Life Outside the Comfort Zone: Five Debut Year Lessons

Fair warning: I am a big year-in-reviewer. I love December’s energy of reflection and processing. I spend time each holiday season curating a playlist to commemorate the past twelve months and I am an absolute sucker for retrospective journaling and blogging. New Year’s is probably my favorite holiday. It’s a whole thing.

As part of that reflection, I try to identify my biggest takeaways from the year. There is usually a noticeable “growth edge,” a theme that unites my experience of my latest trip around the sun, whether conscious or otherwise.

2021 is no different on that front, even though it was a very different year for me in other ways. In fact, in 2021, even though I rarely left my home (thank you, panini year 2) I lived almost entirely out of my comfort zone. Between Pitch Wars, querying, my debut book release, and signing with an agent, I attempted (and in some cases, accomplished) a lot of things I had never tried before.

So that must mean I did a lot of learning, right?

Jesper of Shadow and Bone asks, "What did we learn?"
True wealth is the GOAT friends we make along the way.

Lesson One: Getting Comfy with Discomfort

Growth isn’t comfortable.

From requesting blurbs (I got no bites) to self-teaching myself book marketing (modestly successful) to putting more of myself “out there” through social media and in the very pages of my first novel, every month seemed to bring a new challenge.

There was so much new territory and things moved so fast at times that returning to my comfort zone wasn’t even an option. I didn’t have time to be that person who didn’t expect success and didn’t like touting herself, the person with big dreams who didn’t follow through. I was forced to rewrite those old stories about myself, day by day, page by page, even when I didn’t believe in the new ones.

Stevie Budd of Schitt's Creek closes her eyes and says "I'm feeling VERY uncomfortable."
Me too, Stevie. Me too.

In reality, facing all of these situations, I felt (and often still feel) uncomfortable, uncertain, and unprepared. But if I waited until I got comfortable, I would never get started at all. If I didn’t meet the challenges head-on, they wouldn’t wait for me. They’d roll over me and I’d have to watch them retreat as opportunities lost.

I didn’t stop feeling uncomfortable and overwhelmed at every new experience coming down the pike, but I started to get used to it. In other words, each fresh challenge is still challenging, unpredictable, unknown. But the keyed-up sensation in my body and heart when I step into that space is becoming more familiar. I know what to expect from those emotions, at least: resistance, anxiety, sudden bouts of cruel self-talk, and even shame when I feel I’ve overstepped some probably imaginary line between right-sized and egotistical.

This applies to both career risks and creative risks. Although at this point, I suppose those are starting to converge for me. And what a novel concept it is to think of my creative work as a career path. (I think there may be a whole other blog to be written about that in the future.)

At the very least, I know that this too shall pass. And if I miss the mark or don’t make my goal this time, another challenge is definitely on its way, like a wave rolling to shore.

Lesson Two: Shouting Out the Wins

That brings me to one of my major areas of discomfort: announcing my work and my successes. When 2021 began, I struggled to give myself credit for my milestones either internally or externally. I minimized what I had already achieved.

This time last year, when I signed the contract and sold my debut, I didn’t celebrate. Instead I put my head down and kept working. I delayed revealing the good news and when I did reveal, it felt excruciating. People around me seemed excited for me, but all I could feel was dread.

I kept doing the things and taking up the space despite myself, because [see above] I couldn’t really pretend that nothing was happening. But it shook me each time, as if I were afraid that someone would come and take all the good things I had away from me if I got too loud or took up too much space. Even now, writing this blog post, I’m wondering if maybe I should just get over myself.

Imposter syndrome, sure, but the light bulb really didn’t turn on for me until my therapist said something that knocked me back on my heels.

She told me, “I want you to consider why the upper limit on your joy is set so low.”

A pug turns around with a shocked expression and says, "EXCUSE ME?"
Yes, I basically pay this woman to read me for filth.

When I was done feeling personally attacked, the perspective she gave did shift the landscape for me. It’s still a work in progress, but in the last months of the year, I’ve managed to raise the ceiling on my joy at least a little. I achieved all the big goals I set out to accomplish this year and I’m trying to own that. Looking forward to making announcements is another new experience for me!

