I have always been precocious, both by nature and by choice. For the most part, I consider this a gift, though I’m realizing, as I get older, that I haven’t always put this particular gift to the best use. Thanks to my dear friend Lorin, who helped me coin the term, I’ve discovered that I’m a pre-experiencer, meaning someone who anticipates an experience on the horizon and tries to sort it out, feel all relevant emotions, and dispense with the drama in advance of the actual event. That way, when it actually happens, I’m completely serene and fully prepared. Sounds really mature and efficient, right?
In case this approach already sounds like gibberish, let me offer an example. I have two daughters, Elizabeth and Anna, ages twenty-one and nearly nineteen. In an effort to be a ‘give them wings’ sort of mom--never wanting to be clingy, burden them with my sense of loss or, even worse, make them feel responsible for my happiness, I started grieving over them leaving the nest a good eighteen months before each one actually did so. Oh, did I mention that this whole process is unconscious? That I mourn and rationalize and adjust without any sense that I’m doing so, which feels very much like I’m coming unglued for no reason? Yeah, there’s that. And yeah, I know, I’m a quirky bugger.
So, after noticing this pattern in the midst of my second go-round—when my younger daughter was about seventeen—I really thought I’d passed some evolutionary exam, that I’d cracked my own secret code and earned karma chips or discovery points, or whatever other little rewarding goodies the universe had in store.
Unfortunately, however, I made my first mistake by assuming this particular code was specific to the task of mothering, which earned me another spin on the trial-and-error flume ride. And guess what I glimpsed as I teetered on the edge of the drop? Turns out I use this pre-experiencer approach with just about everything I truly care about, which puts writing right there near the top of the hit list.
What’s there to pre-experience when it comes to writing, you ask? What sorts of calamities can be sniffed out and battled and eliminated long before they occur, and from the comfort of one’s own writing cave? How about failure? How about the seemingly insurmountable odds of publication, the frantic attention span of our current society, or my inability to get in the zone and midwife the voice I KNOW is in there waiting to speak? Then there’s frustration, disappointment, loss…sigh.
Yep. I’ve treated myself to every single one of those. Without even realizing what I was up to, at various times in my life, I’ve placed my dreams on a giant funeral pyre, set them ablaze, and pushed them toward distant shores—far, far out of my own reach. All in the name of efficiency, you understand. If I quit, procrastinate or, when I’m feeling the need to be particularly easy on myself, take a break, I’m really just preventing the inevitable, sparing myself pain and loss, heartbreak and poor self-esteem. This ability to help myself before I even know I need help is brilliant, don’t you think?
Except for the fact that it doesn’t work.
I realized this flaw first with my daughters, when, after they were both safely ensconced in school, creating lives and making their own choices, the aching began anew. My nest, all freshly repainted and reconfigured, full of new and interesting things, still had empty places. It was pretty and I loved it, but sometimes the fact that my babies weren’t IN it nearly made me double over with longing for their little—or big or any size—selves.
My pre-experiencing hadn’t saved me a thing. Nothing I ever did—or will do—has the power to make that feeling go away completely. That visceral pull is part of what defines the experience of being a mother and, truth be told, I’d give up just about anything in my life before I’d let go of that connection. My daughters have forever changed me, literally modified my physiology, and there’s not one thing I can—or want to—do about it.
And so it goes with my writing, with this exquisite, insightful, maddening beast that amends and defines me with each shared word. Because writing isn’t an action so much as a state of existence, choosing to skip it, put it off, or quit doesn’t accomplish anything in the long term, or at least nothing helpful. Sure, you get that break your fearful mind hisses that you NEED. You get the chance to fill your time with Facebook games and Netflix. You might even get that office whipped into stunning, color-coordinated shape.
What you won’t get, however, is peace. You don’t get to escape what you are through pretense. You don’t get to decide how much your passion matters, or that only small, palatable, cookie-sized bits of angst are allowed into your world. Your art will do what it will do. That’s its job. It will find a way to continue regardless of your choices, whether that means you set it free on the page or it chisels at your psyche until you pay attention.
So take it from me, a hardcore pre-experiencer with the scars—and creative delays—to prove it, embrace that fear. Ask yourself if you’re trying to head it off at the pass, if you’re holding back or making excuses or flat out hiding in the bathroom until your shift is over. And if the answer is yes, please, PLEASE, reach in deep, grab the panic by its nasty, tick-like little head, smash that sucker to a pulp and, while your hand is still stinging, smear the fresh blood all over your manuscript.
Use your fear. It exists to push you, but only if you’re paying attention. And since it knows all the dance steps, there’s really no way to sashay out of its path. Believe it or not, if you take it by the hand and let it know you intend to lead, it makes for a pretty badass partner.