The Wisdom of Fear and Resistance


A “fortune” I got. (In an unusual six-degrees-of-separation note, the same fortune appears in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about people’s interconnectedness and influence on one another, often in unknown ways, and also about the ways in which we do and do not align our everyday actions with our deepest goals and dreams. I think these things are intricately related, since it is so often other people, sometimes people we know only by their words, who help us find insight.

Into the category of illuminating words, I would put Simon Van Booy’s beautiful book The Illusion of Separateness, a story filled with characters who have had profound and unseen effects on one another. There have also been thought-provoking posts by people I’m connected to on creating the life you want, re-claiming your power of choice (the latter inspired by the former), and making sure you start a project by asking: How do I want to feel at the end? And then there was Nina Badzin’s post on the subject of resistance, which included her new mantra ‘do the work‘ and other takeaways from The War of Art: Break Through Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.

I read Nina’s post not five minutes after I had finished two hours of writing what was essentially a treatise on why I once and for all had decided that writing fiction wasn’t for me. If it was, why had I spent so many years not doing it? Sure I flirted. I’ve taken creative writing classes, just recently in fact. At one point in my life, I even went so far as to get MFA applications to two very respected programs and collect the recommendations needed for each. So on the surface, there have been times when it would appear I do take my fiction writing seriously (and actually do the butt-in-the-chair work for it). But mostly I haven’t. I didn’t apply to an MFA program because, well, it’s not like it would lead to a paying job or anything. My practical side eventually wins out when I start to get those pesky artistic ideas. Plus, there are other reasons: Writing fiction is isolating, consuming, etc. etc. And quite frankly, it doesn’t make me happy. Not the way running does, going to yoga, writing on this blog, or even, doing the work and writing I get paid to do. Still, there’s this insistent, utterly nagging voice that says I need to sit down, delve deep, and make stuff up.

The problem is that the resistance to doing so, which used to be lowercase ‘r’ resistance has grown more powerful over time. If words could think, resistance would definitely think it’s been bumped up to a proper noun.

A look at resistance

In her post Nina tackled the subject of overcoming the everyday forms of resistance that so often block us, and she has found that waking early has been key. I completely relate. The time before anyone else wakes up—heck, even before I’m quite awake—has always been my most fruitful and creative time for writing. But for my recent fiction writing class, I actually worked on my stories at night, which is unusual for me, after my paid writing and editing, and still I managed to bypass the little ‘r’ resistance, largely because I had deadlines (which I love), and I could only scrap my efforts so many times before I had to just go with an idea. But my very big accomplishment—six stories in six weeks!!—was tainted with something, and it was this: I went into the class almost trying to prove to myself that I didn’t really want to write. I even wrote one story explicitly about that very subject, and it was the underlying theme of another. In other words, I was dealing with my resistance but not my Resistance.

It hit me today that without dealing with my big Resistance, nothing would be decided. The class has been over for awhile and I’ve been as conflicted as ever. I have lots of thoughts on all the ways I and others can engage in resistance (for example, procrastination) and will tackle that subject in another post, but the truth is that once I know I want to do something, I’m pretty driven about just moving forward. Also, though I am unconventional in certain ways, I love structure, rituals, and clear goals, and within those things I can really relax.

A few examples: Take on marathon training? No problem. (I’ve completed two. When I set my mind to it, I just did it.) Go through a year-long intensive yoga teacher-training program? (Happy times.) Take a singing class even though anyone would recommend I not torture others like that. (All over it.) But in all cases, I did a lot more doing and a lot less thinking about doing.

How I viewed those activities is vastly different than my idea of writing fiction. Although I absolutely love running, there’s not even the tiniest threat that I will ever be able to make it a career, much less an adequately paid one. With the yoga training, I doubted I would teach but I loved yoga, so why not delve deeper? With the voice classes, I was terrified actually, but only because I knew for sure I would embarrass myself. As predicted, I did, although there was a lot more to work with in my embarrassing vocal chords than I would’ve thought, and I got so much out of my classroom experiences.

Looking to Oprah for answers

Nina’s post really triggered something in me, and even though I had long ago heard of The War of Art and had mentally put it on my to-be-read list, suddenly and immediately I had to hear more. Someone in the comments mentioned that its author Steven Pressfield had been on Oprah so off I went to the Queen of Finding Your Calling.

