It’s writers conference season and literary hopefuls all over the country are polishing their pitches, fine tuning their queries. Is the hook sharp enough? Are the stakes high enough? What if I freeze up when I finally meet my dream agent?
Fear hangs like a cloud over writers’ conferences. You can smell it.
I talked to a friend, Carrie Dunn Clarke, a fellow writer and a professional coach who works with writers and artists. She told me a secret that changed my approach to getting ready for the big, scary pitch.
The human brain cannot process fear and gratitude at the same time.
In his book What Happy People Know, Dan Baker explains the theory. “It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but they are mutually exclusive.”
The trick is controlling which emotion takes over in a given situation.
“At the heart of all fear is survival,” Clarke explains. “Survival from the lion at the door of the cave is processed the same way as fear of public speaking or pitching your novel. The visceral response is also the same: sweaty cold hands, voice cracks, heart racing.”
So how do I calm that racing heart and make my palms stop sweating before I shake hands with that dream agent? According to Clarke, I need to train my brain to switch from fear to gratitude. But it only works if I can actually make myself feel gratitude. Really feel it.
It reminds me of Peter Pan explaining to Wendy that if she wants to fly with pixie dust, she needs to think happy thoughts. Or when Remus Lupin teaches Harry Potter to dig deep for a happy memory when he conjures his patronus.
I’m gearing myself up for GrubStreet’s The Muse and the Marketplace conference in May. It’s a huge conference with panels, workshops, speakers, afterhours parties, and opportunities to network with agents, editors, and authors.
Having just completed GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive, I’m almost ready to start sending my manuscript out. But when I think about trying to act casual and conversational while pitching my book to a person who could possibly make all my dreams come true, fear comes roaring back. Big, prickly fear that makes my tongue feel thick when I try to deliver that meticulously practiced elevator pitch. Fear that makes me forget the killer hook I know by heart.
Theoretically, I’m ready. I’ve revised. Then revised some more. I’ve studied craft, read authors I admire, and worked closely with classmates whose talent inspires me daily. I’ve read countless articles about writing queries and synopses. I’ve practiced my pitch.
When I walk in the room to deliver that pitch, fear and gratitude will be battling it out to escort me over to meet that agent.
Clarke assures me I control which emotion wins. “When you are about to pitch your novel, put yourself in a place of gratitude and appreciation first—then your brain can’t jump to the fear.”
But in the moment, will I forget what I’m grateful for? To make sure this does not happen, I’m going to publicly share some of my headliner Gratitudes. That way, if I run into you at a conference, you can kindly remind me about how grateful I am for:
- My family, which supports my writing and believes in me, even when I let fear in.
- My non-writer friends who never ask if my book will get published, but ask when.
- GrubStreet, the Boston writers’ organization that puts on the Muse and offers classes and workshops all year.
- Eve Bridburg, who founded GrubStreet twenty years ago and created this intentional, inclusive home for writers.
- Carrie Dunn Clarke, who taught me this Jedi mind trick.
- Michelle Hoover, who teaches the Novel Incubator. She is absolutely a novel whisperer—and quite possibly a witch. She’s that good.
- GrubStreet instructor Lisa Borders, who gave me the tools and courage to finish that first draft.
- My fellow Novel Incubees. How could I have gotten through this year without you? You all read my novel (three times!) and gave me such thoughtful, helpful feedback. You trusted me with your own precious words, for which I will always be grateful.
So many happy thoughts! If I had some pixie dust right now, I would be soaring over Neverland. My patronus (definitely a bear) would be destroying Dementors.
All you fearful writers, I want you to make lists too. Remind yourself of all the writerly things you are grateful for, all those people who have helped you. Read your lists dozens of times. Imprint it on your brain, so when you meet that perfect agent, or when you prepare for your first public reading, your brain is ready to flip the switch. Gratitude over fear.
It seems simple, but in the moment, I suspect we will all need some gratitude support. If you see me at a conference and I look scared, if I have that Why-did-I-think-I-could-write-a-book? look on my face, please remind me that I said all of this. Walk by and whisper in my ear “The Incubees have your back.” That’s all it will take.
Fear, you put up a good fight. But gratitude, you’ve definitely got this one.