in my head, I’m miserable. I’m running through thoughts. And a lot of times, that’s not where I want to be. So I teach my players to stay present. And if I’m not doing it myself, I’m not going to teach them to do it.”

That sounds familiar to me, even though it’s been about thirty years since I last went out on a golf course (in part because I was never particularly very good at it). I think a lot of us have probably experienced something similar in our writing practices—those days when we spend so much time wrestling with our anxieties and fears that we’re unable to focus clearly on the story.

We find our way out of that dilemma following much the same path Gankas recommends to his students—by setting ourselves aside, and paying attention to the moment in the story that’s before us. (Or it could be a poetic image! I just happen to have a mental bias toward narrative.) Stop worrying about your ability or inability to put that moment into words; just be with it for a while. As you do, you’ll begin to understand what needs to be said in order to describe that moment, and you will write. You may not find the exact right words the first time, but don’t worry. You can figure that out later, if you need to. (If you do get it right the first time, way to go!)

Of course you haven’t really taken your mind out of the picture entirely. You’re still there, picking and choosing your moments, picking and choosing the words to describe those moments. You’re not just channeling raw unfiltered prose from some extra-dimensional literary realm—and if you’re like me, you’re very conscious about all that, pausing, reviewing, and revising as you go along, even in the “first” draft, long before another set of eyes takes it in.

The trick is, though, that I’m not questioning whether I can do it, no matter how long it takes me to figure out how to do it. (Which is not to say I couldn’t still screw it up, all the same! If I do, though, I’ll have to have another go at it. Maybe more.)

I recently spoke with memoirist Lara Lillibridge for a literary magazine called Hippocampus, and one of the things we wound up discussing was the source of this newsletter’s title. It’s the opening to one of my favorite Mekons songs, “Memphis, Egypt,” and the full line goes: “Destroy your safe and happy lives / before it is too late.”

It’s been a song that has stuck with me for decades, and it felt really apt to use it to talk about the writing life. I mean, you don’t become a writer because you’re complacent. You become a writer because there are things picking away at you—things you have to get out. And in order to get them out, sometimes you have to blow up your routine and find a new way of doing things.

I also want to share an interview I did with Hurley Winkler for her Lonely Victories newsletter back in June! One of my favorite moments in that conversation was about that process of destroying our safe and happy lives and finding that new path. Carving time out of your schedule to focus on your writing is important, but there’s more to a writing practice than just picking up the pen or sitting in front of the keyboard.

I believe that, to the extent possible, when life presents us with options, it’s desirable to make choices that nourish our writing practices—not all of which involve the act of writing. That’s important, obviously, but it’s also important to cultivate inspiration and practice empathy and compassion. All three of those will lead to better writing down the line.

When you’re able to approach your story with empathy and compassion, when you’re able to take inspiration from the example set by others… these are all good ways of setting yourself aside and accepting the task that awaits you.

This post was first published in “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” a newsletter I’ve been writing since 2018. If you’d like to subscribe and get every new installment delivered to your email (free!), you can do that here.

12 August 2021 | newsletter |