It’s a clear, calm October day in Chugach State Park. I’m climbing a trail that is new to me with my hiking group. It’s steep, but with plenty of switchbacks so I know I can reach the top. Our goal is Little O’Malley Peak and a panoramic view of Campbell Creek, the valley, the city, and the mountains beyond.
As I climb, I have time to reflect on another pinnacle I recently reached—acceptance of my memoir for publication—the peak of a ten-year climb. Jubilation and celebration! Soon, however, another ridge appeared on the horizon: revision. More climbing—researching, clarifying, expanding, deleting. Still, I knew what to do, one step at a time. Hard work, but with an excellent editor the path ahead was clear and attainable. Finally, after several months, I completed all the revisions and reached a new level of success: a better book, praise from authors I admire, a beautiful cover designed by my husband, and a launch date. I looked back at all I had overcome and felt a great sense of accomplishment. For a moment.
An unfamiliar landscape stretched out in front of me with new challenges. Blurbs, bookstores, blogs, interviews, readings, posts, the need for clever gimmicks to GET NOTICED. An introvert’s nightmare. I had to step from behind my computer and venture “out there” to sell the book. Panic. Sleepless nights, groggy days. Immobilizing thoughts. What if no one likes my book? Worse yet, what if no one reads it?
I began to regret this whole book idea. If only I remained content writing little stories and essays, sending them off to journals and magazines no one I knew would read. In this period between completion and launch, I had to make the leap from the solitary work of a writer to the public persona of an author. I was caught in a limbo between my writer self and my author self.
But wait. I’ve plunged into scary, uncharted territory before. My book is about taking risks—with family, careers, relationships, and in the wilderness. One day during a frenetic search for yet another “definitive” guide to book marketing, I took a break and wandered to my bookshelf. Hidden on a dusty shelf I noticed a hard cover book with brightly colored tabs poking out from the pages. I pulled it out, not sure why I kept it all these years. It was The Way of Transition, by William Bridges. I had relied on Bridges’ model to pull me through many dramatic shifts in my life over the years. He describes three stages of a transition, letting go, the neutral zone, and beginning again. The neutral zone, between what is known and what lies ahead, is a period of chaos, confusion, and fear. We let go of our old self in preparation for a new self. This middle period is often fraught with anxiety and immobility. Bingo! I was in the neutral zone, between the role of writer and that of an author. The way through this phase, says Bridges, is not to plow through to solutions, avoiding or smashing down uncomfortable feelings, but instead to “sit” with the “not knowing.” In other words, the way out of the neutral zone is to acknowledge the negative feelings and let them go.
A friend reminded me of a tool I hadn’t used in a long time, meditation. I decided to simply sit for a few minutes at the beginning of each day before I opened my computer, focusing on breathing and quieting my mind. Instead of spending every day in a flurry of often competing advice from “expert” marketers, I settled for one or two steps forward each day. Learning, reaching out to others, discovering, making it up as I went. In the process I realized I had experience with many of the things I was afraid to tackle in my new role. In the past, I presented at conferences, led workshops, taught classes, read my work to others, started over in a new job or career. Despite anxiety and dread, there were times when I actually enjoyed meeting new colleagues and connecting with new communities. I could do it again. I just needed to focus on past successes instead of imagined failures.
I still have moments of panic when I’m mired in self-doubt, but I stop, take a walk, read poetry, or begin a new piece of writing. The same perseverance and stamina that allowed me to finish my book will take me into my next role as an author. Whether it’s a book or other monumental project, the way forward is through the uncertainty, remembering that for writers and authors it’s all about the story. We don’t know what’s at the end until we get there. The important thing is to enjoy the scenery along the way.
In her new book, Rivers and Ice: A Woman’s Journey Toward Family and Forgiveness, Susan Pope follows five generations of one Alaskan family evolving with the rapidly changing landscape of the North. Her previous work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction Short Reads, Alaska Magazine, River Teeth Beautiful Things, Pilgrimage, Under the Sun, Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, Burrow Press Review, BioStories, and Burningword Literary Review, among others. Her essay, “Canyon,” which appeared in Bluestem and Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives with her husband in Anchorage. Find her at susanpope.org or @smaryak49