I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life

And I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.

– – –  Georgia O’Keeffe

I started facing my fears in a dream when I was five years old. I was sitting on our black and white diamond shaped floor tiles in the kitchen of my childhood home. I was looking at my white ankle socks and my lace up shoes when I heard an eerie guttural sound. I looked across the room and there was a massive lion glowering at me. He was roaring so fiercely, I covered my ears with my hands to block out the terrible noise. His thick yellow and dark brown mane that encircled his powerful neck was wet with drool that was spilling down across his huge fangs. His eyes were inky and a tuft of thick black hair stood upright at the end of his long bushy tail.

I rushed to the door behind me and grabbed upwards for the knob. It was just beyond my reach. I teetered on wobbly legs when I realized I was dreaming and I needed to wake up. I got back on the floor and rolled myself into a tight little ball, covered my head with my hands and waited for the beast to attack. I heard the raspy inhale, I felt a blast of hot wind and I smelled the musky scent as he flew into the air. A moment later, I woke up in the kitchen, standing barefoot at the Formica table, holding a pick plastic placemat in my hands.

When I look back, my life has been filled with fear, it still is, but I never let it stop me. After I helped a motivational speaker write a powerful bestseller, I got a call to write a memoir for a legendary diva. She had fired her first writer and she needed to find another one right away to meet the terrifying short deadline. The plan was that I would write a chapter for her and she would decide if she wanted to hire me to do the rest. I agreed, hung up the phone, climbed into bed and pulled the covers up over my head.

Why in hell had I agreed to do this? I was filled with dread. I was scared to meet her. But I would have to do in-person interviews to study the way she spoke, the words she used and the rhythm of her sentences. I would have to write this book in the first person as if I were she. How could I be presumptuous enough to think I could write in the voice of a legend? I had no idea how to organize the
material, tape the sessions (there were no cell phones at the time), transcribe the tapes and write a book that would reflect who this woman was and how she had achieved massive stardom. I thought about a friend who got an offer to help Princess Diana with her public speaking skills. My friend was so intimidated, she suggested they meet next month. A few weeks later, the princess died in a car crash and to this day, my friend has regretted her decision 

I didn’t want that to happen to me. It was time to face the lion in the kitchen, so I sat down and wrote the chapter in two days. I knew it wasn’t perfect. That was impossible. Salvador Dali said, “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” But I could try. She would either hate what I wrote and move on to someone else, or like it and hire me. To my amazement, she hired me.

At first, I was ecstatic. I felt proud that I had done a good job – until the next morning when Fed ex delivered two large boxes filled with photographs, magazine articles, souvenir programs from the star’s concerts and stunning reviews of her movies. I carried the boxes into my living room, took out the contents, spread them across the floor and started to categorize them. My inner critic was very loud. He yelled in my ears that I was certain to fail and I better quit while I was ahead. But once I started sorting out the material and began to write,
I got too busy to think about it and it felt like the project started writing itself. It turned out to be a bestseller. Now, with two bestsellers under my belt, I got calls from publishers who wanted me to ghostwrite celebrity books and each time, the fear showed up. The lion in the kitchen. I started expecting it and the more I wrote, the less anxious I became and the smaller the lion.

It’s important to point out here that there is a big difference between facing our fears and putting ourselves in harm’s way. We have a knee jerk reaction to get the hell out of there when we’re in danger and we need to listen to ourselves to stay safe. But finding the courage to create something new and difficult takes a different kind of audacity and belief in ourselves. None of us want to look foolish, but there’s no way to succeed if we don’t give it a go and put a foot in the door. It may get slammed in our faces, but it also may swing wide open and invite us in. Babe Ruth said, “Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back.”

When I started writing professionally, a writer friend gave me advice that I keep in mind to this day. She said, “Don’t think about the book as a whole. Go chapter by chapter so you don’t get overwhelmed.” When I have a hard job in front of me and a short deadline, I take it word by word. Step by step. It’s about starting small, one page at a time and moving forward from there.

During my AIDS volunteer work, when I sat at the bedsides of people who were saying their last good-byes, I never heard anyone talk about regretting what they did. Even if they failed. They regretted what they didn’t do.