My problem with the fiction thing wasn’t really an issue of procrastination or similar; it went much deeper: I just haven’t wanted to do it! Like, at all. But how can I have this little voice that tells me very clearly I need to be writing (I call it The Bully) but doesn’t also make me put my butt in the chair to do the work (or in my case, even want to). Oprah and Pressfield addressed just that question. For example, what keeps us from sitting down and writing when we say we want to be a writer, getting out there for a cycling session when we say we want to do a triathalon, or taking that chess class when we’ve said we always wanted to play (and secretly think we’d be really good at it)?

“I have a rule of thumb,” said Pressfield. “Which is that the more important an activity is to your soul’s evolution, the more resistance you will feel to it; the more fear you will feel. Like your speech at Harvard.”

Oprah, it turns out, can self-sabotage like the rest of us, and she found herself procrastinating the writing of her Harvard commencement speech. Why would this world-famous renowned speaker do such a thing? “It was the word Harvard and everything that that connotes,” she said.

In other words, writing that speech felt important. It’s a perfect example of how procrastination and other forms of resistance can be so revealing. (Of course, sometimes procrastination is simply wanting with every fiber of your being to avoid the boring task ahead of you, but that’s a post for another time.)

“Here’s my theory; this is the metaphysics of the whole thing,” said Pressfield. “The key thing about resistance is that it comes second. And what I mean by that is what happens first is the dream, and resistance is the shadow. Like this tree that we’re sitting under casts the shadow. So what comes first is the dream.”

“You can’t have the dream without the shadow?” said Oprah.

“In my experience you absolutely can’t,” said Pressfield. “Resistance to me is a force of nature.”

Quelling resistance

Writing fiction is my Harvard.

When I was a child, the works of fiction I consumed seemed to come from some heavenly plane of existence, somewhere apart from everyday life. And even though now I know plenty of people in real life and online who have published novels, I don’t know that I’ve ever quite let go of my reverence. Growing up, books gave me glimpses into things I felt but could not articulate, peeks into other ways of life I sensed existed but hadn’t yet seen evidence of, access to experiences I knew technically were make-believe but were emotionally oh-so-real. And most of all, reading gave me the ability to live so many lives and see into other people in ways that were far beyond what was possible with my one life; they made me feel connected at the most profound level. To me, the idea of one day being able to give others any of those things seemed like the highest form of creativity. The most intimate.

And by far the scariest.

“What are you more afraid of than anything else in the world?” Pressfield said during his time with Oprah, as he offered one powerful way to find one’s calling.

To take Pressfield’s tree/shadow metaphor further: To my mind if the dream is the tree, and the resistance is the naturally occurring shadow of that dream, then the energy of attending to that dream (i.e., working on it) provides bright light to the tree. The tree keeps growing, and the shadow it casts is short, just like at noon. Guess what happens, though, when your dream is pushed down and unattended in the wild dusk of your soul? The shadow—the resistance—is what continues to grow. The tree is still there, rooted even, and you probably catch faint glimpses of its outline occasionally. But, oh, the long, dark shadow it casts.

Oprah thought the idea that resistance is inextricably intertwined with having a dream (like the tree and the shadow, like yin and yang) was a comforting idea, which is funny (and just proves we’d be best buds), because I thought the same thing. It’s not as if I had never had a similar thought before, but somehow hearing Pressfield talk about the way fear and resistance are just part and parcel to the caring was like a pinprick to a balloon, and my capital R resistance immediately deflated into common noun status.

I still have all the same concerns. For example, most of the aforementioned novelists I know do not receive even close to enough financial compensation to actually live off the very consuming endeavor that is writing. (And I’ve even worked with someone whose book had been made into movie.) Still, as mentioned, nobody’s paying me for my other avocations, and I do them gladly (in fact, I pay other people to do them).

I count all this as a real “aha moment” (to put it in Oprah’s terms) along my path, and I feel like it’s a pretty big deal. And to circle back with the opening, I send gratitude to all the people who have helped me have it (many more than are even mentioned, of course)—it would not have happened otherwise.


What pursuits call to you but simultaneously provoke your resistance? How have you overcome fears about trying or keeping up with an important goal?



Filed under Inspiration, Writing/Books

10 responses to “The Wisdom of Fear and Resistance

  1. Wow. Just wow. We’ve been hitting on something together here the two of us throughout our emails and our blog posts. I think fiction is my Harvard too. A longer work of nonfiction may also be my Harvard. I dabble in the short stories because I cannot completely abandon the fiction. I just don’t think I’m terribly good at it . . . but in fairness I don’t practice with it the way I do with the nonfiction. Good points, too, about the money factor. I also have that practical side. Could write more and more but have to pick up the kids!