Lesson Three: It Takes a Village

One thing I have learned is that contrary to my core fears, I’m surrounded by people who are happy to share my joy and my wins. Inviting others to celebrate the big and small triumphs with me has gotten easier with practice and experience. And after all, I love getting the opportunity to celebrate them in turn.

I’ve written about the importance of having a writing community again and again on this blog. The mindset change from “going it alone” to sharing that space and passion with so many amazing, kind, brilliantly creative people is one that has truly transformed my world.

And that’s one big thing about writing and publishing I didn’t realize before I got started on this whole crazy journey: producing a book is not in fact a solitary activity. It requires teamwork. By the time a book reaches publication, it has gone through many pairs of hands. Even if you self-publish, this is still true, unless you do everything from cover art to formatting to editing to marketing yourself. In which case, more power to you, because that is a LOT.

It takes a village to raise a book baby. It takes a squad to walk beside you through the ups and downs. It takes a supportive partner, reassuring editors, constructive CPs, encouraging betas, people to laugh and cry and celebrate alongside.

I’m so grateful to have that.

Lesson Four: Chop Wood, Carry Water

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.

Zen Koan

Or, to put it in context for my personal journey,

Before debut; write words, revise manuscripts. After debut; write words, revise manuscripts.

Erin Koan

The point being that the milestones don’t really change the shape of the day-to-day work. At the end of the day, I still have to wrestle with the blank page and the bad first draft. Publishing my first book, getting an agent on my second, submitting my third: none of those are the finish line.

There is no finish line. There’s just the journey. At the end of the day, I want to write more books. I will have to learn how to write the next books all over again because they will be different books than the ones I have written before. I will keep starting at zero and putting stories together word by word, because that’s the only way that books become real.

Alexis of Schitt's Creek says "Love that journey for me."
It’s more like a love-hate relationship, tbh.

The substance doesn’t change. The learning doesn’t stop. The challenges keep coming, like the tide.

It’s lessons all the way down.

Lesson Five: Dream Bigger

A couple weeks before my debut released, I had a heart to heart chat with my mentor. I think Ren sensed that I was on the struggle bus when she reached out to me. I confessed to her that I suffered from compulsively moving the goalposts on myself. She reminded me that I was about to meet my previous goal of publishing a novel and urged me to give myself credit for the achievement.

“You did it,” she said.

“I did,” I said. “But I want MORE now.”

Mermaid Ariel sings "I want moooore"
Sea witches, take note.

She very wisely responded that it was ok to want more but that always looking at what I hadn’t done or achieved or gotten yet would ensure I would never be satisfied with where I was in the moment. I’m still working on it but it wasn’t long after my talk with her that I finally let myself get excited about CAMBION’S LAW coming out.

What started to come into focus then, finally, is that I have the ability to move those goalposts now because of what I’ve done so far. This year has taught me that I can imagine more for myself than I did when I set my previous goals. Then, getting published once seemed nearly impossible. Now that has actually happened, and my imagined possibilities have expanded as a result. Atop this peak, I have a wider field of vision.

With that perspective shift, I can appreciate that the steps I’ve already taken have made it possible for me to take the next ones. It isn’t that I didn’t dream big enough before. It’s that I couldn’t. I didn’t have the perspective that I could only gain from the journey that got me here.

And now…

The singer P!NK, in an appearance at a music awards show, says "Dream big, because what if it comes true?" and tilts her head to the side dramatically.
WHAT IF???

I guess I’ll leave you with this question. How have your dreams grown this year? What can you envision now that wasn’t in your field of view before?

I’m willing to bet there is more growth to come. Maybe even more than you can imagine for yourself.

8 thoughts on “Life Outside the Comfort Zone: Five Debut Year Lessons

  1. I can totally relate to having to learn book marketing on your own. There are just so many things to learn, and that’s not even taking blogging into account yet. Great lessons here, Erin.

    I myself haven’t grown much (work has taken a lot of my time), but I’m looking to expand from trad published to self-publishing. Here’s to an exciting 2022!

    Liked by 1 person

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