7. fear of doing

i, alone

“i, alone” taken december 7, 2007.
Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

The tree that yesterday had been in full bloom of yellow, red and orange was this morning stripped of all but a small group of leaves that clung together like shipwreck survivors. I arrived home from work this afternoon to see one lone leaf left shuddering on the branch. As I watched, a gust of wind ripped the leaf from its branch and, like that, the tree was bare.

I don’t want to age and die, never having become a tree in full bloom of profound color.

Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis. I’m feeling restless and dissatisfied with what I’m doing with my life. I have a job. I do not have a career. It’s a decent job; I make good pay, I have great benefits, the hours are good, the work is interesting and I work with, for the most part, very nice people. I never get up in the morning and dread going to work. I should be grateful for that, I suppose.

I’m where I am because of what I’ve done. Or, what I haven’t done. I put things off. I waited too long. I put myself aside. I gave in to my fear of success, as well as my fear of failure. I never did any of the things I set out to do.

And now here I am, at 46, spending my days proofreading warrants and evictions and explaining to people, over and over, how to properly serve a petition. It’s not exactly what I had in mind for myself.

I need a new job. I need to do something creative. I need to have passion for my work.

So why don’t I do that? Why don’t I just quit my job and do something I love?

Simple. Because I have a mortgage. Because I have a kid in college and another going to college in two years. Because I have car payments and insurance. Because my house needs heat and electricity. Because I need to play it safe.

I have wanted to be nothing but a writer since I was seven. Holding a pencil in my hand at that young age made me feel alive and important. It was thrilling to string letters together to make words and string words together to make sentences and how, if you made enough sentences, they could form a story. It felt powerful then. It still does.

I was thinking how I never did anything with that power, how I dismissed every person who encouraged me, how I blew all the chances I had because I am afraid of failure as much as I am afraid of success.

I’m still afraid of those things, but I am more afraid now of not trying. The older I get, the more I feel this restlessness inside me, this yearning to do something more and to be something more.

I spent my recent years a prisoner within myself as well as my home. I feared the outside world. I feared people. I feared conversations and new situations and crowds and empty spaces. All that has changed. I have faced and conquered almost all my fears. I am, for the first time, fully enjoying my life as an adult. And I think that is what’s making the restlessness so profound. I’ve come so far. I’ve gotten over so much. I faced my fear of heights and took a gondola ride up a mountain at Squaw Valley. I faced my fear of water and stood at the front of a boat as we cruised around Lake Tahoe. I started socializing again. I learned how to walk through a crowd of people without anxiety. I learned how to live. So now that I am experiencing life anew, I find myself wanting to experience it fully, to savor every moment, to love everything I do and to do it all it with passion.

It’s really hard to have passion for explaining affidavits of service. Then again, it’s hard to muster up passion for cleaning the bathroom or paying the bills, but I do them. They’re part of my life inasmuch as my job is part of my life.

But does it have to be? Why can’t I do something I’m passionate about? Why can’t I throw caution to the wind and leave my job and just hope that I make enough money to make our ends meet?

Because I’m responsible. Responsible is safe. Responsible is cautious. Responsible is not passionate, is not carefree. Responsible is not a full-time freelance writer.

So what do I do? Do I continue on my chosen path and just live with the restlessness and the knowledge that I’m not living up to my potential? Do I look in the mirror each day and see a tree losing its leaves, but never flourishing?

I don’t want to spend the next ten, twenty years going to a job that I don’t love. I’m not one of those people who can push some papers around on their desk and just count the days until they can start collecting a pension. That’s not life. That’s not living. After all my years of hibernating, after all I’ve been through, after all the depression and fears and anxiety and hiding behind closed doors, I want to live, fully. I want to be all the things I had in mind for myself. I don’t want to get to the end of the road and be angry at myself for never taking that chance, for never trying.

And what if I do take that chance? The thought terrifies me. What if I don’t make enough to survive? What if I never sell anything? What if I’m not as good as all those people said I am? What if I fail? Do I go back to my civil service job with my head hung low and a determination to love processing evictions while waiting out my pension?

I have a happiness I thought I’d never attain. I have a passion for life I never thought possible. But I want fulfillment as well. How do I get that? Does anyone ever get that? How many people get to do what they love?

I ran after that leaf that fell from the tree. I picked it up, brought it inside and put it next to my keyboard as a reminder to ask myself this question daily:

Should I just learn to love what I do, or figure out how to do what I love?

