Brick wall with a central brick stamped with the word courage.

Cultivating the Courage to Write On

The energy out there has been bananas. So much is happening in the world. So many people are struggling. So much courage is needed. Maybe you’re feeling it too. 

Over the last two weeks, I spent twelve days by my father’s hospital bed, wondering what our future holds, followed by a tearful trip home for a routine, but necessary, medical procedure three days before he was discharged.

My father’s hospital room was two hours from the nearest relative, and while my ninety-two-year-old grandmother wanted to drive up and hold vigil, it wasn’t possible. As I walked out of his room, the little girl in me wanted to be a good “hero” daughter who takes control, makes everything okay, and pushes her needs to the wayside. But I don’t know what the future holds, so I must take care of myself.

It takes courage to care for yourself in the middle of a family member’s medical crisis, especially if you grew up like I did. As a young child, my nervous system was set to “constant emergency.” Because the intensity of a good crisis matched my wiring, they became my jam. Within them, life felt normal and I could pretend I was in charge.

But I’m not in charge of what my father’s body does, how his recovery goes, or what tomorrow brings. All I can do is show up—both for him and all of myself. That means showing up for my health, spirituality, and writing life. While the last one might seem frivolous to some people, attending to my writing life allows me to bring all of myself to my relationships, which is the very thing a convalescing father needs.

Attending to what feeds us also takes courage. 

Before I left for New York, I purchased a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic based on a fellow writer’s recommendation. The first section is all about courage. The Latin root for courage is cor or heart. The original definition was to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my heart has been heavy. Fear fantasies about all the things that could go wrong and all the things that could change kept me company as I traveled solo between the hospital and my hotel room. In the past, I would’ve felt bad about this, but fear isn’t the antithesis of courage. It’s a companion.

Fear is essential for our survival. We should be afraid of cars speeding at us, bears in the woods, or drinking out of a toilet. We don’t need to be fearless; we need to learn how to be brave.

According to Elizabeth, “Bravery means doing something scary… Fearlessness means not even knowing what the word scary means.” She continues by saying, “The only people I know who are fearless are true sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds. Neither are good role models.”

The key to becoming brave is learning how to live with fear and understanding where it belongs. There will be many times when your fear will save you. But Elizabeth says the one place fear doesn’t belong is in our creative lives, and yet it will always ride along. Instead of fighting that, we need to embrace its presence. 

When she’s preparing to go on a road trip with her creativity, Elizabeth writes fear a letter where she welcomes it aboard and lets it know “it can have a seat and a voice, but never a vote… And by no means can it ever, ever drive the bus.”

Fear likes me to future cast into the what ifs of this situation, which steals my vote regarding what to do in the here and now. One way I’ve been living with my fear is to ground myself in the present moment. Multiple times per day, I stop, take a deep breath, wiggle my toes, feel all four corners of my feet, and then note one thing I see. Once I’m present, I express gratitude for something that’s going well.

I also let fear crack my heart open. After one exceptionally tough and exhausting day, I cried, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t” into a towel, letting my body heave with the weight of it all. I’m telling you this because tears are our friends. Each one I shed released a little of the cortisol I was carrying and gave my little one an opportunity to speak. After my good cry, I reached out to my beloved support group who helped me see that I can.

Allowing my body to fully feel the fear and overwhelm helped me pay attention to my surroundings, not just directly afterward but for days to come. Paying attention connects me to my creativity, helps me slow down enough to answer its call, and allows me to address one of the biggest fears every writer I know faces: time. 

I hear myself and other writers ask the following questions all the time. Will I have enough time? Will I use my time wisely? Will my time get taken away from me?

It’s like a time bandit constantly tails us, ready to steal our most prized possession.

Over the years, time fear has been an arch enemy. As I enter a period of more intense caregiving, I feel that bandit nipping at my heels. Then I remember one of the lessons I learned from Gay Hendrick’s book, The Big LeapIn it, he says we create time. We do this when we prioritize those things that matter to us by doing them first and reframing how we see the time we have.

On strategy is mentally replacing time complaints, like “I don’t have time for this,” with “I don’t want to do this,” or “this isn’t my priority.” I’ve spent the past few days catching myself in a complaint and then doing the reframe. That’s allowed me to focus on what’s important without feeling rushed, stressed, or bad about the things I let go or said no to.

When I choose how I see my time, I feel both present and good about being by my father’s bedside and enjoying the sun on my neck as my pen rolls across my notebook.

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