Photograph by Aida Muluneh from her Water Life series
During my time in New Orleans, a friend from high school brought photos from our childhood. It showed me–more clearly than ever–that our lives are ripe with fodder for fiction. I have mentioned more than once how the need to write a novel has been panting at my neck. I’ve been going in dizzying mental circles–what do I write about? What do I commit to? Do I return to the completed draft of my second novel manuscript? The one that’s set in preKatrina New Orleans, that was written before Katrina removed some of the structures of my childhood–most notably my childhood home. As we flipped through the photos we discussed memories, ideas, and fictions, and I was struck with by how often in life we go wandering around looking for “it”–whatever “it” is–and it is right there, surrounding us and grounding us–and if we just let it in, we may be able to find the treasure we are seeking.
In life it seems that we can see our desires quite clearly, but cannot seem to get a grasp on the obstacles (thoughts, fears, habits) that are blocking us from reaching those desires. It is easier to identify others’ fears and give them advice about how to put their blockages to the side, than to dive in and move forward in our own lives. Publicizing the book has given me yet another perspective on how fear blocks us. In a recent conversation, a friend confessed that it took her a very long time to write some words in support of Ancient, Ancient on my Amazon page. I told her others were also hesitant to post a sentence or two with their thoughts and said I didn’t understand what was so hard about it. Then I paused, my words echoing in my mind. Of course I understood what was so hard about it. A memory sparked of a friend asking me to write a few sentences defining her work for a fellowship. I told her I couldn’t define her work, I didn’t know enough about it. Later, I noticed I was emotional and agitated. I must have come off as rude, because she sent me a note apologizing for asking. I felt bad and explained that my refusal to cooperate was not about her overstepping any boundaries, it was about fear. I was afraid that I couldn’t adequately represent her work and she wouldn’t get the fellowship because of my failures.
How about that? You see how sneaky fear is. Even that far removed from anything that is important to me–I was already ascribing failure to my efforts and shouldering responsibility for the success of an outcome that was beyond my control. Imagine then when it comes to something as important as a novel–or some other project that is close to your heart. Imagine then when it comes to something you’ve already tried more than once such as a relationship or a career.
It reminds me of the ideas Stephen Nachmanovitch shared in his wonderful book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Nachmanovitch grounds one thread of the conversation in the Five Fears that Buddhists believe stand between people and their freedom: “fear of loss of life; fear of loss of livelihood; fear of loss of reputation; fear of unusual states of mind; and fear of speaking before an assembly. Fear of speaking before an assembly sounds a little silly next to the others, but for the purpose of [this book] it is the central one; let us extend it as “fear of speaking up,” “stage fright,” “writer’s block,” and our other old friends. The fear of speaking before an assembly is profoundly related to fear of foolishness, which has two parts: fear of being thought a fool (loss of reputation) and fear of actually being a fool (fear of unusual states of mind). Nachmanovitch then adds “fear of ghosts” as in “teachers, authorities, parents, or the great masters.”
With age, I have adopted an action oriented approach to handling blockages. In the past, I could spiral into an analysis of my blockages that would carry me further into inaction and paralysis. Now, it’s enough for me to identify a blockage. I don’t need to find out why it exists, where it came from, or how it’s multiplied in my life–I only have to figure out specific measurable actions that can take me down another path–a path of success and progress. The realization that I could write a novel on any topic at any moment has been slowly dawning on me. I’ve reached an understanding that, at this point, what is holding me back is a flimsy fear and insubstantial confusion about how to proceed. I have finally admitted it doesn’t matter what story I choose, I need not a solution, I need a process and I need to commit to that process.
As these realizations dawned on me, two paths for action opened up before me, and I am proud to say that I have grasped them and am (at least for now) in action. The first path–highly effective in dealing with blockages–was taking a new approach in visualizing the novel. My friend Lynn Pitts shared her own breakthrough with her novel, which occurred after watching a video in which a woman takes visual notes (The video poster describes the work she does at 4:26 minutes in the video.)
Lynn bought some large sticky paper and plastered her walls. She read through her manuscript and wrote down the names of all her characters as they came up in the text. She wrote each character’s plot lines and noted how these character’s linked back to the main characters. She plotted her plot–tracking each plot line and noting how each plot line connected to the main plot.
As she mapped all these elements, she started crossing things out, editing characters and storylines. By seeing her novel laid out visually, she knew instinctively and definitively what should be retained and what should be removed from the manuscript. Being literally surrounded by a visual mapping of her novel gave her the guidance and information she needed to make essential structure and plot decisions.
She went to bed, surrounded by the blueprints of her imagination. When she woke up, she understood her story and wrote the final scene of the book! Taking a look at her book from a different perspective allowed her to make clear-eyeed choices. She had none of the wavering that she had experienced for many years in relationship to the novel. A different tool gave her clarity and solidified her vision.
Around the time I was going to plaster my own walls, I received an email from another writer friend of mine. She was passing on the word about a 2.5 month writing challenge. I’ve done my own novel writing challenge with an email group, but that’s it, this would challenge me on many fronts: the joining front (I have a thing about joining groups–don’t ask); the confusion front (the idea that I am confused about the novel and hence, unable to write; the commitment front (what? I have to make a commitment, I can’t just come up in here and write?); and lastly the fear front–the fear of messing up, the fear of starting strong and petering out, the fear of not clicking with the material, in short, the fear of failure.
We do tend to let the smallest things silence us. Sometimes it’s a gesture or a sound from the person we most need to tell our truth to. Other times we feel a situation is enormous and our tiny voice is not worthy to the task. We need to free our voices whenever and however possible, and not be ruled by fear of the mistake. I am constantly working to nurture that freedom in myself. I wish it for all of you as well. For now, that freeing is taking the form of a commitment into unchartered novel writing territory–one hour per night. What form will your your freeing take?
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam
*** BOOK REPORT ***
My amazon sales experienced a nice lift while I was in New Orleans, and then settled back down to one or two sales a week. So tours are good for publicity even amongst those who don’t attend the readings!
My promotional video is done! Check it out and share widely:
I finally reached ten reviews on Amazon. It’s too early to tell if something is different is happening in Amazon’s internal promotion, but I’m so happy to have met my goal.
I have two reviews on Goodreads! It’s a new frontier!
Instead of having another book event, I’ve dreamed up a larger event celebrating spec fic, if it comes to pass, you’ll find out all about it. In the meantime, I’m making my way through the books of all the wonderful writers who are working in the genre.