  2. First off, thank you, I like hearing ‘wow’! : ) On the other note, I’ve read all the short stories you’ve included links to on your site, and I don’t agree at all: I think you have tons of talent in that area. That said (and not that this negates the former), you obviously touch lots of people with your nonfiction. On the note of your longer work, I’ve had an idea about that and will make a point to email you this weekend with thoughts.

  3. I’m going “wow” too! You’ve just illuminated for me why I feel so much resistance to sitting down and finishing my literary fiction novel — the one I call my “life’s work.” Talk about placing importance on it! No wonder I feel like there are almost insurmountable obstacles to overcome. Maybe now that I see it differently I’ll be able to change my actions. Thank you for that.

    I’m also really touched that you felt that way about my post, and am honored to be included in company like Nina and J.

    • Thank you, Annie.

      re: Your literary fiction novel–Just hearing “life’s work” made *me* tense and it’s not even my project! I hope you do see it differently now, and I’d love to hear how it progresses.

  4. j

    This is such a thoughtful post, and I should know because I’ve read it twice. The first time, I didn’t have time to respond, so I read it again now, so I could remember everything you said.

    I think I’ve landed closer to Nina on this (totally nagging, soul-wrenching) question of what kind of writer (artist) I want to be. I used to feel like I was cheating whenever I focused on creative activity that wasn’t my fiction writing, but lately I’ve just come to accept it: there are other kinds of writing and creative expression that bring me more… well, joy.

    I heard an interview with Ann Patchett the other day talking about her new collection of essays. She said that writing nonfiction is easier for her, even though it’s far more personal and self-revelatory than writing fiction. She said writing fiction is the hardest kind of writing there is. (So I was all, “Yes! That’s true! That’s why I don’t want to do it anymore!”)

    And then she laughed and said that it’s probably worth digging into her own psyche to see why she feels most drawn to the writing she finds the absolute most difficult to do. (At which point, I felt like a slacker.) 🙂

    You’re like Ann Patchett and Annie, which is great company to be in!

    Thank you so much for including me in this post. I’m honored. I can’t wait to read more of your thoughts. I loved this post.

    • J, thank you so much for your thoughtful response and kind words. Regarding your points: Joy is hugely important, and I think it’s well worth pursuing a life that includes big doses of it.

      I think that’s why one part of me is on the Ann Patchett side (delving into hard stuff), but the other part is on the side of “we’re supposed to do what we naturally do” a la Gretchin Rubin, which are usually the joyous things. I think both can be great, and maybe certain times in our life are more conducive to heftier does of one or the other, depending on what we need.

  5. Run, Karla, Run

    Preach. This is so true. I’ve struggled with similar resistance. The hard part for me is sussing out which resistance is fear-based and which is my soul telling me, “No, I really just don’t want to do this.” In the past, I’ve thought I really wanted something only to discover that I didn’t and my resistance was true and real, soul-crushingly real. Other times, it has been the shadow of my dream’s tree, my own fear holding me back from the thing I want most. I think this capital R resistance is common among writers, because so much of the craft and the business of writing is “magical.” If you think practically, resistance is almost a guarantee. Because, as you pointed out, there is NO stability in fiction. There is nothing practical about pursuing it as a career. It’s something you have to think passionately about. The question is, will fiction give back to you the way running, yoga and your other unpaid activities do? Or will it simply take from you? It’s such a complicated and interesting dilemma.

    • “The question is, will fiction give back to you the way running, yoga and your other unpaid activities do? Or will it simply take from you?” Seriously wow. Your whole response, but especially those words strikes me deeply. I think that’s long been the question, which I’ve kind of know, but I think the answer has been obscured by not seeing the whole “Resistance” thing. (And once again, it’s amazing how seeing/hearing someone else articulate lurking thoughts you’ve had yourself clarifies them so quickly.) Anyway, I suspect with a little downtime after Christmas, and the holiday flurry calmed a bit, I may actually know that answer quite soon.

  6. I am clicking in from a link left on Nina’s Facebook page. I had to read this post twice because I enjoyed it so much. I think, no, I know, I struggle with a similar kind of resistance. I think so much of my writing career and how it has developed over the years is a result of fear-based resistance. Before this post, of course, “fear” was not how I would describe my many reasons for not pursuing any creative pursuit that terrified me on the inside. I blamed other things…every time. Thank you for articulating the silenced emotions that lived within me. Thank you for writing this! I look forward to reading more from you.

    • “Thank you for articulating the silenced emotions that lived within me.” Beautiful. Thank you so much for your kind words, Jessica, and welcome. I love that this post resonated with you!

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