Originally published March 2, 2012, at Creative Dream Journals.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L. Doctorow
I had to start off with that quote because it’s the only way to be honest about my story. It’s too easy, with the conventions of narrative and memoir, to say, “I quit my career to pursue a creative life” or “I decided to move across the country and start a freelancing business” or “I decided that I would work part time for clients and part time on my own writing”—as if I had some kind of plan, as if these “decisions” were conscious conclusions born of logical analysis and practical reason rather than the unanticipated outcomes of inner prodding, sudden intuition, and continual experimentation.
The truth is messy, and E. L. Doctorow’s quote captures it perfectly. It’s an inspiring quote–it means you don’t have to have a plan, you don’t have to be able to see that far into your own future to be able to move forward. And it’s a daunting quote. As we all know if we’ve ever driven at night in the fog—perhaps on unfamiliar roads, perhaps through the mountains—it’s stressful. You have to be on high alert at every moment, paying close attention, all your senses at the ready to spot the truck that suddenly appears out of nowhere and the turn in the road that could either take you where you want to go or spin you off deeper into the fog.
In 2009, I left my stable career as a college professor and moved away from Ohio, where I had lived for six years. I had no plan. I had only a little savings. What I had were vague ideas. I had been thinking about this change for nearly four years, and I had devoted a lot of those four years to “What am I going to do?” in both its panicky and its practical forms. I had a sense that writing and editing might be good directions for me to go, and also that some kind of part-time or non-career-oriented (“working in a bookstore”) job might make sense, too. And that’s what I had: no plan, but a set of ideas that felt right.
Now, in 2012, I live in Austin, Texas, where part of my work is freelance editing and writing for clients, and part it is writing my first book, which I sold a couple of months ago to an excellent publisher for very little money. For the three years between then and now, I’ve been driving through the fog at night. Now the sun is coming up, but the fog hasn’t dissipated—or some other metaphor to say that I’m not, at the moment, in a state of high alert and abject terror, but I am still in transition. I still don’t know just where I’m headed. I still have ideas.
And so finally I come to the real topic of this post: Courage. Confidence. Bravery. Throughout this journey, kind people have sometimes told me that they think I’m brave. In response, I make my usual joke about the fine line between bravery and foolishness—or maybe I try to explain that I felt like I had no choice; that this was the only way forward for me. But I like hearing them call me brave, and I take it in. It’s good for me—a heroic version of my story to counter the sense of bewildered scrambling that’s my usual go-to.
This month, “brave” came together for me. Jamie Ridler, the owner of this blog, encouraged contributors to write about courage. Joe, a colleague from my professor days, visited Austin and told me over crepes that it was incredibly brave to break free from academia’s “find a job and retire there” culture, to think about what makes me happy, and to act on it.
And then what made it all click: two friends independently reframed the meaning of brave for me. In an e-mail message, Erika told me, “Your commitment to being who you are even when you have doubts, concerns, etc. is what real confidence looks like. Sounds crazy, I know, but the confident ones stay true to themselves even when doubt is present.” Colleen said, “People admire you for being true to yourself, even when it is hard. For expressing your feelings, even when there are tears. For saying what is on your mind, and for thinking deeply about your life and what it means.”
All this, and Erika’s and Colleen’s words especially, have made me rethink brave. They’ve made me rethink insecure, too. Usually, when people say “brave,” “courageous,” or “confident,” I picture some kind of Prince Valiant, dauntlessly going forward with his chest out and his mind clear, certain in his every action and decisive in his opinions. Or maybe I picture a runway model, poised and commanding: “You will admire me.” But that’s not what “brave” is. That’s not even what “confident” is. Not for me, not now.
Years ago, at her PhD defense, my sister Leslie took the opportunity to thank the many people who had helped her along the way. I remember her thanking our parents for their love and support and then adding, with her wry smile, “I just thought of this—I’d also like to thank my parents for a certain stubbornness that I think has served me well in graduate school.”
I think that for me, that “certain stubbornness”—a family trait whose friendly face is perseverance, dedication, focus, and commitment—is what brave looks like. The kind of brave I am, the kind of confident I am, comes with a variety-pack of fear, including insecurity, uneasiness, terror, worry, hypervigilance, panic, self-consciousness, and fun-filled images of “old, sick, alone, and broke”–or worse, “burden to my family.”
But I’m stubborn. I stick with it anyway. I have an inner pull toward authenticity that won’t let go; I’d disappear without it. The path of courage, of confidence, of bravery, for me, isn’t about going forward fearlessly. It’s about going forward stubbornly—continually returning to the path, continually finding new ways to return to it in the face of life’s obstacles. I just have to, so I do it. I find a way.
Brave isn’t what you feel—it’s what you do. You feel fear, you experience doubt, and you pay attention to what they tell you. But fear and doubt don’t run the show. You do. You’re true to who you are, and you do what you know to be right for you. You drive through the fog at night because the road calls you. You’re yourself—your whole self. And you’re brave.