Running Scared

Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind. Doubt can hold you back as easily as an injury. Self-doubt can cripple you, making it almost impossible to throw anything to the wind.

For most of my life, it’s felt like there are two people inside me.

The first is the dreamer, the person I want to be. This is where the writer lives, creating new worlds filled with intriguing characters and exciting plots. The dreamer is by nature an optimist, believing that nothing’s impossible.

This is the guy who helped me quit smoking. He helped me to eat better, to become a runner and to keep running when injury dragged me down. He helped me pass my driving test on Friday, 13th May, my final exams to become an environmental health officer, and to get the jobs that took me from Manchester to the Sussex Coast.

This is the guy that helped me deal with the many rejection letters I had from publishers and agents, telling me I had the talent and ability to become a published writer. He was right. Back in the early 1990s, I began to publish articles in national and local magazines. Then there was my regular column on technology in Writers’ Monthly, which ran for several years until the magazine closed down.

The second person is the doubter. In a way, he’s the little devil that sits on my shoulder. The doubter sits there because it’s easy to whisper in my ear.

The doubter isn’t interested in me achieving anything. The doubter doesn’t like change. Change means I might not need him any more. Trouble is, he can be incredibly difficult to dislodge. He’s clever. He nips in at the early stages of a dream, when ideas and aspirations are vague, and covers it with a blanket of misgivings.

What if it goes wrong? What if it’s more difficult than you imagined? What if it’s not what you want? Have you stopped to consider the effect on others?

This last one is always a killer. It’s often the last throw of the dice for the doubter. When all else fails, use emotional blackmail.

I was eight when my father died. At the time, I had no idea how to express how I felt. I’m not sure I knew how I felt, but I had this overwhelming sense of unfairness.

Why had he been taken from me?

What did I do to deserve this?

This is when the doubter was born. He told me that this is what life was like – it knocked you back if you started getting ideas, if you wanted more than you deserved. And whenever anything went wrong or I goofed, the doubter was there, giving me a sad shake of the head.

The fact I fought the doubter, strived to be better, owes much to a spirit that came from reading books. Heroes didn’t quit. They didn’t flinch at the obstacles that faced them. They found ways to defeat evil and those who wanted them to fail. They battled on, even when the odds were overwhelming and defeat was certain.

To Kill A MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird taught me that final lesson. It reinforced the dreamer in me at the age of 16. It spurred me to write my first novel, which I sent to a publisher at the age of 17.

The doubter tried to clip my wings, of course. ‘If you tell them you’re 17, they’ll laugh, wondering who the hell you think you are.’

I didn’t mention my age. I received a lovely, encouraging letter from the publisher, praising my characterisation, realistic dialogue and the story, but no offer of publication.

Many times I’ve looked backed, wondering whether the publishers would have reacted differently had they known my age.

This is what the doubter does to you. He likes to remind you of failures because they prove him right.

Fortified by this early victory, the doubter undermined me, quick to remind me how disappointing life could be. Whenever, I had a big decision to make, the doubter was there, pointing out everything that could go wrong and how bad it would make me feel.

When I wrote further novels, I was never sure of my abilities, always afraid to really go for it and to hell with the consequences. The story was never good enough. The plot wasn’t realistic. The characters didn’t jump of the page and into the reader’s heart.

The doubter urged me to focus on real life – marriage, building a home, settling down. You’ll never earn enough from writing to pay the mortgage so why bother?

I did bother. I kept writing. I have to write.

I’m stubborn, see. I’ve read books that live long in the memory. I’ve read books that have the power to change my life.

I’ve also shown I can defeat doubt. I published articles. People wanted my work for their readers. I quit smoking. Okay, giving up smoking may not seem like a big deal, but it was integral to my life, to my writing.

Giving up smoking meant giving up writing. Oh, the doubter thought he was onto a winner with that one.

But my health meant more to me than anything else. I was overweight, unfit and still collecting rejection slips from publishers. It was time to change, to set the remainder of my life on a sensible, healthier course. I didn’t want to wake in the night, coughing and clearing my lungs. I didn’t want to die prematurely when I’d yet to achieve my ambitions.

For once, the dreamer was pragmatic. I gave up smoking with much less effort and will than I ever imagined. The doubter never got much of a look in – he hadn’t reckoned on the running.

I started running before I quit smoking. My wife and I joined the local gym. We began to exercise, to get healthier and fitter. We would come out of the leisure centre, exhausted and dripping with sweat, but invigorated. The first thing I would do was pop a cigarette into my mouth.

Six months later, the cigarettes were gone and have never returned. I learned to write again – short pieces at first.

No AccidentI wrote Fisher’s Fables, a humorous blog of my experiences as an environmental health manager. It gave me the author’s voice the doubter had always denied me. A publisher wanted my first Kent Fisher mystery novel, No Accident.

Then last year, I strained the muscles in my lower back. It was an old injury, more niggle than problem, or so I thought. It took me six weeks to recover.

The doubter saw a chance to return after years in the wilderness.

When I started running once more, I didn’t run too far. I listened to my muscles, aware of the stiffness in my lower back. The doubter told me it was futile. I would never reach the distances and speeds I had before.

I was running scared – worried I’d strain my back once more.

Almost six months have passed. I still run scared, even though my back feels fine. The doubter’s still there. He’s given up attacking my running, casting doubt on my writing instead.

No RemorseI no longer plan or plot in any detail. I started No Remorse, the third in the series, with a line of dialogue, curious to know what would develop. It became my best work at that point, a triumph of confidence and self-belief. I’ve written two more Kent Fisher mysteries without plans, never sure what’s coming next.

The doubter’s on at me from the first page. What if you can’t do it again? What if you write yourself into a blind alley? What will your readers think?

Then I have a moment of insight, when I realise what the story’s about. The dreamer returns, fed by my subconscious, telling me what the story’s about. There are no details – these come when I write – just a skeleton.

Would that happen if I didn’t have a little doubt to spur the dreamer in me? Maybe it’s a ying and yang thing. A little doubt makes me focus, work harder, unwilling to accept anything other than the best I can do.

Maybe I’m better off running scared … and writing scared.

What do you think?

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