Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Panic is Good

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 5, 2011

My friend Paul is writing a cop novel (I mentioned this in an earlier post, on the subject of trusting your instincts, even the darker ones–particularly the darker ones.) Paul has written screenplays and stuff for TV, but he’s never tackled a novel, which is really his native medium. At the same time, he’s writing more from his true center than he ever has. Paul’s about halfway through and, though he puts up a brave front when I ask him how he’s feeling, I can tell from his eyes that he’s in full panic mode. He looks like a rabbit caught in the open with a hawk dive-bombing onto him at 120 per. He is paralyzed with Resistance.

Have you ever seen these eyes in the mirror?

My message to Paul is this: panic is good.

We panic when we find ourselves on a threshold. We freak when we discover ourselves on the cusp of moving to a higher level.  That’s what’s happening now with Paul.

Did you ever see Marianne Williamson’s famous quote about fear of success?

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

What’s happening with Paul is this:

He is doing the best and bravest work of his life. For the first time he’s really out there, telling a story in his own voice–rather than a “commercial” voice or a voice tailored for the marketplace. And what he’s writing is coming out really good. If he can see it all the way through and keep his nerve, he might just turn out something really, really good.

No wonder he’s panicking. Paul is like a journeyman golf pro in the final round at the U.S. Open who looks up at the scoreboard and discovers he’s leading the field. Gulp.  Paul’s puckerstring is seriously tightening. He has a case of “shrinkage” worse than George Costanza.

(Full disclosure: I am not the genius who had this insight about panic. Paul told me the same thing about myself earlier this year–and he was right.)

What’s happening with Paul is he is evolving; he’s venturing into deep waters and he’s pulling it off; he’s moving to the next higher level.

What should he do? First, he should see his current state for what it is: a fabulously positive sign. Second, he must take a chill pill and draw back to a point from which he can gain perspective. Finally, he needs to give himself credit for the work he’s done and the guts he has shown.

Paul is not the writer he was at this time last year. He’s better. Much better. And he’s sitting on something–half of a really promising novel–that he’s never had in his life.

Earlier this year I was panicking and Paul had a little intervention with me. He told me just what I’m telling him now. And it worked. It steadied the ship. What has followed has been one of the greatest bursts of creativity in my life.

The same thing will happen with Paul. I can feel it. The second half of his novel, which right now is looming over him like Sisyphus’s boulder, will turn out to be a breeze, a piece of cake, once he allows himself to step up to that next level and doesn’t look back.

New Year’s is a big time for panic. Self-expectations of what’s ahead, self-recriminations for what’s behind. If you feel a twinge of panic, take a breath and step back. Re-examine the past six months, the past twelve. Are you growing? Is the arc or your evolution upward? I’ll bet the ranch it is, even if it’s hard for you to see because you’re too close to it. Ask a friend. Ask three friends.

So if you’re feeling panic, congratulations! Panic is good. We panic, almost always, when we’re on the brink of success. Happy New Year!

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

22 Responses to “Panic is Good”

  1. Nancy Handler
    January 5, 2011 at 3:54 am

    This is very helpful also to a painter. I always put a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning of a new anything, especially a new year. Been sitting here “stuck” and feeling worse and worse; looking up solutions for depression, wondering if I’m over the hill, etc. Thanks!

  2. January 5, 2011 at 4:40 am

    Thank you for this threshold wisdom, Steven. This is exactly where I’m at with a memoir — by far the most vulnerable and honest thing I’ve ever written. My solution to this PAINFUL and paralyzing fear of even opening the file: get out of town for a few days. So today I leave my town to go visit my mother far off in the midwest, a different world from mine — I know, I know, running back to the safest place of all. That’s how much perspective I need at the moment! Thanks for the calming words.

  3. Nick Smith
    January 5, 2011 at 5:03 am

    I think I had this moment a week or so ago regarding the side business I’ve been trying to start. Thank you for reassuring me that my feelings are normal and that I just need to push through them.

  4. January 5, 2011 at 6:01 am

    Every podcast interview that I do with working writers often at the top of their game, fear inevitably comes up. Many of them admit to fear being what drives them to succeed. From this, I concluded that behind every great accomplishment is a person who utilized their fear of failure as fuel.

    Thanks for sharing this story Steven and for giving your take on panic. I am with you, embrace it and utilize it to motivate you. It is a gift.

  5. January 5, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Great reminder about something we all experience. I like how simply you put it that we continue to stress while forgetting that we’re better than we were the last time we stressed. I’ve been thinking about personal challenges and development a lot today as I finished up a post on the subject. This piece is fantastic.

