What is a Tremor of Truth?

My courage is faith—faith in the eternal resilience of me—that joy’ll come back, and hope and spontaneity. —F. Scott Fitzgerald

At this writing, I can bench press 150 pounds. It wasn’t easy. I put everything I had into it. My personal trainer kept saying, “Let me see your tremor of truth.” Raising an eyebrow at her, I grunted and trembled and sweated before reaching the goal, but I got there. She explained later that the phrase “tremor of truth” is used in physical fitness circles when we push ourselves to the max. Lifting weights, we grimace as a tremor of unease shoots through the body. Our arm muscles quiver during pushups. Our legs tremble with exhaustion running a marathon. The brain says we can’t do it, but just as grass grows through concrete, we persevere, discovering mental and physical reserves we didn’t know we had. And just before giving up, we push through the challenge.

So what does working out have to do with writing? Some literary agents say the number one key to writing success—even more important than good writing—is resilience, dogged determination in the face of disappointment. Tremor of truth builds muscles on the physical plane and a growth mindset on the psychological plane. Meteoric writing obstacles often seem too great, as if we’re pushing through relentless steel, a vein of encased ore: an impossible deadline, a heartbreaking rejection, impassible writer’s block, a lousy review, sounds of crickets at book signings, or the rumble of our own self-doubt. Sometimes the setbacks make it too hard to bounce back. The hole feels too deep, too dark, the disillusionment too wide and overwhelming.

Over time rejections and disappointments nibble away at us like torture from half a million cuts. It starts to feel as if we’re bleeding to death and can’t tolerate one more slash. Statistics say more of us have the stamina to continue to take safety risks after a car crash than to continue after a series of psychological defeats. After repeated failure, many writers throw in the towel to avoid more disappointment. Attempts to bring quick relief to the misery of defeat rob us of knowing what missed opportunities lay beyond the barrier. This impulsive reaction—scientists call it the what-the-hell effect—is a way out: permission to give up. Adding insult to injury, we seek comfort in the very thing we’re trying to conquer: writing failure.

Although growth as a writer is painful, it can be even more painful to remain tight in a secure little nest. Craft alone won’t carry us through the massive writing hurdles. When we’re knocked down in the writing arena, the heartbreak slams the wind out of us. Our faces marred by dust and sweat and blood, we push ourselves up on our scabby knees stagger to our feet, and summon the courage to try again. Just when we’re ready to give up, one more tremor unearths a second wind and a vein of resilience that we didn’t know we had. A sudden jolt sizzles through us, and we’re fueled with pit-bull determination. One extra push and we plough through the smackdown moments that had brought us to our knees, moving over the finish line.

You can build a growth mindset by waiting for your reserves to kick in and learning how much more you’re capable of. If you give up too soon, you’ll never know if you had it in you to pull it off. And that’s a tough unknown to live with. In the heat of the moment, ask if you’re pushing hard and far enough through the gray mist of uncertainty. Or do you need to amp up your efforts? And how far do you stretch before reaching your breaking point? Most of us can go farther than we think we can. The term “springback” refers to a process when metal returns to its original shape after undergoing compression and tension (stretching). We, too, have an elastic limit to which we can stretch to a certain point before returning to our original shape. Springback moments happen after failure, mistakes, or hopelessness over seemingly impossible odds, preventing us from giving up on our writing dreams, no matter how improbable they seem.

Here are ways your “tremor of truth” can mine the hidden reserves you didn’t know you had—golden opportunities to cultivate a growth mindset and push through veins of writing hardships:

1. Grow thick skin and expect writing rejections and setbacks. Commit yourself in advance to facing the many smackdowns you will encounter like all successful writers before you.
2. Ditch the desire for comfort and step into writing’s growth pains. Be willing to go to the edge of your emotional pain so you can be fully present with what lays beyond the barrier.
3. Cultivate creative sustainability. Think of yourself as an elastic band that bends and stretches to a certain point before you spring back higher than you fall.
4. Turn roadblocks into steppingstones. Pinpoint opportunity contained in difficulty. Make it a goal to use negative writing challenges—no matter how painful, frustrating, big or small—as lessons from which to learn. Ask, “What can I manage or overcome here?” or “How can I turn this matter around to my advantage?”
5. Refer to previous experience. Reflect on past writing obstacles you’ve overcome. Point to lessons learned and underscore ways you have grown stronger through writing’s hard knocks.
6. Take risks. Find that one place in your writing where you’ve been hiding, then stick your neck out from your comfort zone. Ask what edge you can go to in your writing. Seek out risky writing experiences that help you bloom instead of low-risk situations that keep you safe in a bud.
7. Identify self-doubts that have cramped your writing style or crippled you from growing fully as a writer. Harness them—instead of running from them—and channel them into useful writing so they don’t paralyze you.
8. Stay off the roller coaster. Manage the ups-and-downs of your writing practice by treating highs and lows equally. Celebrate the highs but don’t take them anymore seriously than the lows, and don’t take downturns anymore seriously than upswings.
9. Eschew the what-the-hell effect. This attitude only adds insult to injury. Face writing letdowns by taking the towel you want to throw in and use it to wipe the sweat off your face then hop back into your writing saddle.
10. Stop throwing the book at yourself and catch yourself when you fall. After a setback or discouraging situation, we bounce back to our writing quicker when we support ourselves with loving-kindness. Instead of kicking yourself when you’re down, be on your own side, wish yourself well, and be your best advocate as you progress on your writing journey.


Bryan E. Robinson is the author of 35 nonfiction books and two novels. His books have been translated into thirteen languages, and he’s been featured on 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC’s World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, NBC Universal, The CBS Early Show, CNBC’s The Big Idea. Robinson maintains a private psychotherapy practice and lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his spouse and four dogs. Visit him online at www.bryanrobinsonbooks.com.


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