01/03/2013 03:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taming Those First Book Jitters

Congratulations. You got a book contract!

Now it's time to finish the manuscript.

Are you frozen with fear, wondering if you're up to the task? That, in my opinion, is a great place to be.

The first book I wrote was practically on a dare. "You've always wanted to write," my husband told me after I'd interviewed the former marathon champion Dick Beardsley for a cable-access television show we produced. "He needs someone to write his memoir. Write it."

My heart leapt at the thought, but came crashing down -- splat! -- as the doubts descended. I'd never written a book before. What made me think I could do it? Who was I trying to kid?

Darrell, my aforementioned husband, would have none of that. Which is why, when someone asks me for help finding work they love, I so often answer with: "Find someone who believes in you, and marry him."

2013-01-03-StayingtheCourse.jpgDick Beardsley is probably most famous for his second-place finish in the 1982 Boston Marathon, and that's the chapter we worked on first. The night before our interview I had another anxiety attack. What could I say about the race that hadn't already been described in great detail in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles?

The next day I told Darrell what I planned to ask Dick: "How did you sleep the night before the race? What's the first thing you thought of when you woke up that morning? What did you see when you looked out the window of your hotel room?"

"That's how I know you can do this," Darrell reassured me. "Those are great questions."

I got 42 hours of interviews on tape, eventually, and transcribed every word of them.

When it was time to write the lead for the book, I was paralyzed with fear again. The lead. For a book! I imagined people opening it, reading the first sentence, and deciding whether to buy a copy based on that. My entire career depended on the sentence grabbing them so hard they couldn't help but fork over the $22.95.

That's how it felt.

"I think it's great you're afraid," my friend told me.


"It shows you're stretching yourself," she explained. "It shows this challenge is worthy of you."

I'd never thought of fear that way, as a sign I cared -- and was on the right track.

A little while later, doing dishes, the lead came to me. Dick loved to hunt and fish and trap as a kid -- and would check his trap lines on the way to school. The book is written in first person, and the lead was going to be: "I was never the teacher's pet, but I probably smelled like one."

Dick loved it. Darrell loved it. I loved it, too. Staying the Course: A Runner's Toughest Race doesn't open with it, but that's another story.

I don't get scared anymore when it's time to write. Well maybe a little. Just enough to remind me how much I care about my work. Life coach Martha Beck said it better, I think, in Real Simple several years ago:

Every time I sit down to write something that matters to me, I'm never sure I can do it right. But I also feel pulled toward the experience, as though the sirens are singing from the very place I'm most afraid to go.