  6. January 5, 2011 at 8:10 am

    This post was my chill-pill. I was panicking as I looked back at 2010 and it doesn’t appear that I’ve “arrived” at the place I thought I’d be by this time. But you’re right. There definitely was growth (significant at that) and I am getting myself together for the upcoming year, knowing it has the potential to be the best one yet. Thank you for the reality check and reminder. And Fear, go bury yourself under the snow.

  7. January 5, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Will be revisiting this post! Woke up at 4:30 am a couple of days ago with our buddy, Panic, and it fueled the start to my 5th novel, so this is timely, thank you.

  8. Carla Smith
    January 5, 2011 at 9:48 am

    This panic is the same sort of panic a pregnant woman feels weeks before birth. Dancing on a gestational edge induces both terror and exhilaration. You are willing to go there, you practically have no choice in the matter, you are told that greatness spring from these ‘loins’ and yet you feel most alone in this journey. It is, perhaps, a gift, to be in this place, to feel so alive. Perhaps it is also the addictive ‘edge’ climbers embrace. It is life at its most tangible.

  9. January 5, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Oh, my “just in time” post (again!), Steven.Thank you!
    Yeap, damn scared here in Slovakia with 17 days to go till putting another dream into life.
    Happy new year, full of shipping your art to the world, to all of you, guys!
    ;-)
    i.

  10. January 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Ah, yes. Having just finished my novel now I am facing that next hurdle…the hunt for an agent/publisher. Very daunting! So your post about ‘panic’ meant a lot to me. Thanks.

    • Shawn Coyne
      January 6, 2011 at 7:04 am

      Ruth,
      If you’d like, I’ll be happy to take a look at your first 30 pages and give you my thoughts.
      Yours,
      Shawn

      • January 10, 2011 at 5:45 pm

        You are so kind, Shawn. This is a fantastic community. (I am riveted by your reveal of marketing efforts. Steve is super lucky to have you!) Warmest wishes, Debbie

  11. January 5, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Agreed. Panic mode is fine. That said, I think the real panic comes from the realization that “oh shit, I can do this, and now it’s going to be expected of me again and again”. No one wants to be a one-hit wonder. If you are good, then you need to be good every time. At least that’s the panic that I feel. Once he’s more comfortable in his noveling mode and realizes that he can do it again and again, he’ll be fine.

  12. January 5, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Excellent, excellent post. I am grateful to know that my panic is meaningful.

  13. January 5, 2011 at 11:59 am

    A friend sent me the link to this post and oh how it resonated. Such wisdom here. Such inspiration.

  14. January 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I got pneumonia a few months ago which dumbfounded me. I’m healthy and I don’t get sick like that. A friend pointed out that I must be going through a big change that scared me.

    On the other side of it, I see the truth of that. I hope I have grown – I know I have a lot I want to accomplish. I need to be a bigger better person to do it. I have every reason to believe I am except for the part that asks me who I think I am.

    I have printed the Williamson quote to put on my wall.

    Thanks for putting this into words and helping me understand.

  15. January 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    the two months before my manuscript was due I lived in a state of fear. I slept little, wrote some, panicked a lot. But it helped me get the job done. If you don’t have any emotion around something big, you’re numb. You can’t write numb.

  16. January 6, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Put away the first half of my novel about six months ago, at a total standstill. Just now getting back to it, taking baby steps. Trying to use Elmore Leonards advice to just write the interesting parts. Too many choices. Still, time to get back to work.

  17. January 6, 2011 at 9:29 am

    I agree panic is good, though I experience it more as misery. I started a project notebook which helps: I have a page for each project (or sub-project), goals and notes. Then I can look back and see that–yes!–I really have accomplished something and–yes!–there are things to accomplish in the future when this current miserable project is done.

    BTW, to Steven Pressfield: like other commenters, I’ve found War of Art most helpful. Passed it on to my mother the card-maker-extraordinaire, then my daughter the just-post-college fiction writer; now my son the opera singer-in-training has it. Thanks for the inspiration and help.

  18. January 6, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Yes, I remember your earlier post and this is timely. Thanks for sharing both the experience and the confidence!

  19. January 10, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Panic IS good! I just jumped off a cliff from a steady income situation to full self employed sailing and it is most exhilirating thing I’ve ever felt. My most couragious work so far is already shaping up like never before.

    My advice is this. Resistence is telling you exactly what to do as it tries to suffocate the power about to come out of you. Recognizing the right thing to do it is the hardest because it means hearing a whisper in the middle of a thousand voices. On the other hand if the voices are loud and obnoxious, it’s guaranteed to be resistance. Happy panicking fellow artists.

  20. March 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Great post, Steven, as always. I love your insights into writing and creativity. One point, though — I believe the quote your attribute to Marianne Williamson is actually from Nelson Mandela.