10 Comments so far

  1. Toni on October 30th, 2008

    I say you can do both. No, really. You’re already cranking out essays as it is, so it’s not like your job is keeping you from writing. You’ve got material to start working on & submitting to paying markets. Once you get a few published clips under your belt, the momentum builds. Editors get to know you, know your style, know you deliver what and when you say you will. It snowballs. All it takes is that first push, girl. Email me any time, but I will say this: I freelance as secondary income earner; my former actor/radio producer husband works the soul-sucking job for bennies to pay our mortgage. I’d be totally miserable if I had to support all of us just on writing, because that’s not a grind I’d survive; I’d be looking for a f/t job and freelance on the side if it came to that. Others’ experiences may vary; I’m 41 and I know myself really well, well enough to know this.

  2. Beth Donovan on October 30th, 2008

    You are already a writer. Your essays are wonderful. You should put them together in a book. Create a collection of your writing.

    I envy you your joy of life. I am still trapped, partially. I have the opportunity to do what I want, now, but I’m so afraid to fail that I’m often paralyzed and sit behind this damned computer when I should be outside, doing the work I love to do. You are becoming a real inspiration to me, and to, I’m sure, others.

  3. nectarines on October 30th, 2008

    Awww. This really speaks to me.

    I’m a “SAHM” right now. Not because I loooove changing diapers all day, or even because I really believe my kid does any better with me than he would in daycare. In fact, I think he’d do better in daycare, because I’m not the kind of mom who does crafts or teaches the alphabet or even remembers to have him brush his teeth every morning.

    No. I’m a SAHM because I’m hiding from work. I started working when I was a teenager and I was always so good at it. Food service, office work, everything in between. I was promoted and encouraged. But ugh. I hated it. The food service jobs were fun, but the hours were hell and the pay was dirt. The office jobs had decent pay and no smelly work uniforms, but talk about boring! I thought I would die, sitting behind a desk all day. Just die. Just shrivel up. I saw any part of myself that was creative and warm and vital disappearing…and it just left nothing in its place.

    So I had a kid and left the workforce and hoped that somehow, the freedom of being my own boss in my own little way would bring me back to life. Yeah, not so much. I’m not the boss, the kid is the boss. And it turns out I’m not very good at hanging out with toddlers all day. I’m even more sad than I was at work, now, because at least at work I had friends and adult conversations and performance reviews that told me I was doing a good job, rather than the screeches of a toddler who doesn’t want to wear his jacket, or eat his lunch, or take a nap. It doesn’t help that the kid is speech delayed. Two years I’ve had nobody to talk to, most of the time, except someone who never talks back. I hate it. I am going crazy.

    But what’s the alternative? Go back to the desk job, and the fluorescent lighting? At least with my kid, I can go to the park in the middle of the day and see the sunshine.

    In a perfect world, I’d be working some kind of active part-time job, something creative and invigorating, even if I’m hardly making any money, and spending the rest of the time with my kid. A little bit of everything. But I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know what kind of job I’m meant to do. Even when I worked in an office, I bounced around. I don’t even know what my talents and skills really are; the only reason I did so well at work was because I have common sense and I follow directions well (when I want to). My dreams are all just a big question mark. I don’t even know what I’d do if I won the lottery and never had to worry about money ever again. I can’t answer that question.

    But you can. You are blessed to know what it is you would rather be doing. That is a wonderful gift. Don’t let it go to waste.

    I don’t know the practicalities of your life, but maybe you can start setting some parameters? Like, give yourself so many weeks or months to sell some writing on the side. If it works, if you can do it, then you can build from there - your business and your confidence. Eventually, though, it would require that leap into the unknown.

    Aren’t you moving to California in a few years, though? If you have to give up your New York job anyway, wouldn’t that be the perfect time to take the plunge?

  4. nectarines on October 30th, 2008

    I wanted to add that it may be helpful to set a low bar. Do you read “Newsweek?” They have a column called “My Turn.” Some Joe Schmo writes 250 words (or whatever) about something important to him. Usually, these columns are pretty mediocre. You could try something like that - you’d still have to put yourself on the line, but submissions are always open so it’s not a *huge* leap. The address is right there on the “Newsweek” website, you don’t have to worry about soliciting or hunting down editors for submission information. You don’t have to worry about research or interviews - these pieces are personal essays, and you already know how to write those, obviously.

    Try to adjust your thinking for it - I know it’s hard, but for your first one, the goal is not to get published. The goal is just to submit. You’ll never be a freelance writer if you can’t submit one essay, especially one where they make it so easy to submit. But if you can submit one essay, then you can submit two, and three, and four…and eventually, you’ll hit one that gets published.

    Start small. You don’t need to begin by jumping, that’s just where you want to end up.

  5. Tinu on October 30th, 2008

    The risk of going into business for yourself is actually the same risk you take in having a job. Only with a job, the risk is spread out. I started my business with my back against the wall, rent past due and no options, at the time I couldn’t even get a new job because I was sick. However, I think people should avoid starting out in that situation.

    So, for now, my advice would be to save half a paycheck - eat bag lunches, take the bus/subway, etc, use that to start your freelancing business part-time. Then set hours for your part time business and work it a little every day, early in the morning, late when no one is up (I used to go to bed with my significant other, then get up at midnight, work three hours, exercise and go back to bed).

    Set a goal to make as much at freelancing part time as you do at your day job. During that time, put ALL of the money you make back into the business or save it. Pretend the money isn’t even there. Then, in the first month you can safely predict you’ll make as much in a month as you do in your current job, make sure you’re legally set up properly in your new business, and THEN, and only then, quit your job. That way, not only is your income replaced, but you also have a cushion in case something happens.

    AND with more time to devote to your business full time, you’re likely to make more money the first full time month.

    Doing it this way takes some people three months. Other people luck out and it takes a week, or in a slow economy it might take someone six months. You *can* get there. You can do this.

    What if you fail? Then you tried, and you haven’t lost a thing. But what if you succeed?

    What if you really, really, succeed beyond your wildest dreams? Will you lose anything in the present moment by hoping for that? Even if you fail, at least during the time period that you hoped for better, you have not only Not lost the moment, you’ve gained happiness in the doing. I’ll take temporary joy over worry any day.

    Just because life has turned around to a point to make you happy doesn’t mean you have to stop there. Go ahead - be ECSTATIC. I’ll be cheering you on. :)

  6. Lisa Paul on October 30th, 2008


    Don’t mean not to feel your pain. But have you had enough coffee today? Because, girl, you are already well on your way!

    1) You have uncommon writing and photographic talent. I seldom read one of your posts without coming way moved or thinking or both.

    2) You have a healthy and growing readership on all your blogs.

    3) You are being paid to write already and I bet more offers are just on the horizon.

    4) You are about to make an exciting life change moving to a different coast. Fodder for your writing for at least a few years.

    As Joe Dirt would say, just keep on keepin’ on. I see a book contract in your future. Or at the least, a nationally syndicated column: “Snarky Long Islander in LaLa Land.”

  7. michele on October 30th, 2008

    Thank you, everyone for your responses. They are inspiring and encouraging.

    When Todd read this last night, he read out loud the part about “what if i fail?” And he said, Yes. Yes, you go back to work. But at least you won’t spend the rest of your life wondering what if.

    So that’s it. I’m in motion. I have a plan and a goal and I thank you all for helping me along with it.

  8. Bolie Williams IV on October 30th, 2008

    I understand how you feel. I feel similarly. I like my job and the people I work with. It’s creative and interesting to some extent. But I have also found that I dream of being a writer. I have other issues that make it hard for me to write and I’m somewhat envious of how much writing you do get to do and how good it is. I enjoy reading your tweets and your essays. Keep up what you are doing and look for ways to do more and maybe you can transition into it as a career rather than making an instant change.

  9. Timmer on October 30th, 2008

    You like to write, we like to read what you write. I’m sure if others read it, they’d like it too. I think you have more in common with people our age than you’ve ever imagined. I don’t know how many times you’ve written what bounces around in my head and helped it make sense.

    One of the scariest things I did recently was to audition for a part in a local theater company’s show. Haven’t acted in 15 years. Got the title role. I’m still freakin’ terrified and the director isn’t giving me ANY notes. She says I’m the least of her worries. I’m flattered, but I’m still thinking that she’s lost it. The assistant director thinks I’m hilarious. I’m not too sure about him either. That’s how my confidence rolls. I’ll wait until we have an audience and see what plays.

    I’ve got what could be considered a Government, soul sucking job as well, but the people make it worth it and now that I’m acting again, it’s kind of okay. My job funds my life, but it’s not my life. And yeah, it’s easy for me to say after a successful Air Force career behind me, but it’s also true. My job isn’t who I am anymore, and that’s okay today.

  10. tag, you’re it « a big victory on January 21st, 2009

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